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A Stand-Up Character

Before ascending to treehouse, Marcus Hahnemann put together quite a career

Jane Gershovich/JaneG. Photography

Looking back, those first impressions of Marcus Hahnemann were the most telling. That last 24 years have only served up reinforcements.

He arrived at Whidbey Island's Camp Casey as the third- or fourth-choice goalkeeper. A week later Hahnemann was Number 2 and by late September the starter for Seattle Pacific. It was not only his ability, but his drive that made the difference.

"Marcus loves the game, loves life and he loves people." - Cliff McMath, Hahnemann's coach at SPU

That winter, prior to an intramural basketball game featuring a team of SPU soccer players, Hahnemann capped the pregame huddle by barking, "Kyle on three. One-two-three: Kyle!" Our first child had been born the previous morning. His name: Kyle. More than just a colorful character, this young man was not only very much aware but thoughtful of others.

That's what made it so easy to root for him all these years, knowing that he was earnest and talented and caring and so full of life. The fact that he started and finished his body of work in his hometown merely made it better. Best of all, however, is knowing he traveled the world and represented himself and Seattle with an honesty and transparency that is refreshing and also emblematic of what we desire of our ambassadors.

There's a tendency to think that success and wealth changes people. So, too, can disappointment and being denied opportunity. For folks who've know Hahnemann before and after his career took flight, they say he came back fully intact.

"In terms of his kind heart, he hasn't changed a bit," surmises his first professional coach, Alan Hinton. "He's a big teddy bear and a huge man. But he's just as nice today as he was as a kid coming out of Seattle Pacific."

"Marcus loves the game, loves life and he loves people," observes his college coach, Cliff McCrath. "He's faithful, he's intensely loyal. There's an authenticity to his friendships, to who he is, to himself and others."

Gallery Photo: US Open Cup: Sounders v San Jose Earthquakes: Photos

No Mean Feats

Truth is, when the once-hairy Hahnemann (nicknamed Chewie for his resemblance to oversize shag carpet character known as Chewbacca in Star Wars) began shaving his head in 1998, little did he know he was dealing a serious setback to the bald-is-badass movement, at least off the field (while appearing more imposing on it).

Among the tales of Hahnemann playing the hero are his rescue of a woman from a train station mugging in Rochdale, England and, later, his aid to a stranded motorist in Reading. Before that, when Sounders teammate Chance Fry broke his leg in 1995, Marcus joined Bernie James in repairing Fry's roof before the fall rains.

"He's into community and doing the right thing," says Hinton. "He'll go to anybody's aid. But he can't run."

Every super hero has a weakness. Hinton and McCrath agree that Hahnemann's is running. Then again, when's the last time TV viewers saw Opta produce mileage figures for a keeper?

For an American soccer player with aspirations of playing abroad, Hahnemann's timing could not have been better. After helping SPU reach three NCAA Division II championship games in four years and winning the title with his shutout in the final as a senior, he was a three-time All-American holding a German passport and a hometown team waiting with a contract offer.

"It was clear he was a top goalkeeper," recalls Hinton, who was re-starting the Sounders in the A-League. Signing him was easy; MLS was still two years away. Similar to his Seattle Pacific start, Hahnemann split the chores early on before seizing the job altogether.

Hahnemann dominated the box and was a big reason Seattle won one league regular season and two cup finals in three years. More than making big saves, "He kicked the ball a million miles and he was a great character in the locker room," adds Hinton.

Hinton and McCrath both had contacts in England, where Kasey Keller was quickly making a name for himself and fellow Americans as a first-rate keeper for Millwall. Along with some training stints with Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa and a couple MLS seasons in Colorado, Hahnemann finally got the call to fly over the pond to Fulham.

Gallery Photo: Sounders vs. FC Dallas: Photos

The Less-Traveled Path

Of course, the straightest path to stardom would've been to beat out two Europeans, one of them Dutch international Edwin van der Sar, and become an instant Premier League starter. Instead, Hahnemann would need to prove himself at the lower reaches.

"I didn't think going to the third division was the best idea," Hahnemann remembers. "But I talked to Paul Barron, who coached at Northwest Soccer Camp and then the goalkeeper coach at Villa, and he said, ‘It's league football, it doesn't matter. It's going to be hard and rough and you need to go.'"

