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Original Issue

Star in Stripes

Tom Dooley joined the U.S. team to pursue his dreams

Two summers ago a man who could not speak a lick of English arrived at New York's JFK airport carrying a U.S. passport bearing his name. He was a charming fellow who struggled vainly to explain this paradox in his native tongue; ultimately, though, U.S. immigration passed him through. This story explains who he is and how he got to JFK that day and why—with the World Cup kicking off on June 17—he has become the most vital soccer player on the national team of a country he barely knew. Except in his dreams.

Thomas Dooley was born on May 12, 1961, in the farm village of Bechhofen, West Germany. A year later his father, an American GI named Courtney Joseph Dooley, returned to the U.S. and vanished from young Tom's life, leaving behind only a few athletic trophies that would become a source of preadolescent fascination for the boy. Some years before, an American folk group called the Kingston Trio had recorded a song about a condemned man who bore the youngster's name, a name that few of his neighbors in Bavaria could pronounce correctly. He would watch the Stars and Stripes ascend on television during the 1972 Olympics and feel goose bumps, but he figured that it was only because he was so fond of the colors red, white and blue.

At 17 Tom was a full-fledged toolmaker, following in the footsteps of his maternal uncles and his stepfather, Horst Niebergall, rising at 4:45 a.m. and working in a machine shop until midafternoon. Along with his older brother, Steven, who was studying to be a doctor, he played soccer for the local team in the 10th division of the West German soccer league. "This is not my life," he would say to himself. "There is something wrong in my life."

A friend gave him a German translation of The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, by Joseph Murphy, D.R.S., Ph.D., D.D., LL.D. While it may have echoed the pitch of a potion peddler in a covered wagon—"Begin to use this miracle-working power and smooth your way in daily affairs"—the book became Dooley's bible. He planned to go back to school and also made it his goal to earn a spot on a third-division team. To that end, he regularly ran up a three-mile hill, humming the theme from Rocky.

At 24 he was at the University of Kaiserslautern studying architecture and starring for FC Homburg in the second division. HANG DOWN YOUR HEAD TOM DOOLEY the local headlines read when he nodded in another goal. He was driving around downtown one day when he spied an American sports car and became so obsessed with its big tires and little roof and spidery grill that he tailed it for half an hour until he was lost. "From then on," he would recall, "I dreamed about that car." A few months later Dooley bought a gold Corvette, which he painted blue and later red.

At 29 he had become a mainstay of FC Kaiserslautern, which that year, 1991, won the championship of the Bundesliga's first division. A central defender of indomitable will and intelligence, he had one dream left in Fussbal: to play for the national team. But his hopes for an invitation were squelched by injuries sustained while playing. First, he had ankle surgery for torn ligaments, then four broken ribs and a collapsed lung. At four o'clock one December morning in '91 he was awakened by a phone call in the bedroom of the house he had designed. His agent had met with an American soccer official who had seen him play against Cologne and was intrigued by his Anglophone last name. After checking into Dooley's background, the agent believed Dooley might be eligible to play for the national team—the U.S. national team. Dooley had never even visited the States. He looked at his wife, Elke, and again felt goose bumps.

Less than three years later, at 33, he is the reigning U.S. Male Soccer Athlete of the Year, the linchpin of the host team of the 1994 World Cup. He lives with Elke and their two sons, Marko, 13, and Dennis, 2, in an apartment near Mission Viejo, Calif., where he trains with the rest of the Yanks. With his German accent and Prussian discipline, it would be easy to portray him as a soccer Hessian, except that mercenaries don't leave the Bundesliga to take a salary cut approaching $300,000. No, Dooley is a true American pioneer in pursuit of his dreams, as ardent in his Norman Vincent spiel as any of his new countrymen. He is also as concerned as any Southern Californian about the natural disasters that afflict his new home. "First, there was fires, and then floods, and then we had the earthquake," he says. "Now I read in the newspaper that killer bees are coming."

It wasn't merely that he was attracted to the Super Bowl, blue jeans and the Grand Canyon, not to mention 'Vettes. And it wasn't any filial allegiance to some American serviceman, either; his mother, Alice, never even showed him a photo of his father. Tom and Steven only began to search for their dad when they were in their 20's; their hope, Tom says, was to find out where he lived so that someday they might knock on his door and make small talk for a few minutes—nothing more. A few years ago they found out that their father had died in 1986 and was buried in San Francisco.

