Freddy Adu: Just Going Out To Play

Soccer Star: 'It's Not Going To Be Easy'

Freddy Adu can do just about anything he wants with a soccer ball, including fake much older players right out of their cleats. People who know say that he could develop into the best player not just in America, but in the entire, soccer-mad world.

The diminutive adolescent sat down with Lesley Stahl for an interview broadcast on 60 Minutes.

"I just love it so much, you know," he says. "When I'm out there on the field, I'm in a whole different world, you know? It's like, I'm just having so much fun."

So he gets paid all that money to have fun?

"To have fun, yeah," he replies. "I mean, I couldn't ask for a better life, man."

It does look like a charmed life: half a million dollars a year to play for D.C. United, the team he grew up watching. At an age when most kids are begging their parents for a higher allowance, he's got a $1 million contract with Nike and another endorsement deal with Pepsi.

In his first commercial, Pepsi has paired Freddy with the best soccer player in history: Pele.

Says Pele, "I told him, 'Listen. God give you, you know, the gift to play football.'"

Freddy's "football" gifts were apparent during D.C. United's very first exhibition game in February. Teammate Ben Olson is a grizzled veteran, at 26.

So how is Freddy playing?

Olson reports, "He's playing great. You probably saw today. He was, I think, one of the better players on the field… Already."

Bruce Arena is the most influential figure in American soccer, coach of the men's national team that will compete for the World Cup in 2006. It's a team Freddy hopes to make.

Of Freddy, Arena says, "We think he's gonna be a great one."

What is it in Freddy's play that makes everybody who knows what they're talking about say, "Oh, wow"?

Says Arena, "He's strong, he's quick, he's agile. He's got good balance, and he's got great vision. Very special."

Freddy learned the game as soon as he learned to walk, in his native Ghana, in West Africa. He didn't just play soccer; he lived it.

"I did not go one day without playing," he recalls, and it was just kicking and learning.

"It was awesome," he explains, "because, you know, like, there was no coaches, no one to tell you what to do. It was just, you play and learn stuff on your own."

It was during those early days in Ghana that Freddy's mother, Emelia, first encouraged her soccer prodigy. Freddy recalls: "My mom was always the supplier of soccer balls, and so people were always knocking on my door, and trying to get me out so we could play."

Freddy's street soccer days ended in 1998, after his parents entered a visa lottery at the U.S. embassy in Ghana. They won the lottery and got visas to come to the United States. Freddy was 8 years old.

Was it scary?

"Yes," replies Freddy, "and sad. I didn't even have a ball when I first came. I didn't even have a soccer ball, so it was hard."

Life got even harder. After they settled near Washington, D.C., Freddy says his father just abandoned the family one day.

Does Freddy ever see his father?

"No, I don't see him. He's completely out of the picture."

Freddy says he has not seen him since he left, and that his father has not tried to get in touch with him.

Emelia, suddenly the sole breadwinner for Freddy and his younger brother, worked two jobs to make ends meet.

Freddy recalls, "She would wake up at 5 in the morning, leave at 6, go to work… She gets off work at 6 in the evening, to go to an overnight job. She worked, I mean, unbelievable amount of hours, you know?"

Meanwhile, Freddy's soccer skills were noticed on the playground, and he was recruited for a local league team. In less than a year, he was the best player on an all-star team, playing with kids 4 and 5 years older than he was.

"You know, we went to Italy for a huge tournament," he recalls, "and there was teams from all over the world there, and we were representing the United States, and I was really nervous, because these guys are so much bigger than I am. I'm 10 years old. I'm about 5-foot-3, and like, weighed like 110, you know. So I'm really scared. I ended up scoring four goals in five games, and, uh, I also got the MVP (most valuable player) of the tournament and the USA won."

It was also that day that Freddy learned that soccer is a business as well as a game. He got an offer of $750,000 to play with an Italian soccer team.

He was 10 years old.

His mother said no.

Was Freddy upset?

"No, I wasn't upset. It was just so much money. I was just…'Why not just take it?' But, you know what? She was looking out for our well-being."

Eventually, his mom did agree to let Freddy attend a kind of "soccer boarding school" in Florida, run by the U.S. Soccer Federation. For the last two years, he's been attending classes and practicing with the national youth team.

Last year, he became a citizen and officially joined the U.S. "under-17" team. His play, even with much older opponents constantly pushing and tripping him, made the buzz around him even louder.

