The collective weight of international caps at Jordan Field on Friday night was probably enough to stagger any fan of the game. Former players like Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Briana Scurry, Cat Whitehill, Cindy Parlow Cone, Mary Harvey, Brandi Chastain, and Tracy Noonan were all in attendance to pay homage to former USWNT and Boston Breakers head coach Tony DiCicco before the Breakers took on the Chicago Red Stars. Perhaps playing in front of such luminaries might have been a little nerve-wracking for any player, no matter how many appearances. For Julie King, who celebrated 100 appearances for Boston that night, she knew some of the women who entered sporting legend in 1999 were around, but wasn’t entirely aware of who all was present.
“I’m kind of glad I didn’t know they were all here,” she said after the game, a hard-fought 0-0 tie that had King working hard at center back for 90 minutes to keep out Chicago’s smooth attack, led by a slippery Christen Press. She flashed a good-natured smile. “Maybe that would have made me a little bit nervous, I don’t know. I guess when I think about it I’m a little pissed off that we had three games last week and I was playing tired tonight because I probably want to show off for those girls, if I’m being completely honest. Those are literally my idols since I was 10 years old.... They had such an impact on my career, on my sister, us growing up, and just knowing that our dream could come true, and it has. It makes me really happy that they’re here tonight. I think that’s so cool. It definitely brings out the 10-year-old kid in me.”
As a 10-year-old, King watched the 1999 World Cup final on tape delay. “My sister and I recorded that finals game on VHS because we had a soccer game that day,” she said. “We closed our ears the whole way home, ‘don’t tell us, don’t tell us’.... So to see some of those girls here tonight, it’s just my childhood dreams coming true.”
King was certainly aware of the full-circle symbolism of it all. The very same players who inspired her to pursue a career as a pro soccer player were now watching her play in her hundredth game for a club that helped found the pro game in America with the creation of WUSA. Other figures from her career were also in attendance, including former Breakers head coach Lisa Cole and retired Breakers defender Cat Whitehill, whom King called “my mentor from the beginning.”
King actually met Whitehill as a child, a fact not lost on her as she reminisced about her start with the Breakers. “I remember the first day I got to Boston. I came to Harvard. Didn’t know anybody on the team,” she said. “And I showed up at training, came straight to training, and Kristine Lilly was standing on the sideline. And I was just like ‘wow, this is amazing, Kristine Lilly’s here...Cat Whitehill’s on the field.’ I literally had a poster of Kristine Lilly on my wall when I was a little kid and I watched Cat Whitehill play since I was a kid. I got her autograph on the sideline when I watched [the USWNT] play in St. Louis when I was 13, 14 years old.”
It hasn’t been all roses and glamour. NWSL started relatively small and grew by inches until this past season, when they secured a big partnership with A+E Networks. And the Breakers themselves have been, to put it kindly, underwhelming. King has been there for it all, faithfully giving her best effort regardless of the team’s place in the standings. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with the Breakers but ultimately I’m just so grateful to be doing this,” she said. “When I look at a hundred games, I never knew that I’d be playing professional soccer let alone 100 games as a pro. I’m just really grateful for the opportunity. And for me it was kind of cool that it happened on the same night as Tony’s tribute night. I’m glad they did my thing very subtly because I didn't want it to take away anything from him. But from a personal level it really is a reflection of his work and what he did for women’s soccer in the United States. The fact that I even had the opportunity to play a hundred games is a huge tribute to him honestly. It was kind of cool for me personally for those two things to come together tonight.”
But it’s not as though King has been contemplating such a milestone except in passing. “I didn’t really think of it before Lee [Billiard] told me yesterday that they were going to do something for it,” she said of the quick pre-game ceremony where she was presented with a 100 jersey. “I honestly hadn’t thought about it. My parents weren’t even at the game; I feel so bad. Because I was thinking, maybe when I break the [appearance] record they’ll do something. But the hundred game mark I guess it’s kind of a big deal?” King didn’t seem to think it actually was that big a deal, from the sheepish grin she offered. Still, humility aside, she knew it was an accomplishment to be proud of, and one that could ripple through the next generation of 10-year-olds.
“I just look back at that memory,” said King, “That first day [with the Breakers], and it pushes me because I know the impact those people had on me and I hope that I can be maybe that person or have the smallest percentage of that happen to a little kid here tonight.”
King doesn’t even have to look that far; her career has already had its impact on her fellow teammate and new GK, Sammy Jo Prudhomme. “As a rookie it’s just insane to think about that because I’ve played four games and she’s played a hundred,” Prudhomme said. “It’s encouraging to see a player like that on your team and knowing that, that could be something you could do eventually. It’s really encouraging and really uplifting that you get to play the game that you love for so long.”
From watching the 99ers, to playing with them, to inspiring the players following after her. Full circle indeed.