Flamingo Park, Miami. On June 27, 1980, the U.S. Soccer Federation holds the first U.S. Women's Open Cup. There is no national team, no professional league, no NCAA championship -- this is the highest level of women's talent in the country.
Joan Dunlap, 18 years old, is the star forward for the Seattle Sharks. She wears a pink bandana over blond braids. A daughter of devout Catholics who would rebel against the stricture, she's part Northwestern flower child, part tomboy. And she's breathtakingly fast, her first three steps as explosive as it gets. Joan Jett, they call her. She can outrun anyone, even though -- unbeknownst to the fans and most of her teammates -- she is five and a half months pregnant.
Joan has never heard of someone who competed while pregnant -- there are no examples to follow -- but her doctor gave her the green light, and she wants to win. She feels good, she's not showing, and since speed is her strength, she's not too worried about the physical side of the game -- no one can catch her anyway. The Women's Open Cup final ends in a deadlock, and in the game-deciding shootout, Joan takes, and makes, the winning penalty kick: the Seattle Sharks are national champions.
Several months later, Dunlap gives birth to her son, Johnny, and that moment on the field feels like a universe away. A self-described hopeless romantic, she once believed she'd be with her high school sweetheart forever, but by the time her son is born, she knows she'll be raising him on her own. She will never forget the day she left the hospital, the intensity of how real it all is. She holds her newborn in his light green onesie, thinking, Wow, here we go. It's just you and me buddy.
What she doesn't know is that two years from now, a college coach all the way from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, will knock on her door and offer her, and her son, a home at UNC -- thereby changing the courses of their lives. And that far from it being just the two of them, Johnny will have a team full of aunties and a one-of-a-kind, dream childhood with an entire campus who dotes on him.
As for Joan? She will go on to become the very first mother on the U.S. women's national team -- though you've almost assuredly never heard of her. She's from the lost generation, the OGs who played at the very beginning, most of whom faded out before anyone heard their individual stories. (One of my favorite parts about writing the essays for Pride of a Nation was stumbling upon all the stories I'd never heard before, especially those early years.)
Joan Dunlap was a maverick who followed her dream and brought her child along for the ride, thereby lighting the way for all the player-moms who have come after her. Each generation has made it more possible for the next and today we're in the midst of a bona fide baby boom: the USWNT's April camp included a whopping five mothers -- Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, Casey Krueger, AD Franch and Julie Ertz. This number is especially staggering when you consider that over the course of global history, most women's national teams have had none.
Today's generation of players have the blueprint that Joan never had -- they can bring their kids to camp knowing that they will be watched by a nanny provided by the U.S. Soccer Federation. They also benefit from a team policy that guarantees them a chance to return after pregnancy: once fit enough to return, a player is put back on the same contract and will continue to be called up for at least three months -- enough time to prove she still deserved her spot.
Back in the 1980s, of course, none of that existed. Joan Dunlap scored a goal in her first game with the national team -- she got chosen for the Copa Mundialito, "Little World Cup," where she played every minute of every game -- and then disappeared from the history books.
When legendary Anson Dorrance first saw Joan Dunlap fly up the field, he didn't know she had a 2-year-old son -- he just knew she was extraordinary. After the game, he told her he'd like her to play for him at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Dorrance would go on to win more games than any collegiate coach in the history of any sport, leading the Tar Heels to 13 national championships in the first 16 years. Because of that incredible dominance, he was appointed coach of the USWNT in 1986, thereby making UNC a direct pipeline to the national team. As the architect of the USWNT in the early days, Dorrance helped establish an attitude and a character that would be passed down from generation to generation, and he'd eventually coach the U.S. to winning the first ever Women's World Cup in 1991.
But on that day on the sideline back in 1981, he was still green behind the ears, an audacious 20-something-year-old (not much older than Joan) who'd just dropped out of law school to coach both the men and women's soccer teams at UNC. In an era before cellphones and the internet, recruiting meant following tips and hopping planes.
"I was just beginning to learn where the hotbeds of women's soccer were. Seattle ruled not only the northwest -- they ruled the country," Dorrance says. "This was not your classic youth team scenario. The spine of all these rosters were technically and tactically elite women." The average player was already in her mid-20s. They were working class, salt-of-the earth sorts, tough, gritty and in love with this game they had found.
