Sitting on a toy-strewn couch in the den of her San Jose home, Brandi Chastain chats while keeping an eye on the Champions League semifinal match between Barcelona and Chelsea playing out on a flat-screen television. In another room, in front of another television showing the same match, her three-year-old son, Jaden, naps on a couch. Elsewhere in the house flicker four other TVs, all showing soccer. Chastain's husband, Santa Clara women's soccer coach Jerry Smith, says he sometimes feels like the guy in the old Circuit City commercial who has TVs everywhere in the house, all of them playing soccer, so he never misses any action. "I need to get away from soccer," says Smith. "Brandi can't get enough of it."
This is an article from the July 13, 2009 issue
Ten years after she nailed the penalty kick that gave the U.S. a victory over China in the final of the 1999 Women's World Cup and then seared the moment into the nation's collective consciousness by tearing off her jersey in celebration, Chastain is still consumed by the sport. She'll turn 41 this month, but she's still playing, in midfield for the new Women's Professional Soccer league's FC Gold Pride, which plays its home games just a mile from her house, at her alma mater, Santa Clara.
"We always said you're going to have to drag Brandi off the field," says former U.S. captain Julie Foudy, who retired along with teammates Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett in 2004 and now has two kids. "She'll be 60 years old, and somehow she'll still be out there."
Chastain is the second-oldest player in the WPS—nearly two decades older than some of her teammates. None of them are too young, however, to remember the U.S. triumph on July 10, 1999—seen live by 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl and 40 million more on TV in the States, and immortalized on the covers of Time, Newsweek and SI—and to appreciate what it did for their careers. "Women's soccer on the cover of SI? That changed everything," says Gold Pride captain Leslie Osborne, who watched the '99 World Cup on TV as a 16-year-old. "It opened so many eyes and so many doors. I probably wouldn't be here now if not for that event."
In one regard Chastain was an unlikely hero in the penalty-kick shootout, which came after the two teams went scoreless through the full 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time. Chastain had struggled with penalties that year and, in fact, hit the crossbar on an attempt against China's Gao Hong during the Algarve Cup tournament in Portugal the previous March. With a shootout looming at the Rose Bowl in the waning moments of extra time, assistant coach Lauren Gregg had penciled in Chastain at number 6, behind Foudy, on the penalty-kick list. But coach Tony DiCicco had asked Chastain to practice penalties with her left foot as well as her right since the Algarve Cup, and he wanted her in the fifth spot—if she felt she could nail a penalty with her left foot, something she'd never tried in a game. "That's like LeBron James at the end of the game needing two foul shots and the coach saying, 'Will you take them lefty?'" says DiCicco, who thought a leftfooted shot would surprise the keeper. "This was a player whose alias in hotels was Holly Wood. She wanted the responsibility and the spotlight."
With the score tied 4--4 after China's fifth kick, thanks to a save by U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry, Chastain approached the ball. "I told myself, Don't look at the goalkeeper," says Chastain. "It's probably a good thing I didn't think about the kick itself." After she buried the ball just inside the right post, Chastain pulled off her jersey in celebration—as she had so often seen male players do—exposing her black sports bra and her chiseled physique. Some people were scandalized; others were impressed by her rippling abs or thrilled by her raw emotion. Few who saw it forgot it.
"By the next Monday there were 75 messages on my answering machine," says her agent, John Courtright. "I think Brandi transformed the way corporate dollars are spent on female athletes. Even companies that cater to men and were run by men began to realize that the endorser wasn't so gender specific anymore."
Well-spoken, friendly and at home in the spotlight, Chastain has used her enduring celebrity—she's a six-time guest on Letterman, played in the AT&T Celebrity Pro-Am golf tournament in February and taped a revival of the Superstars competition in April—and her frequent motivational speaking gigs to promote two of her biggest passions: women's sports and soccer. Even those encounters in which people are critical of her for shedding her jersey in '99 are opportunities to showcase the game, she says. "All the things I've learned in soccer are the point, not that five-second moment."
