Former Florida Gators soccer star Heather Mitts, a three-time Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. Women’s National Team and 2013 inductee into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame, recently traded in her cleats for a microphone.
A major part of the Gators’ 1998 NCAA Championship-winning soccer team, Mitts went on to have a 12-year professional career before officially retiring in March 2013. She has since decided to embark on a career in sports broadcasting, which she actually began years ago as a part-time soccer analyst for FOX Sports and ESPN.
Now a sideline reporter (football) and analyst (soccer) for the SEC Network, Mitts will be returning to Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday as part of the broadcast team that will cover Florida’s football game against Eastern Michigan, the first-ever Gators contest that will be aired live on the network.
OnlyGators.com sat down with Mitts for 20 minutes on Thursday. She spoke at length about playing most of her professional career with a Florida teammate and close friend in Abby Wambach, moving into a broadcasting role, her love for the Gators and her admiration for UF head coach Becky Burleigh.
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: How tough of a decision was it for you to ultimately retire from the game you love and hang up your cleats for good?
HEATHER MITTS: “You know what? It wasn’t actually that hard because I just felt like I had a lot of injuries towards the end of my career and I was able to do something that I loved for, gosh, as any years as it was. Since college, I literally thought I was going to play one or two years post-college, and I was able to go to three Olympics and one World Cup. To be able to kind of retire on a high note as well, with the Gold medal, being 35 years old with all the injuries that I had, it was just kind of like the right time for me to walk away. I felt really content with my decision.”
AS: While you were still active and playing, you did some work on the side as an analyst for FOX Sports and ESPN. Was it those experiences that piqued your interest in working in broadcasting full-time?
HM: “Coincidentally, I was actually [planning to] go back to Flordia and get my master’s in sports broadcasting after I graduated. I continued to play and I had done a little bit of TV work off and on throughout my career. A lot of times when I was injured, I would end up doing television. I always loved it and knew it was something I wanted to do when I was done playing. Through my injuries, I was able to gain some experience. I knew once I was finally done playing that this was something I wanted to do full-time. Luckily, it’s kind of all worked out so far.”
AS: A lot of readers and viewers are probably curious what the process is like for an athlete to transition into broadcasting. What was that process like for you?
HM: “I would say it is just kind of one of those things where I was offered the amazing opportunity of doing an entire season back in 2005 when soccer was…there wasn’t much going on with the national team. At the time, I had never done football. I hadn’t done that much sideline work. It kind of felt like it was an opportunity that might not come up again, and I just kind of needed to take advantage of it. It was definitely a learning process throughout. Luckily, from that experience, I was able to figure out the ins and outs, not to say that I don’t still have a ton to learn. It’s a learning process every single game. I think that’s kind of how it is with every job. You learn as you go. You make sure every week you’re as prepared as you possibly can be so that when you’re out there on the field you’re ready to perform. It’s not any different form actually playing a sport.”
AS: You will be coming back to Florida for the first time, at least in this role with the SEC Network. What is it going to be like for you to be on campus on a game day for the Gators and be on the sideline at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the season opener?
HM: “I’m excited. This is kind of where I fell in love with football. I grew up in a basketball and soccer household, so it wasn’t until I went to UF that I was actually introduced – or was able to fall in love with football. To be able to go back, it’s exciting to be back at your alma mater. For me to be in The Swamp on the sideline covering University of Florida football, this is definitely going to be one of the highlights of my sideline career.”
AS: As a student-athlete, your soccer schedule conflicted with a lot of football games, especially when you were on the road, because you always had a lot of games on Friday and Sunday. What was the experience like for you when you did attend games, and did you normally go with your soccer teammates?
HM: “Believe it or not, we had the opportunity to go to quite a few games even with our games bookended on Fridays and Sundays. We might not have had as much fun as the rest of the student body, but we were usually able to go and experience the games together. We always went together as teammates and had a great time in The Swamp.”
AS: Has it been difficult for you to come back to Gainesville a good amount?
