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Teenage American goalkeeper shares touching moment with defeated Haitian opponent

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

She reached for heartbroken Haitian goalkeeper 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 after an 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 looked forward to beating.

Heaberlin, the U.S. team goalkeeper and a sophomore at Berkeley Prep, told her father 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.

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.

So Heaberlin knew when the final whistle blew and Coby fell to the ground in tears, she wasn't crying because her team had lost.

"I did not think about the game at that moment," Heaberlin, 16, wrote Friday in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "I simply thought about the hard times she had faced and everything she had lost. I thought 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 and the U.S. team routed the Cayman Islands 13-0 Friday night in their second game of the tournament, the story of her act and the tenderness of her teammates had ricocheted around 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 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, her father, Bryan Heaberlin, said.

Fiercely competitive and tough, she has stood up to bullies. When kids weren't selected for teams, she took them on hers. 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 Clearwater Soccer Club and Berkeley Prep, had arranged for their daughter to deliver 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, she'll never forget Wednesday's game.

"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."

Abby Wambach, a former Florida Gator All-American, Olympic gold medalist and three-time U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year, heard the story and was compelled to e-mail the team. 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.

Teenage American goalkeeper shares touching moment with defeated Haitian opponent 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 11:12pm]
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