The last decade hasn't been all rosy for women's soccer in the U.S., or for Chastain. One of the best attacking defenders in the world, she was a key player for the U.S. as it won silver at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and gold four years later in Athens. When the WPS's predecessor, the Women's United Soccer Association, started in 2001, Chastain helped the Bay Area CyberRays win the first league title. But between that victory and the shuttering of the insolvent WUSA two years later, Chastain lost her two biggest fans. Her mother, Lark, a former high school cheerleader who was sometimes known to wield a megaphone at her daughter's youth-league games, died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 56. Seven months later Brandi's father, Roger, a former Marine who'd been her first coach, died at 57 of complications from a torn aorta. "It was devastating to lose my parents, and emotionally there have been days...." Chastain's voice trails off. "They never got to meet the grandkids they so desperately wanted. But I had such an amazing relationship with my parents that it would almost be greedy to ask for more."
Chastain declined to retire along with Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett at the end of 2004—"I never felt like I wanted to stop playing," she says—but a few months later she was off the national team anyway. In June 2005 new coach Greg Ryan flew to San Jose to tell Chastain that she wouldn't be considered for his roster. "That was difficult to swallow," she says. "I was probably close to clinically depressed for a few years. Then my husband finally said, 'Get over it, already!'"
Chastain found other passions. In '05 she helped found the Bay Area Women's Sports Initiative (BAWSI, pronounced bossy), a nonprofit that promotes girls' fitness, self-esteem and leadership in underprivileged communities. And in '06 she gave birth to Jaden, an unplanned but welcome event. "I had been petrified of being pregnant and not being able to come back to the soccer field," she says. "I should have taken the chance earlier."
Neither motherhood nor age has slowed Chastain down much. Until the Gold Pride drafted her in the seventh round in January, Chastain's soccer playing in the previous four years had been limited to weekly games with a local club team. Yet she arrived at training camp fitter than most of her teammates, according to coach Albertin Montoya. ("I'm not over the top working out," Chastain explains, "I just never sit down.") Her ability to read the game is still there, too, says teammate Tiffeny Milbrett, the top goal scorer on the '99 World Cup team. "With the ball at her feet, she is still the same player."
Chastain hasn't started, but she has contributed in relief, helping set up the winning goal in the opening game on April 5 against Boston and just missing a game-tying header while playing forward, a position she hadn't played as a pro in 18 years, in a 2--0 loss to the Los Angeles Sol on May 24. She is the Gold Pride's fiercest advocate and fieriest player. In the WUSA, Chastain was the first woman to miss a game due to yellow cards, and this WPS season she got her first yellow for yelling at the refs—from the sideline—during a game against the Washington Freedom on May 31. "If you ask me if motherhood has mellowed Brandi, yes, somewhat," says Smith. "But on the soccer field she is still a terror."
While Chastain relishes her time on the grass with her teammates—"I'm going to enjoy every minute I'm out there, whether I'm playing 90 minutes or no minutes," she says—she admits that she has an ulterior motive in playing in the WPS. She has made 192 international appearances for the U.S., just eight shy of what she considers the most significant milestone in the sport. "I want to become a better player and get those 200 caps," says Chastain, who unsuccessfully angled for a tryout with current national team coach Pia Sundhage soon after Ryan was replaced in November 2007. "I know it may never happen."
Foudy, for one, doesn't dismiss the idea. "With Brandi, everything is a possibility," she says. "Having that goal exemplifies the attitude, not just of Brandi, but of that national team for so many years. There's always another level you can reach. We called it wholesome discontent."
Chastain practices it and preaches it. "I always tell my girls in BAWSI that you have to see yourselves achieving something by stretching farther than you thought you could," she says. "Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't. But if you never extend yourself, you never know."
Now on SI.com
Revisit the 1999 World Cup and SI's 1999 Sportswomen story at SI.com/vault