HM: “I’ve come back as much as I could. Obviously while I was playing, it was extremely hard to find time to come down, but any opportunity that I had to come to a game, I jumped at it. My best friends are the girls I played soccer with at the University of Florida, so any chance to get to Gainesville and hang out with them – a reunion or planned weekend – to go back to your alma mater, I always tried to do it whenever I could. It just wasn’t often enough, obviously. Now that I’m a mom, it’s going to be even more challenging. But that’s why I’m pretty excited about the opportunity to cover the Gators for the SEC Network.”
AS: How special was the experience for you last year when you returned to Gainesville and were inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame?
HM: “It was surreal. That’s where my career really began, at the University of Florida, and obviously I wouldn’t have been able to go on and play professionally for as long as I did if it weren’t for all the hard work at Florida and for what the coaches did for me. For it all to kind of come full-circle was definitely a very special moment.”
AS: Let’s discuss Becky Burleigh. Anyone that follows Gators soccer understands how important she has been to the team and athletic program, but many Florida fans are probably unaware of the impact she makes on the team and her players. What has she meant to you both as a student and now as an adult?
HM: “She’s part of the reason why I chose to go to UF. It was the coaching staff, when it really came down to it. Being recruited by a lot of great schools was fun, but with Florida, aside from the athletic and academic part of it, it really came down to Becky Burleigh – my decision to go there. I don’t think a lot of us realized how special she is…until you graduate and you’re asking her to come to your wedding and you’re keeping in touch with her for years and years after you played there. She’s making plans in the offseason to show up to your international games, whether here in the United States or abroad.
“Becky obviously has done so well, starting the program and continuing to be there. What I appreciate most about her is she’s always trying to find ways to stay on top of the game, keep the program evolving and current. You have a coach that’s been in one place for  years, it’s easy to become complacent. Becky is always trying to find ways to continue to keep the program at the top. I respect her so much for that, but I also think the fact that she continues to bring the alumni back, have us be involved, we look at her not only as a coach but also as a friend.”
AS: You have also had the unique opportunity to play almost your entire collegiate, professional and international career with Abby Wambach. What was it like competing on such major stages – in the Olympics and the World Cup – with a friend and long-time teammate, going through all of this with someone you played with in college?
HM: “It’s pretty amazing. More than anything, it’s always great to play with your friends, but it’s also really kind of nice to see how much she personally has grown and developed as a player and a leader. She’s one of the best players in the world. To be able to see her from a freshman in college until now is a pretty unique perspective and rare experience. It’s something that has been a lot of fun for me personally, to see her grow as a player and as a person.”
AS: Back in 2011 at the World Cup, when the United States was on the brink of an early elimination at the hands of Brazil, Abby came through for you guys with that tremendous header to tie the match 2-2 and force a penalty kick finish. The celebration after that match was pretty extensive, but I remember you – and later Abby – Gator Chomping to the crowd. How did that come about? Was there someone in the crowd you were responding to or was it completely natural?
HM: “We saw someone in the stands with a Gators banner or flag, I forget what it was. It was really cool to be over in Germany and see that. Florida fans are everywhere. They always are. I started Gator Chomping and then pointed it out to Abby and she did, too. It was very special to be at the World Cup in Germany and still see a Florida fan in the crowd. Obviously we wanted to give him a little bit of love.”
AS: Spending your entire professional career and a large portion of your life playing soccer, being on the United States national team that has been a huge reason why the sport has become so popular and trendy, what has it been like for you to see soccer on the verge of exploding in this country? What does it mean to you to be a part of that?
HM: “For me, it was very satisfying to be able to walk away from the game knowing that it’s grown so much. Obviously we’re not pioneers of the game by any means, but it was pretty amazing to see from when I started playing professional soccer to where it is today and know that your sport has been growing and developing with you participating. It’s just exciting. I really hope it continues to go in that direction. I think it will. Being a part of the women’s national team is something I will always cherish and hold very close to my heart. It was an amazing experience and it never would have happened if it wasn’t for starting my career at UF.”
AS: Thank you very much for your time and good luck this weekend.
HM: “OK, awesome. Thanks so much. Go Gators!”