Joan is the youngest of five kids and no one in her family had ever graduated from college. When Dorrance first told her he'd like her to play for his team, she thought it was funny -- she had a child, she had no money, how in the world would she be able to go to college? Title IX, the landmark legislation that requires schools receiving federal funds to give women and girls an equal chance to play sports, passed in 1971, but by 1983 most colleges did not yet have soccer programs, let alone soccer scholarships.
"How rare were women's athletic scholarships back then!" Dunlap says. "I thought he probably had the wrong person or didn't realize I came with a very special package."
But when Dorrance found out Joanie had a toddler, he was entirely unfazed. He ate dinner with her family and offered her a full scholarship -- plus childcare and a home for Johnny.
To be clear, this wholehearted embrace of mother and child was by no means standard practice. Consider the approach of many other coaches around the world -- recently ousted French national team coach Corinne Diacre forbid her players to bring their children to camp. At the club level, just this past year when Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir got pregnant, Olympique Lyonnais stopped paying her salary. After Australia's Melissa Barbieri, a three-time World Cup veteran and national team captain, gave birth, she called every single team in the Australian W-league, looking for a team -- no one wanted her. When U.S. player Amy Rodriguez was pregnant, Seattle Reign coach Laura Harvey took her to lunch and gave her a Reign baby onesie -- and then proceeded to trade her a month later.
In other words: many coaches want nothing to do with moms. So for Anson -- 40 years ago -- to say, Come, bring your child, we'll provide a home and childcare and he can be with you on the sideline? It was downright radical.
"He was forward-thinking, didn't let convention guide him -- that's what's so great about Anson," Joan told me. "The fact that he could look beyond all that, not judge, and see what could be. I am so grateful."
Joan's parents, her three older brothers and her older sister saw her off to the airport. With her knapsack over her shoulder and Johnny in her arms, she took off for a new life on the other side of the country, following the game.
THE HUMIDITY AND HEAT were a shock to the girl from Seattle. It was UNC's preseason, three practices a day, and what she remembers most is the jumping -- endless jumping. In one exercise, they jumped over the ball, both feet together, side-to-side. Joan is earnest; she jumped as high and as fast as she could, explosive lateral leaps. One of the upper classmen did a double take, thinking, Wow, this girl's not going to make it if she keeps up like that. "Jesus Joan! Pace yourself!" Maybe don't jump so high.
Afterward, she could barely move. Dorrance's wife, M'liss, had found Joan a little house down the hill from the hospital, an easy walk along the red brick sidewalks to campus. Johnny, who was also unaccustomed to the heat, didn't want to walk home -- he wanted Mom to carry him. Her legs were jello. When she made it back, she'd lay out flat on the wood floor, her legs cramping, while Johnny climbed and jumped on top of her. Suddenly she understood why her teammate had told her to pace herself.
In the mornings before class, Joan took Johnny to the church daycare on the edge of campus -- after class she picked up Johnny and headed to practice.
"She was like this mystery woman in a way -- it was like, how do you do that?" says UNC teammate and eventual USWNT legend April Heinrichs. "She made taking care of Johnny, being a college student and being an athlete look effortless."
#OTD 1983 - Seattle's Joan Dunlap scores twice for North Carolina in 4-1 win over Radford. It's the first of 23 straight games Dunlap will either score or assist, including NCAA championship game. She does it all with a 2-year-old son. pic.twitter.com/tD6ECTqnaY— Frank MacDonald (@frankmSounders) October 15, 2022
The powder blue track in UNC colors that surrounded Fetzer Field acted as a giant playpen. Whoever was out injured kept an eye on Johnny. He would perch on the bag of balls along the sideline, playing with his trucks in the long jump pit, or popping out of a pile of leaves. That first season, Joan had some gnawing worry -- she didn't want to be an imposition. But at some point she began to believe everyone when they told her that having Johnny around made everything better. Everybody loved playing with him -- kicking him balls, or helping him learn his numbers.
The upper classmen were hard players, hard drinkers, rowdy and aggressive. They lived on the edge, while the new class coming in were all business. The freshmen were seriously talented, and any time you bring in young hotshots from around the country who threaten the upper classmen's playing time, there's tension. But Johnny diffused it -- and he humanized Anson.
Dorrance was lawyer-like -- cool, intimidating. He wore a suit and tie on the sideline of games, and he recorded, charted and posted all performances, tracking who won each drill and who lost. He expected you to empty yourself in the pursuit of excellence.