"That game at Man United I will remember, because everything just lined up. The 10 men, the saves and the result. The stars aligned."

A career is comprised of dozens of tiny steps, those taken and those avoided. By taking a step down, Hahnemann discovered the path to the promised land. Rochdale may have been fortysomething places below Manchester United in the all-England table, but it was just a few miles north of downtown Manchester. Within days of his debut for Rochdale, Hahnemann was being compared to United's French keeper Fabien Barthez in the press.

Another third-division loan stint with Reading followed. The Royals won promotion to the Championship in 2002, and after signing Hahnemann they went on to first flirt with promotion, then leave no doubt in 2006 when they won the division while dropping only two games and allowing only 32 goals.

Along the way he developed quite a following. After making a save fans responded with chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A!' Following matches he was handing his shirt to supporters. When the club stopped providing jerseys, Hahnemann bought his own.

His run at Reading earned him a recall to the national team after nine years and a place on both the Germany and South Africa World Cup squads. If there was a match made for pure posterity, though, it must be the opener to the 2007-08 campaign.

In its first season at the top flight in 102 years, Reading had risen to eighth. But on the final match day Hahnemann suffered a career-threatening fracture to two bones in his right hand. A bad break indeed, requiring surgery by a specialist in Colorado and a late start to preseason. With very little time to test the newly-mended (two metal plates, 16 screws) mitt, he stepped onto the turf at Old Trafford to face defending champion United.

Gallery Photo: Sounders 2014 Preseason Begins: Photos

When Stars Align

There are times when keepers can play out of their minds yet go home not only defeated but on the end of an embarrassing score line. And then there was August 12, 2007. Hahnemann stood tall, denying the Red Devils time and again. The Royals would go down to 10 men but Rooney, Scholes, Giggs and Ronaldo would not score despite 23 shots. Officially, Hahnemann was credited with 10 saves in the scoreless draw, but it seemed twice that.

"It seemed like he was diving all over the place, making saves," says Sounders FC goalkeeping coach and former Hahnemann teammate Tom Dutra. "I was watching on TV, thinking ‘That's the guy I know.' He was fantastic."

"That day," Marcus says, "everything worked. Some days, no matter what you do, somebody will score. I've let in three goals before and been named man of the match. But that game at Man United I will remember, because everything just lined up. The 10 men, the saves and the result. The stars aligned."

Amanda Hahnemann made the trip north to Manchester that day. She's seen her husband work tirelessly to reach those balls bound for the corners. Some days it results in a win, sometimes not.

"Obviously you have some success and for a while your feet aren't touching the ground," shares Amanda. "A big part of his longevity in the game, though, is not being ‘in it' all the time. Marcus is always pretty true to himself. He's really good at taking a step back, whether it's tinkering with cars, mountain biking or hunting. That's a large part of it, recovering from monumental wins and some huge losses. It keeps you grounded."

Gallery Photo: Sounders v Columbus: Photos

Answering the Call

When Sounders FC took the field in 2009, Hahnemann was at his peak. For once, however, the timing was off. Keller had wrapped up his European career and headed home to step between the sticks at the Brougham End. Hahnemann bided his time, finishing up with Reading, then Wolves and Everton.

In spring 2012, Marcus, Amanda and their two boys moved house to Bellevue. They had opened their homes to family, friends and neighbors for 12 years, sometimes hosting dozens for Thanksgiving dinner. Amanda and other Reading players' wives had raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity. They threw themselves into the adventure of living overseas, but it was time to come home.

And that might have been that. But a late summer phone call from Adrian Hanauer put retirement on hold. Marcus was invited to take a back-up and mentoring role with the Sounders.

It took a few weeks to get back in playing shape, but it was immediately clear to technical director Chris Henderson the skill set was intact. Henderson had difficulty getting any shots past Hahnemann in one of his first training sessions.

"I hadn't played in 3-4 months," Hahnemann recalls. "Chris told me I was always standing in the right spot; it was hard to score. I said that's my secret. It's not about running and fitness. It's about standing in the right spot and catching the ball."

