It was nearly 12 years ago when Heather Mitts, fresh off her first season as the right back for the Philadelphia Charge, met with head coach Mark Krikorian. Among the topics they discussed were Mitts’ goals as a soccer player. She told Krikorian her goal was to be a WUSA All-Star.
“He looked at me dumbfounded,” Mitts recalled in a recent interview, “and he said ‘Why aren’t you saying playing for the women’s national team?’
“I just didn’t think it was a possibility. He planted that seed in my head, but I also thought it was pretty far off from ever happening.”
Mitts had made minor forays into the national team before then, but the notion of being a full member of the team was far from her mind.
“I was just enjoying playing in the WUSA.”
So unenthused about her prospects before WUSA started, Mitts skipped the draft because she did not think she would be drafted as high as she was (the Charge made her the 15th overall pick and the seventh American). A dozen years later, Mitts owns more than 100 international appearances, three Olympic gold medals, and an image that transcends women’s soccer thanks to her consistent play and her marketability as a successful, attractive female athlete with a slew of fans.
“It’s cliché to say but it’s been a dream come true. I thought I would just play maybe one or two years after college if I were lucky to even make a team, much less make it a career for 12 or 13 years after college which has been pretty crazy.”
That career ended last month when the 34-year old native of Cincinnati called it quits, saying she is ready to start a family with her husband, NFL free agent quarterback A.J. Feeley.
“Leading up to the Olympics I kind of had it in the back of my mind that I knew I wouldn’t be around to compete in another World Cup and Olympics,” she explained. “So it was already in the back of my head. Then when I went to the camp in February, just the way my body was feeling, I felt like for me, my top priority has always been playing soccer. But I felt like my priorities had changed a little bit to where starting a family just became a little more important to me.”
Mitts’ body had changed along with her priorities. She picked up a calf injury just before joining what would be her final national team camp in February. The calf recovered in time for Mitts to take the field and then, “I went to practice and was just hitting some long balls and I felt something in my glute go.” She was not selected to suit up for two friendlies against Scotland and was not invited to camp at all in the lead up to the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
“That was hard because I did want to continue and go to Portugal, but I think that also helped me to be okay with the fact that it was time to retire.”
Another sign that it was time to retire was how different it was from the aftermath of the 2011 World Cup when Mitts quietly thought she might be ready to step away.
“I was sitting around (after the World Cup) thinking about retiring and I was constantly crying. And this time around I was like, I feel good about the way that I ended. And I know that I have no intentions of playing in the next World Cup or Olympics. And there’s a new crop of players. I just felt like it was the right time to do it.”
Only two things pulled at this decision – one before and one after. The first was the Breakers, who she was allocated to play for in the upcoming NWSL season. “I did feel pretty bad, like I was letting the Breakers down.” The second was what Mitts called an overwhelming response from fans celebrating her career as it came to a close. “I didn’t expect that. So in that aspect it made me a little bit sad.”
Mitts says her husband is most likely finished playing in the NFL but that the couple would embrace a new adventure if a team called in search of quarterback depth. “But I think that we’re both leaning towards the fact that we’re both retired athletes now.”
In her newly retired state it took Mitts a week of inactivity to feel “disgusting,” and she is currently working out seven days a week. The Philadelphia Union hired her as a sideline reporter for home matches, a role she debuted in a driving rainstorm at PPL Park a few weeks ago. But the next priority for Heather Mitts will be to start a family. She marvels at her U.S. teammates who have made balancing soccer and parenting look easy—Joy Fawcett and Christie Rampone are the most talked about—but she does not wish to emulate them.
“They’re just phenomenal women,” Mitts said. “I don’t know how they do it,” Mitts said. “But for me personally, I never wanted that lifestyle. I feel like if I were to start a family I would want to be home with my husband rather than on the road. I think it’s great they can do that and I definitely entertained that thought but for me personally I wouldn’t want to do that.”
When Mitts does have a family she will have quite a soccer career to tell her kids about, not to mention endorsements and magazine appearances, like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and the cover of Philadelphia magazine, that came with it (she was even idolized with not one, but two bobbleheads — once with the Charge and again in 2009 with the Breakers). She has seen pro leagues come and go, all the while watching the sector of soccer in general explode around the country. Had Mitts played this season she would have joined Rampone and Shannon Boxx as the only players to suit up for all three seasons of WUSA and WPS plus the inaugural NWSL season (Karina LeBlanc was rostered in 2011 but did not play.)
“It’s been fun to be part of the growth of the game and I just hope it continues to improve.”
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