He also always arrived early -- so when one afternoon practice began and Anson was nowhere to be found, there was teamwide confusion. They found him in the long jump pit, on sand-caked knees, blowing bubbles for Johnny. The upperclassmen were stunned: Anson was blowing bubbles?
Like her son, Joan too left an impression. She gave off a hippy, ethereal vibe - a blond halo of hair, shy smile. She wore her bandanas and her thrift-store jumpers with unthinking ease. Stacey Enos, one of those hard-living upperclassmen, remembers connecting with Joan over music. It's hard not to imagine it in slow motion: pulling up in their respective VW bugs, feathered haircuts blowing in the wind, cleats tapping on the red brick sidewalks as they sung songs by their favorite, Fleetwood Mac.
"She was so peaceful and calm, but then she got on the field and ... f---, look out," says Stacey Enos, a left-footed defender who would go on to captain the first U.S. national team in 1985. "She had this ability to see the ball and if you were in her way, she just went through you. She was ruthless. And her athleticism -- she was on a different plane than anyone else. She could separate in the air -- to launch up higher than anyone else. If you put a ball into the box, she finished it.
"I hated marking her and April [Heinrichs] -- they were the toughest matchups I ever had. April was like a horse, Joanie was a gazelle -- both so fast ... but Joan floated. I was so relieved to play in games -- it was so much easier than marking those two in practice."
Dunlap and Heinrichs played side-by-side up top. Heinrichs describes Dunlap as "incredibly fast, and so smooth and technical." Heinrichs, meanwhile, was a one-on-one specialist who could take anyone on the flank and possessed the requisite audacity to score goals; she'd go on to become a U.S. soccer goal-scoring giant. At the end of their first season at UNC, Heinrichs scored 18 goals and had 8 assists; Dunlap, with 15 goals and 12 assists, wasn't far behind. They won the national championship with ease.
OFF THE FIELD, Joan fell in love: UNC lacrosse standout Joey Seivold remembers seeing her for the first time across the training room. "She had a level of West Coast cool I found highly attractive." He saw her again on Halloween night. "Everyone was in wild, crazy costumes," says Seivold, "and there she was, wearing a jean jacket -- just watching the idiocy unfold." The next time he saw her, at a soccer party, he asked her out. Typically, she batted away all romantic proposals, but Joey's was different -- Joey wanted Johnny to come.
"I remember him coming into our life -- embracing it completely," says Johnny, now age 41. That summer, the trio went on a camping trip in Northern Ontario, canoeing from site to site along the river. They have been together ever since.
When Joan returned to Chapel Hill the following season, whatever worry she once had about altered dynamics was gone: Johnny was very clearly part of the team.
"I mean, I was part of the fabric of the institution," Johnny laughs. He was the 4-year-old on a college campus. "It was awesome. It felt so natural," he says. His preschool was on top of the hill on Franklin Street and he'd be on the jungle gym or the swings and his mom's teammates would walk by, calling him over to the fence to come hang out. Anson's father, who, one game at a time, was recovering from his son dropping out of law school, would stop by and check on them, a kind of stand-in grandpa for Johnny.
The tightly-knit Tar Heels continued their reign of domination: Joan scored 21 goals that second season with UNC. April scored 23 and won National Player of the Year. Again, they won the national championship.
And then that was it -- the end. After two seasons, Joan's clock was up, thanks to an archaic, now-defunct NCAA rule: a player was only eligible until the age of 24. She would still be on scholarship, would still finish her education, but she wouldn't be allowed to play in games.
From her living room in Chapel Hill, she watched on TV as her team lost the 1984 championship to George Mason. From 1982 to 1994, it is the only NCAA title they failed to win -- it is the blemish in the record book. "I never fathomed they could lose," Dunlap says. She wondered if she should have challenged that rule and fought the NCAA, which Anson had once suggested. Seeing her crestfallen teammates, she couldn't help but feel like it was her fault. Always, she was good for a goal -- that's not arrogance. That's fact. She still holds the UNC record for most consecutive games with a goal or assist -- a 23-game streak. If she'd played, she would've made a difference.
HER COLLEGE CAREER OVER, she kept playing anyway -- training with the team and playing in pickup games. There were murmurs of a U.S. women's national team in the works and in 1985 it happened: the very first U.S. national team traveled to Jesolo, Italy, to compete in the "Copa Mundialito," Spanish for Little World Cup. The following year, Dorrance was named coach of the team, and you can bet he called up Joan. She traveled to Minnesota for the USA-Canada Friendly Cup and in her first game, she did what she'd always done: she scored.
