Imagine being only 14 years old and thrust into the spotlight, a so-called savior for a sport struggling to gain popularity in one of the world's most powerful countries.
Do that and you might feel a bit of what Philadelphia Union midfielder Freddy Adu felt when he became one of the youngest players ever to sign an American pro contract back in 2003. Since then, Adu has seen plenty of downs -- and ups, too -- while playing in Major League Soccer, other pro leagues and with the U.S. Men’s National Team. Throughout, though, one thing has remained: the fan-favorite nature of the bright, gregarious Adu.
Adu recently chatted with Playbook about starting his career at such a young age, interacting with fans on Twitter and being in love with Gabrielle Union.
ESPN Playbook: What’s the craziest thing one of your fans has ever done?
Freddy Adu: One time, after an appearance, I was leaving and this one fan followed me outside and walked with me down the street for about a mile while I was just walking around. I didn’t really know how to tell him to leave. It ended up making his day, though, because I was able to hang out for a little bit and talk. He was actually pretty nice. One thing that a fan did propose to do was to get a tattoo of my name on their back if I score two goals in a game. The offer is actually still on the table right now. I’m gonna get two goals and then he’s gonna have to do it. [Laughs.]
Growing up as a fan, what was the craziest thing you ever did to get close to one of your idols?
I kind of snuck into the Lakers' locker room when I first went pro. I wanted to meet Kobe [Bryant] and [Shaquille O'Neal]. I didn’t get a chance to meet Kobe at that time, but I did get a chance to meet Shaq and it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had because he knew who I was. We took a picture and he was really, really cool about the whole thing.
Have you gotten to meet Kobe since then?
I still haven’t gotten a chance to meet Kobe, no, but we did do something for Nike about challenging each other. I was going to go against him playing HORSE in basketball and he was going to go against me in soccer. We filmed it, but we never got a chance to meet each other.
So would he be the one you’d be starstruck to meet, or is there someone else higher on that list?
When I met Pelé, I was really, ridiculously starstruck because he was my favorite player. To me, he’s the greatest soccer player of all time. As for athletes right now, I’d have to say that I’d be starstruck if I met Tiger Woods.
How do you deal with hecklers and haters when you’re playing in a different city?
You just can’t let it bother you. You have to get used to it. At first, it kind of gets to you a little bit when you’re first getting used to the whole process of going away and having fans always heckling you, but now I’m used to it and it doesn’t bother me. I’ve been a pro for a long time and I know it’s part of the game. It happens. They just try to get in your head. I just tune it all out and just play.
What’s one of the worst things someone’s ever yelled at you?
There are some pretty bad chants in Europe. Racist chants and things like that. I try not to read too much into that, though. One of my favorites happened when I first came in the league: I was about to come on to play in Columbus and someone kept chanting “child labor.” [Laughs.]
Yeah, you signed with D.C. United at 14. What was it like to have so many fans cheering for you at such a young age?
It was awesome. It felt good to have someone cheering for me because I’d done something that had really never been done in a hundred years, being able to go pro at such a young age in a team sport. It was cool for people to really rally behind that and cheer me on. At that time, I just wanted to be loved by everybody.
You’ve played overseas as a youth and as an adult. They obviously have crazy, rabid fans. What country or city has the wildest fans?
When I was in Greece, their fans were absolutely nuts. Irish fans were crazy, too. It’s scary for other teams to come in and play. Don’t get me wrong, though. Benfica [his club in Portugal] fans are probably some of the best fans in the world, and I really enjoyed my time there.
Do you prefer the overseas fans or the U.S. fans?
I prefer the fans here in the U.S. I love our Philadelphia fans. I can’t say enough about our fans. Every time I step out there on the home field, there’s a 12th man. There really is. Even when we’re losing or playing like crap, they’re always singing and always getting after it. We rally behind them all the time. They definitely pump us up and give us a lot of energy when we’re out there on the field. For me, they’re one of the very best fan [bases] I’ve ever played in front of. It’s amazing.
Do you ever have fans come up to you and try to show you their skills or drop a Maradona on you?
I haven’t really experienced that, but it’s mostly the kids, whenever you make an appearance they try to show off their skills. It’s pretty cool to see. Some people actually have some good skills, but some people are pretty bad. Obviously, you can’t tell them they’re bad, so you just try to be as nice as you can. [Laughs.]
Do you prefer to meet the crazy, excited fans or the more relaxed fans?
I don’t mind either way. I really don’t because some people are very passionate about it, and it’s just amazing to see fans get that excited when they meet you. You make somebody’s day, or somebody’s week, or somebody’s life by just saying hello and shaking their hand or taking a picture with them. I really enjoy meeting all types of fans. It’s pretty great.
Is there anything you wish a fan would do?
I really don’t ask anything of my fans other than to be dedicated and stick with us through good and bad. Players go through good spells and bad spells. Some fans stick with you through all those times. I’m a prime example of that. I’ve had some great moments and I’ve had some not-so-great moments, but I’ve got some really passionate fans that always stick with me and encourage me. I just really appreciate the loyal fans love you no matter what.
You’re very active on Twitter (@FreddyAdu) and have a huge following. Do you find that’s an easy, harmless way for you to interact with the fans?
Yes, sir. I love Twitter because it’s a very personal way to interact with those people. Sometimes I answer questions and sometimes I just go on to interact with them a little. I want them to get to know me a little bit and for me to get to know them a little bit as well. Twitter’s kind of a nice way to do that.
In the past, you’ve been romantically linked with the singer JoJo, and I know you guys are still friends now. Obviously she was a fan. Are there any other celebrity fans that you’ve met that really stand out to you?
Oh, yeah. Gabrielle Union, who I’m a big fan of. [Laughs.] I met her and she was telling me how she played soccer when she was younger and how big of a fan of mine she was. She called my name. I turned around and it’s Gabrielle Union and I’m thinking, “Man, you have no idea how in love I am with you.” [Laughs.] So that was really cool. There are some others from other sports. People like Kevin Garnett. It’s pretty awesome to have all these people know who you are and be fans.