What is the very best moment so far that he has had, playing soccer?

Freddy recalls: "We're tied with Sierra Leone, one-one, in the second game of the tournament, and, I mean, they're hacking. They're just beating me up all over the field. 88th minute. One of my teammates, Jamie Watson, flicks the ball to me. I run by the defender, take out the goalie, and score. When teams are abusing you like that, the greatest thing to do is just score on 'em. That was the greatest feeling."

But Freddy's great play (and his confidence) also have led to accusations that he's really older than he admits.

"It's been with me, like, ever since I actually started playing, and it used to bug me a lot, you know? 'Cause you're telling me that my family's lying about my age, and we're trying to really cheat," Freddy says. "I mean, what do I have to cheat for? I've always been playing against people older than me anyways. So what do I have to cheat for?"

Was his family ever able to produce any documentation?

"Yeah, actually," Freddy replies. "I have my birth certificate and everything at home."

And, of course, now it doesn't matter anyway, because Freddy is a professional now.

But before his professional debut, Freddy's mom insisted on one more thing: that he complete an accelerated academic program for athletes in Florida that allowed him, at 14, to finish high school. He got his diploma this month.

Are there any ways in which this kid is still able to be a kid?

Freddy says he plays "a lot of PlayStation and always trying to look pretty for the girls."

Spin the bottle?

"We've done that, man," he replies. "We actually just did that last month. Crazy."

What's really crazy are the expectations being heaped on Freddy. You hear that he's the "next Pele," that he'll be the youngest player ever in a World Cup, that he'll finally make America as mad about soccer as the rest of the world is.

And 14 is really young. No other way to slice it.

Says Olson, "I couldn't imagine. I couldn't imagine this stuff he's dealing with, to play on this professional level at the age he's at is…it's remarkable."

Is there any hazing going on?

"Not yet," replies Olson. "But I think I'm gonna be in charge of that."

As the No. 1 pick on draft day, Freddy's $500,000 salary from D.C. United dwarfs even the game's veterans. It has become a cliché that every rookie with a big contract buys his mama a house. Freddy may be the first one ever to do it…and then go home and live with her.

"I wanted to get us a place of our own with a little bit more space," says Freddy. "The kitchen is just huge, because my mom…lives there, man, and she loves being in the kitchen."

Is she a good cook?

"Oh my goodness! She could be the best cook ever, man."

But is she working any more?

"She doesn't work any more. She's done," says her son. "She's had enough. You know, she's worked so hard."

Arena says, "What I know of Mrs. Adu, she is pretty sharp. And she's done a very good job in corralling Freddy a bit, and not letting his head get too big. And I think Freddy living at home is gonna be a real plus… She's gonna be able to keep him in line, and I think that's gonna help him."

He's going to need help to keep his head from swelling. You know you're a star when you're on "Late Night With David Letterman" at an age when most kids aren't allowed to stay up late enough to watch "Letterman."

Still, the real test of how Freddy will deal with the spotlight and the pressure will come on the soccer field.

Says Arena, "What you don't wanna do is rush him in there too early and have him lose his confidence and set him back a way. And I think we need to move him along slowly."

It's a little late for that. In less than a week, he'll be on the field as a pro…with all that that implies.

"Well, you know, they say that there's a bulls-eye on your back sometimes when you play," explains Arena. "He's gonna have one on his back and on his chest, on his forehead, on his legs."

And teammate Olson says, "Sure. You know, there's gonna be some jealousy around the league. 'I'm not gonna let a 14-year-old, you know, make me look bad.' Things like that. But that's to be expected… He's playing against grown men who are playing for their living."

Freddy acknowledges, "I know that it's not gonna be easy. They're like, 'Why is this kid making more money than me? I'm 25, and I've already done…There's this kid, hasn't even played the game yet. I mean, I know… It's true. but you know what? I mean, I don't have to prove myself to any of those guys that I'm better than them. I'm just gonna go out there and play, man."

How is he going to get to practice? He's not old enough to drive.

"Actually, I don't know. I don't know," he says. "My mom's probably gonna have to take me back and forth."

Of course, if he wasn't 14 and he wanted to tell 60 Minutes that, then he could go get his driver's license.

With a laugh, Freddy says, "Yeah. I know. That's good. I like that one."