In the next Copa Mundialito, in 1986, Joan was on the plane to Italy; it meant she had to leave Johnny with her mother. Now 6-years-old, he was old enough to understand that his mom was going to play for the United States. "I don't know if I fully understood the magnitude -- but there's no doubt that my mom was my rock star, my hero," Johnny says.
Parts of that trip to Jesolo are foggy -- it was nearly 40 years ago. There are snippets of off-the-field memories -- the Adriatic Sea, moped rides through the countryside -- but more vivid is the field: "You don't forget representing your country, wearing a jersey with the letters U-S-A. Singing the national anthem. The stadium full of fans, cheering for us. There's clearly a different culture around the game in Europe, which we didn't really anticipate," Joan says. "I remember the swell of emotion, the pride." She played every minute of each match. In the previous Copa Mundialito, they did not win a game, but this go-round they beat China and Brazil and made it to the final, where they lost to Italy.
And the national players came home and returned to their day jobs, their real lives. In 1987, there was a lull, no budget to travel to play other national teams, no national teams traveling to play them. Nothing was on the horizon. There were sporadic gatherings, including a training camp in the summer, and she went, even though much of the time travel was on their own dime. It was worth it -- they all thought it was worth it.
But a child, and being separated by an ocean, changes the equation. This was before FaceTime, Zoom, or even cellphones. All you'd get were one or two long distance phone calls from a pay phone. "Kids are your barometer. It got harder and harder to justify being away. It put a strain on your family," Joan says. "Was I really going to leave my child to go run around on a field, kicking a ball in Timbuktu?" At some point, her mother-in-law asked, truly confounded, "Why on Earth are you doing this?"
At the end of the year, she and Joey took teaching jobs in Lake Worth, Florida. Meanwhile, a new generation of talented teenagers was arriving. Joan thought to herself, just let it go.
"Joan had huge promise, not just for my collegiate team but for the national team," Anson says. "She was juggling a kid, a job, training, and nothing was set up for her to make an easy transition. There was no childcare or policies in place. This was pre-anything."
Her entire generation faced similar dilemmas: they had paychecks to earn, careers to begin -- how long were they going to keep this up?
"Joanie was just too good for the times. There wasn't a place carved out for her yet," says Michelle Akers, USWNT legend and fellow Seattleite, who was born three years after Joan. "For many of that generation, there was just nowhere to go -- so they walked off into their lives."
Joan can still clearly remember that next chapter: when your identity goes away, when all your life you're a soccer player and then suddenly you're not -- it's an experience that transcends generations. There was the mild dismay she felt when she stepped on the field, no longer in tip-top shape, a disgrace to her former self -- she had the same inclination many competitive elite athletes have: If you can't be at your peak, why play at all? I just need to stop. She focused on teaching, and coaching, passing down the game.
BUT ANSON DID CALL her again, in 1988: FIFA was putting on a pilot women's World Cup in China, and he would love if she would compete for a spot. Hearing those words made her wistful. But by now she was pregnant with her second child. By the tournament, she'd be eight months along. No, she could not go to China.
The USA didn't place at that competition, dubbed the 1988 FIFA Women's Invitation Tournament, and again, Joan felt guilt. She wondered, could I have made a difference? Meanwhile, at home, Johnny -- now 8-years-old -- challenged her to a race. Sure, his mom was billed by The Chapel Hill Daily as "possibly the fastest player in UNC history." But now he was fast himself. And she was ready to pop. He figured the time had come, that he was ready to beat his mother. "She smoked me with her gigantic belly and I cried," he says with a laugh.
Now, this is not where Joan's story ends. In the summer of '92, she stopped by the Carolina Soccer camp and got talked into playing in the nightly alumni game, where camp staff plays against one another. Many were national team players who had just returned from winning the '91 World Cup, and even though Joan hadn't played in a competitive match in a good five years, she held her own.
Afterward, Anson caught up to her, told her, "Hey, you still have it." She laughed and blew it off, but a few days later she was still thinking about it. "I couldn't help but feel that I'd turned my back on my gift," says Dunlap.
She called up Anson, asked if he meant it, if he thought she should give it another go. One more shot. "I absolutely meant it," he said. So Joan, a retired 31-year-old, by this point a mother of a 13-year-old and a three-year-old, had the audacity to mount a comeback. For 8 months, she told no one what she was doing. She just headed out to the track with both kids in tow (as many U.S. soccer moms will go on to do), in pursuit of her dream: making the 1996 Olympic team.
