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A hug felt around the world

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Fri. March 12, 2010 | John C. Cotey | Email

In a soccer stadium in Costa Rica, more than a thousand miles from her home in St. Petersburg, Bryane Heaberlin touched a nation.

She reached for heartbroken Haitian keeper Alexandra Coby, took her in her arms, hugged her, cried with her and prayed that she could make it all better, if only for a moment.

Then, one by one, her teammates joined in. And the under-17 soccer teams from the United States and Haiti merged into one.

Hugging, kissing, crying.

In Haiti, the national motto is “L’Union Fait La Force”.
Unity Makes Strength.

It had started at midfield, with  rather joyless postgame handshakes following a most unsatisfying 9-0 win over Haiti.

Though the top two finishers at the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football Cup will advance to the World Cup later this year, this was not a team the American girls wanted to beat.

Heaberlin, the U.S. team keeper and a 16-year-old sophomore at Berkeley Prep, told her father Bryan the next morning “it was the most difficult thing” she ever had to do.

For 90 minutes, the Haitians had been dominated.

The outcome was to be expected. While soccer is deeply ingrained in the Haitian culture and is the lifeblood for many, the earthquake that ravaged the country two months ago had left everyone on the team without homes and many without families.

Starting keeper Madeline Delice lost both parents.

The Haitian Federation Football headquarters is now rubble, and as many as 30 people who were part of the organization, from players to coaches to officials, died.

When it came time to put this team together, most of the players were living on the street and had to be found.

To beat one of the top programs in the world was an impossible task, but Heaberlin understood that when the final whistle blew, a losing result was hardly the source of Coby’s tears.

“I did not think about the game at that moment,” Heaberlin wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times on Friday. “I simply thought about the hard times she had faced and everything she had lost. I though that when the game was over, she had to come back to reality, that the game was her way of forgetting about everything for 90 minutes.…

“Seeing her on the ground just hit me, that she needed us to be there for her.”

Coby had been helped to her feet by a coach by the time Heaberlin reached her. As she got closer, Heaberlin opened her arms and Coby clutched her tightly for 20 seconds.

“I told her that she did great and I began sobbing, and she answered me with a nod and a slight smile.”

By the time Heaberlin led the United States into its second game of the tournament Friday night at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto, the story of her act and the tenderness of her teammates had ricochetted across the globe, from a newspaper in the United Kingdom to a Washington Post blog to practically every soccer Web site in the world.

“That’s Bryane. I’m not surprised, but I’m still amazed,” said Berkeley Prep girls soccer coach Ken Roberts. “To see the way they responded, that sets an example. The reaction to it, well, that strikes a chord with a lot of people.”

Heaberlin has always fought for the underdog, said her father Bryan, a probation office for the Florida Department of Corrections.

Fiercely competitive and tough, she has stood up to bullies. When kids weren’t selected for teams, she took them on her’s. When others were getting picked on, she had their backs.

Competitive. Compassionate.

“I was blown away when I read about it,” said Bryan Heaberlin, who had heard the more modest version of the story a day earlier from Bryane via Skype.

Bryan and his wife, Gretchen, along with the local Clearwater Soccer Club and Berkeley Prep, had arranged for their daughter to arrive in Costa Rica with a 70-pound care package for the Haitian team.

The hug, that was all Bryane.

“I truly think and believe that Bryane had no idea what she was doing, she was just being compassionate,” Bryan Heaberlin said. “In the end, you can really do nothing wrong when you show compassion.”

Bryane, who led her high school team to the state championship game last month, will likely clinch a spot on the U.S. World Cup team.

But for all the victories to come, she’ll never forget Wednesday’s.

“We were all so touched by what had happened after the game we entered the locker room silent and sobbing,” she wrote. “We were not happy about our first win, we were still thinking about …how strong those girls are. We just want to help them as much as possible.”

Actions like that make Abby Wambach proud. A former Florida Gator All-American, Olympic gold medalist and three-time U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year, she was compelled to e-mail the team Thursday, expressing her pride.

She wrote about taking advantage of a moment, how pleased she was to be leaving the game to these younger players and the inspiration they provided her.

“Today,” she wrote, “I feel proud to be an American.”

Information from CONCACAF.com was used in this report. John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@sptimes.com

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