What was it, then, that tugged at him, that induced those goose bumps? Dooley's well-tended subconscious was sending an unignorable signal to his flesh that said, Go Westen! "How can I say? I feel like a real American," he says. "How I'm friendly to people, how I try things, my positive thinking. It's not naive, but most people in Germany say, 'Ah, it's too difficult.' They go in an elevator and all look down to their shoes."

So Dooley, armed with a U.S. passport that was arranged with the help of team officials, smiled his way through immigration to make his debut in the 1992 U.S. Cup. While he starts in the defensive end for U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic, Dooley is by nature a forward-thinking person, so out on the pitch he often winds up thinking like a forward. "In the first five minutes of my first game for the national team," he says, "I got a shot. I had a chance to score. I got two shots and two assists, and we won 3-1. To do this the first time in America—that was unbelievable."

Dooley traverses a field in the same sure and graceful way that he crosses cultural boundaries. He is 6'1" and 168 pounds, narrow-hipped and high-waisted, his long stride swallowing up turf in huge gulps. His game face never changes: From the first minute to the 90th, whether dashing headlong to the opposing goalmouth or executing a precision scissor tackle after a 10-yard sprint, his aspect remains serene, almost beatific.

"He sometimes seems to me like an angel on the field," says former U.S. defender Desmond Armstrong. "But Thomas has a mean streak, too. He knows how to clip somebody, how to push off when he leaps, how to get to the end of the ball."

During the U.S.'s respectable showing in the 1993 U.S. Cup, Dooley banged in three goals, one in a 2-0 shocker over England and a pair in a 4-3 loss to Germany. He finished off the '93 season with Kaiserslautern and then signed a contract last June to play full-time for his father's land so that he might lead the U.S. into the World Cup. The German magazine Kicker proclaimed, HOLLYWOOD: TOM DOOLEY UND SEIN AMERIKANISCHER TRAUM (...and his American dream).

So far, Dooley has relished his time in the U.S. After practices on the road, Dooley will grab one of the team's cars and disappear until dinnertime, absorbed by sights he has long imagined. "America is so big," he says. "It takes more than one lifetime to see." Says U.S. defender-midfielder Paul Caligiuri, "Everything with him is like a 33-year-old boy seeing Disneyland for the first time."

In his hotel room before games Dooley will put on a dark visor that has red lights blinking in front of his eyeballs, drop in a CD and listen to birds twitter and waves crash and a soft voice tell him, "You are free, you are confident, enjoy the feeling you have right now." Snapshots he has taken of Corvettes are taped to the inside of his locker, high-performance images to dream on before he heads out to practice.

And though Dooley has deserted the cutthroat competition in Germany, it is the professional approach he learned there over the course of a decade that is so valuable to the U.S. Many of his teammates in Mission Viejo—average age: 26.2—study everything about him, from how he laces his shoes to his prescient first touch on the field. Dooley is their imprimatur of international credibility, the staunch veteran who forsook the Bundesliga to train with them.

But the U.S. team has struggled in 1994, losing to lowly Iceland while tuning up for the World Cup. The defense has been prone to egregious breakdowns, and U.S. goals have been sighted about as often as homicidal bees. But by the U.S.'s June 18 opener against Switzerland in Detroit, a half dozen Americans who play professionally abroad will have joined the Mission Viejo crew, providing the U.S. with an ample pool of potential scorers. So Milutinovic is now pondering what to do with the multifaceted Dooley: Deploy him in the midfield, where he could patrol more territory and bolster the offense with his well-timed runs, or use him at sweeper, where he could serve as the last line of defense while kick-starting the attack with his pinpoint long passes?

Dooley prefers to line up at sweeper—"It is a nice game to play," he says—but he is happy to do whatever it takes to advance the cause of soccer in the U.S. This is where he will settle, play and coach when the Cup is over, and he wants to make sure his first touch with the American public is a positive one. He has visions of the U.S.'s advancing from the initial 24 teams to the second round of 16. "In soccer everything is possible," Dooley says. "We have to believe this. No, not just believe. Know it is true."



Dooley (5), a German-born son of an American GI, left the Bundesliga to play for the U.S. team.



Tom and Elke, with son Dennis, have enjoyed the sights they had long yearned to see in the U.S.