Dutra says much of Hahnemann's play is instinctual, something that can't be coached. "He gets himself in such a good angle, and he's so good at standing big and making the save. You have to trust your instincts and that's Marcus, amazing instincts."

From the time he backed-up Hahnemann in 1996, Dutra had marveled at Hahnemann's agility for a man his size. He tells the story of a preseason training session, when Hahnemann was horsing around with the rest of the goalies in a shooting drill. "It was supposed to be a side-volley and Marcus turned it into an bicycle kick (goal). It was amazing. Everybody stopped and was just stunned.

"It's pretty amazing for a 240-pound guy, but that's how Marcus would win everyone over," says Dutra. "He'd just pull these things off."

At age 41, then 42 this past season, Hahnemann understood his role. Initially he was handed Open Cup chores. Then came injuries to Michael Gspurning and he returned to league play. A suspension gave him a start in the playoffs. His skills were sharp and he also had a calming presence on the pitch.

"We wanted someone who can play and not miss a beat, someone to push the first goalkeeper," Dutra explains. "That's not easy to get, but Marcus did it; he was quality."

Hinton remembers arguing on Hahnemann's behalf at Sheffield, back in the mid-90s. The Wednesday manager opted not to sign him. "I said, ‘Marcus is way better than your starting keeper. Your keeper must go flat out to make the save. But Marcus saves things easy. He plays so easy and he makes the big saves look easy.'"

Gallery Photo: US Open Cup: Sounders v San Jose Earthquakes: Photos

No Easy Role

The work ethic borne from that first year with the Sounders in 1994 was still intact, down to the final training sessions in the rains of this past November. It had begun with hauling the ball bag to and from the field at Memorial Stadium, of listening to tips from not only coaches but players, forwards, sharing their views on what he could do to thwart scoring threats. He listened, took criticism and went about making himself better.

Hahnemann had precious few opportunities to see action in his 21st and final season. Stefan Frei played every minute in league. After two starts in the Open Cup, a hamstring strain effectively knocked him out of that competition. When healthy, however, he kept making his case.

"I don't think he realized how difficult it is to step back and not be the (starter)," observes Amanda. "That was really hard. He's a professional through and through. That's what kept him playing hard all along: He wanted to play."

McCrath says the big man knows no other way.

"There isn't anyone who worked more diligently on the training field," he says. "His inner self has whispered to him about who Marcus is, and he doesn't betray Marcus."

The younger players must have taken note. How could they not? Although 20-some years their senior, there he was pushing, pushing to the very end.

"That's what I appreciated about him so much," Dutra shares. "He gave me everything at every training session. He was the perfect backup and at the same time he wasn't happy about not playing. He accepted that role, but kept pushing hard to be the No. 1."


What a Way to Go

Hahnemann's last turn in the net, as it turns out, came with still five months to go in the season. Still it was a night to savor. On a warm evening at Starfire, he made a big save late in extra time, then saved San Jose's final penalty attempt in the tiebreaker. Hearkening back to his Reading days, he stripped off his jersey, exchanging it with a fan for a cold beer.

Sentimentality is not for Hahnemann. He's looking forward. He has options in this next phase of life, some of them up in the air, either flying his plane, trimming limbs from a tall fir like a wannabe logger or constructing a tree house with all the works. Or maybe his feet will be firmly on terra firma, rebuilding engines, coaching or spreading goodwill on behalf of Sounders FC.

"He's going to want to do 50 things," says Amanda. "He's so excited."

No need for any planned parties either. In many ways life is a party for low-maintenance Marcus. "He's just a flat-out joyful creature," claims McCrath. "You didn't need to pat him on the back," adds Hinton. "He never wanted a lot of fuss."

The journey of 21 years, nearly 500 first-team matches for club and country that took him across the globe and brought him back home began with baby steps, with being open and friendly, even to strangers ("You'll be surprised what happens when you're friendly to people."); of realizing every little thing matters ("Throughout my career there were always little steps taking me places.").

Underlying all of it was a belief, a vision what could be, if you're willing to do the work.

"Never give up on your dreams," he says. "I'm 42 now and played pro 20-odd years, and I got cut from the state team when I was 17. So either the state team coach was an idiot, or I improved a lot, or a combination of both." Then a brief pause.

"It was probably both."

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian, this story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.

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