Review – SEC Storied: Abby Head On

By Adam Silverstein
May 15, 2013

Abby Head On, the eighth SEC Storied documentary aired by ESPNU and first focused solely on a former Florida Gators student-athlete, will debut on Wednesday at 8 p.m. OGGOA was afforded the opportunity to watch an advanced copy of the documentary, which takes a close look at the rise of soccer striker Abby Wambach.

Toughness, grittiness and attitude are just a few of Wambach’s hallmark characteristics, ones she developed as a child, enhanced as a standout at Florida and fully realized as a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team. The decision by co-directors Erin Leyden and Gentry Kirby to choose former Gators defensive end Jack Youngblood to narrate parts of the documentary was not only a nice touch for Florida and SEC fans but also a deft choice as it set the tone for the feature early.

Abby Head On begins with a look at Wambach’s game-winning goal in the 2004 Athens Olympics (and her boisterous personality) but quickly moves on to her upbringing in Rochester, NY and how toughness, intensity and competitiveness were all instilled in her at a young age. Having to compete with a bunch of brothers for her parents’ attention made participating in sports attractive from the get go.

Once it is determined that Wambach is indeed one of the most talented forwards in the country and she is named the National High School Player of the Year, her college recruitment becomes a focal point. Originally dead-set on attending UCLA, Wambach wound up deciding between two other schools solely because her mother forced her to take her final two official visits. National power North Carolina and upstart Florida, entering its fourth season as a program, vied for her services with Wambach’s eventual choice being a surprise to the national media but not so much to those close to her.

“We were an unproven team. We were trying to create something, which I think really appealed to her,” Gators head soccer coach Becky Burleigh notes. “It was a challenge to become a great program as opposed to her joining an already great program.”

Florida fans are then treated to highlights of Wambach’s college career, moments most have not seen unless they attended soccer games on campus or happened to be watching UF’s run at the national title live on television 15 years ago in 1998.

“Getting to Florida and having the storybook ending, that was the only thing I was thinking about. It wasn’t about me. It was about us,” Wambach says.

Though she did finish with plenty of collegiate accolades including a national title, the SEC Freshman of the Year award, two SEC Player of the Year awards and numerous All-SEC and All-America honors, Wambach was not always in the best shape when she was playing for the Gators. During her sophomore and junior seasons, she slacked off and partied more than a top-flight athlete likely should have yet was still able to dominate the competition.

It was not until Wambach’s senior year when everything began to click and she realized the opportunity ahead. After having her commitment to the sport questioned, Wambach ensured that no one would ever have doubts about her in the same vein again.

As a professional, Wambach was mentored by her idol and one of the greatest American soccer players of either gender, Mia Hamm. A sit-down conversation between the two is a highlight of the film though the topic of Wambach soon passing Hamm’s all-time international goals record, a certainty at this point, is not discussed. That certainly would have been interesting viewing.

Wambach today is hailed as the United States’ best player but that is a role she had to earn; the obstacles she faced to reach that point appeared to be mountainous at times.

When Hamm retired, years after women’s soccer reached the height of its popularity in America, interest in the sport continued to wane with Wambach at the helm. The United States did not live up to expectations in international competition and a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 Women’s World Cup – aided by some questionable decisions by the U.S. coach – made things look bleak for the sport in this country. She felt responsible.

The short run time allotted by ESPNU (50 minutes) forced the filmmakers to barely touch on key moments in Wambach’s career that certainly deserved a deeper look.

The broken leg that kept her off the 2008 Beijing Olympics team, in which the United States won a second consecutive gold medal, is another huge obstacle she had to overcome. It is quickly mentioned out of chronological order at the end of the film.

Even her most recent honors – propelling the Americans to the Gold Medal Match in the 2012 London Olympics by scoring in five-straight matches and being named the 2012 FIFA Ballon d’Or (Women’s World Player of the Year) – are briefly shown later in the documentary and appear somewhat as afterthoughts.

The filmmakers chose to briefly flash on her latest successes in order to spend more time focused on how Wambach may have changed the course of women’s soccer in the United States with her actions during the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

The Americans were not only looking for revenge against the Brazilians for what happened in 2007; the United States wanted to save what otherwise would have been the team’s worst-ever performance in the World Cup, an elimination in the quarterfinals.

Wamach’s breakout moment on the world’s biggest stage – a diving last-second header that tied the match in extra time and forced a penalty kick finish – was the equivalent of the “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” for women’s soccer. “Sometimes you never know you can do something against all odds…until you actually do it,” Wambach comments.

She also scored in America’s next two matches – a semifinal win over France and an absolutely heartbreaking lost to Japan in the finals – but nevertheless brought her team back from the brink. Rather than the United States failing in a historical manner in the quarterfinals, the team returned as heroes and American women’s soccer got the much-needed boost it had been looking for in this country.

“The impact of the Brazil game was massive,” notes Jerry Smith, Wambach’s under-21 coach with the national team. “If Abby doesn’t score the goal, if we don’t go to penalty kicks, if we don’t continue on in the tournament, we don’t have the chance to celebrate women’s soccer. It really put women’s soccer back on the front pages of people’s minds and elevated our sport once again to the level that we attained in 1999.”

That goal may very well be Wambach’s career highlight even though she scored another seven years earlier that directly won a gold medal for her country and was the catalyst for the national team’s 2012’s gold medal as well. While that may be the case, Wambach remains focused on building her legacy as her career comes to an end.

She has taken young forward Alex Morgan under her wing the same way Hamm mentored a passionate and intense Wambach early in her career. She is also dead-set on staying healthy and sharp enough to compete in the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Wambach wants to lead the Americans one more time as she looks to capture the only career goal that eludes her to this day.

“I would regret it if I didn’t at least try,” she says.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

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