By 1994, Dunlap had fought her way into a two-week national team camp in California, playing with the likes of Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly. This new edition of the USWNT had forwards in droves, and if she had a hope of making the team, she had to convert herself into a defender. One of the things Anson loved about Joan was her toughness; he told her to be physical and she did that, tormenting her mark. "I was all up in her mug," she acknowledges with a smile. The frustrated player turned to Joan: "Hey old lady. Why don't you go home to your kids?"
She roomed with a friendly Stanford player named Julie Foudy, who was as outgoing as Joan was shy. While Julie was always on the move, Joan spent almost all downtime on her bed, icing her legs. "Julie was wonderful. But she must've thought I was whacko: I iced round the clock," laughs Joan.
Next, she was tasked with marking one Mia Hamm. Joan had always been graceful and smooth, but she wasn't quite back to her old self and she felt a touch clumsy. She was petrified she would accidentally injure Mia Hamm herself. She confessed this to Anson, who always checked in with his players, and later he brought it up in training, and now Joan worried -- oh no, does Mia think I think she's weak, that she couldn't handle it?
At the pool, on an off day, she wore her bandana and her thrift-store jumper that she always wore -- someone said, Nice outfit. Thank you, she said, and only later did she wonder if they were making fun of her, the old lady at the pool in her secondhand clothes.
Lilly and Hamm came to her room and asked, "Want to get ice cream with us? Or we could bring you some back." She panicked and froze, her shyness taking over. She nodded, asked them to please bring some back. Immediately, she regretted it, beat herself up - why did I say that, why did I not go with them? Were they reaching out? Trying to include me? What was I thinking??
When she got home from camp, she had plenty of time to mull it all over: I shouldn't have kept so much apart, I should've tried to fit in, I should've gone for ice cream. She does not get called back into another camp. While that outcome wasn't what she'd hoped for, she's still proud: she went for it. And in the process, she showed her two sons what it looks like to be brave.
AFTER JOAN'S EXIT FROM the national team, Joy Fawcett became the next mom on the U.S. team. She told Dorrance she wanted to start a family and that she "didn't want to leave them at home and just take off." Dorrance told her without hesitation to bring them along.
Teammate and defender Carla Overbeck joined the ranks of USWNT mothers in 1998; after both players asked the federation for help, the USWNT became the first team to provide a nanny on the road for players -- a landmark move. Since then, a total of 17 moms have played for the U.S. national team.
There were growing pains along the way -- after defender Kate Markgraf gave birth to twins in 2009, then-USWNT coach Pia Sundhage told her that her contract would not be renewed, an experience that led the USWNT Players Association to fight for a new policy they would nickname "the Markgraf rule." As explained in the book "The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer," the policy "guaranteed that if a player left the team for pregnancy, once she was fit enough to return, she would be put back on the same contract and continued to be called up for at least three months -- enough time to prove she still deserved her spot."
Beginning with Joan, each generation has made having a baby more possible for the next.
In July, three U.S. moms will head to New Zealand to play in the Women's World Cup: Alex Morgan, mom to 3-year-old daughter Charlee; Crystal Dunn, mom to 1-year-old son Marcel; and Julie Ertz, mom to 11-month-old Madden. While Joan was unable to bring Johnny to Jesolo, Italy, Dunn, Morgan and Ertz will be able to fly their kids to New Zealand. There's the team nanny, the tiny jerseys with "MOM" bannered across the back, the parent-child photoshoots. And there's FaceTime and Zooms, meaning moms are still able to see their kids even when they have to be apart.
While that experience is different than Joan's 40 years earlier, many details of player-motherhood remain the same: like the team of aunties doting on your kids and the desire to share as much of your experience with your kids as you can. After Joan's games, her son Johnny would tug her hand and lead her back to the field, just as Charlee takes Alex Morgan's hand after San Diego Wave games and tells mom it's her turn.
Like their predecessors did for them, Dunn, Ertz and Morgan are showing the future generation what motherhood can look like.
As for Joan, at 61 years old, she's still a free spirit, still sometimes wears her bandanas and her overalls, still listens to her music. She takes care of the neighborhood dogs, enjoys gardening and loves on her new grandson. Looking back on her career, she is nothing but grateful. And come July 21, yes, absolutely, she'll be watching the World Cup -- and the mothers who will take the field.