Still Chasing That Ball of Tape

Brad Friedel. Yes, he’s still playing.

At the age of 43, the goalkeeper is on the verge of ending his professional career, which has lasted almost a quarter of a century. He is relaxed and at ease with what lies ahead.

Friedel has spent the last 20-plus years playing in England — for Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur — while also heading to three World Cups with the U.S. national team. Due to the decades spent in England, he has seen his accent become one of the finest examples of a “not quite British, not quite American” accents known to mankind, something he laughs off with a shrug.

Yet despite spending all of that time overseas, Friedel is still American. And as he slumps back in the sofa at Spurs’ training ground and recalls everything from his early days at UCLA, to his love for basketball, to his admiration for Major League Soccer, one gets the feeling that his strong connection to his homeland has never left this Ohio native. His family is settled in England but he is now ready to head home. And Freidel confirmed as much recently by signing a long-term deal with FOX Sports that will see him join their soccer coverage as an analyst, as he edges closer to ending his illustrious playing career and returning to the U.S.

“I’ve been speaking with FOX for the last couple of years and coinciding it (with) when I am finally going to hang up the gloves,” Friedel said. “It is an exciting time for myself. It has been many, many years living outside of the United States so I’m excited to come back and especially excited to go back to Los Angeles where I started my career a long, long time ago.”

While chatting, Friedel often answers questions with the term, “Listen,” something that’s very much worth doing when speaking with the veteran goalkeeper, as the man who could become the oldest player in Premier League history later this season has an incredible story to tell.


It’s a miracle that Friedel ever became a professional goalkeeper. Not because he didn’t have the talent. It just required more than a few lucky breaks along the way.

As a teenager he was not heavily recruited by college programs. He played other, more traditional, American sports such as basketball, ice hockey and tennis. But at the age of 17, he was spotted at the end of a small tournament in Virginia by a coach from UCLA. The rest, as they say, is history.

“He was the last player on my list to see play that day before I caught a flight home,” said Dean Wurzberger, now a coach with U.S. Soccer, recalling the first time he saw Friedel play. “I had a chance to speak to his youth coach earlier that day and he told me he was a player worth seeing and that he had great future potential. I was rushing to catch my flight home but caught the first half of his match and saw that he was a player with great physical tools, and it was clear we (UCLA) needed to follow up and see him play again and find out more about him.”

Wurzberger and Sigi Schmid did just that, with the current Seattle Sounders boss heading out on a trip to watch Friedel even after Wurzberger had left the program.

“Dean first saw him and then I knew he was playing in Cleveland,” recalls Schmid. “One of my former players, Doug Swanson, was playing professional indoor soccer in that area. So I sent him out to watch Brad play for his high school team and he called me back and said, ‘He’s pretty good.’”

The head coach at UCLA, Schmid was a busy man in the middle of a hectic season. But he had to see Friedel for himself.

“The way the college season worked then, you never flew out to look at players during the season because it was so busy,” Schmid explains. “(But) Brad is the one and only player I ever flew out during my season to watch play. I remember going to the high school field and it was one of these typical Americana scenes, with this mascot jet in the end zone and all kinds of stuff like that. I remember seeing him collect the first cross and he threw the ball to midfield. And I’m looking at that, thinking he was pretty confident. It took me that one time, plus what Dean and Doug had said, that made me realize there was something special about him.”

Friedel helped UCLA win a national championship in 1990 and won the 1992 Hermann Trophy as the best U.S. collegiate soccer player. But being spotted by Wurzberger in a field in Virginia still remains clear in his mind.

“Actually, he came over last year with a group of coaches,” Friedel laughed. “I was speaking and they asked me about how it started, and I was like, ‘Actually, the guy who saw me is sitting in the room!’ We had spoken about it last year, I’m not sure if his flight was late or he missed it, but he came back to the fields and just happened to see me in a small tournament in Virginia.”

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Friedel playing for the U.S. in 1990. (Getty Images)”]

Asked how much he owed Wurzberger for that initial faith in his talent, Friedel was grateful and appreciative but admitted luck plays a huge part in the career of any soccer player, especially at the start.

“Listen, everybody’s career has some luck. Everybody. Doesn’t matter if you are Lionel Messi or somebody else, if you’ve had some success in any professional sport you need some luck along the way,” Friedel said. “You have to. That was one of my times of luck. Another time was redshirting my first year, as Sigi Schmid had seen enough of me and recommended me to Lothar Osiander who was coaching the U.S. Olympic team. That was another bout of luck. I ended up playing in the ’92 Olympics and that was where I was seen by Ronnie Fenton from Nottingham Forest and that set me on my way to England … That’s how it all transpires. I think every story in every sport will have an element of luck.”

Maybe Friedel is right about the luck aspect, but at the core of it all was the hard work he put in during his formative years spent at UCLA.

“He always trained really hard and was really committed to training. I remember one day at training…” Schmid laughs, “I was working with the attackers at one end and my goalkeeper coach was down at the other end of the field. All of a sudden Brad comes walking past me and I go, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘They can’t hit crosses well down there.’ And I said, ‘Tell them to hit better crosses.’ Then he says, ‘No, I’ve had enough.’ I told him to get back down there and take those crosses! Doing things well was always really important to him from the opening day.”

At the very beginning of it all, moving from Bay Village, Ohio to Los Angeles was important. However, his mother, Sue, had plenty of concerns about how her son would cope with moving across the country. Recalling Friedel’s recruitment process, former U.S. national team goalkeeper and UCLA’s goalkeeping coach at the time, Tim Harris, (now the Senior Vice President of Business Operations for the Los Angeles Lakers) revealed how hard he had to work to convince Friedel’s mother it was a good idea for her son to play for UCLA.

“He’s coming from relatively small town Ohio to Los Angeles and I recall his Mom was pretty concerned that her son was coming to LA, to a big school,” Harris said. “She was concerned what it was going to be like and how he would adjust. I remember spending a lot of time giving his Mom assurances that we would look after him.”

But Friedel was never likely to go off the rails. This was evident to Harris the first time he met him.

“The first time I met (Friedel) was when he came out for his recruiting trip to UCLA,” Harris continued. “He’s 17 at the time; even when he was 17 he had this emotional maturity. He’s always had this sense of calm, and that was what was most impressive about him at 17. It is impressive about him now. Even when he was 17, he had a beyond-his-years emotional maturity.”

Friedel redshirted for the Bruins during his freshman year as Anton Nistl finished out his stellar career. But that’s where the work began for Friedel, as Harris became his first full-time goalkeeping coach, even after he left his job at UCLA. Friedel revealed that Harris not only played a key part in helping his development as a player, but as a person.

“He was my goalkeeping coach at UCLA, when I went there,” Friedel said. “I had some great coaches in other sports in hockey (and) basketball but as far as soccer, (Harris) was my first proper goalkeeping coach. He took me under his wing. He helped mold me into the goalkeeper and person I am today. The first two years especially, I used to wake up at 5 a.m. and drive to Manhattan Beach from UCLA to train and then come back, go to class and then take a nap before training with the team. Lot of work back then,” said Friedel, smiling as he took a sip of coffee.

Harris has fond memories of those early morning workouts with Friedel too, and talked about how he was blown away by the teenager’s tremendous work ethic.

“At the time I had moved on to sports management but Brad still wanted to train. So I said, Brad that’s fine. I can’t get up to UCLA at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, but I can get out to Manhattan Beach at 7 a.m.,” Harris explained. “And I’m thinking when I threw it out there, he’s a pretty special kid … but there’s no way a college kid is going to drive from UCLA for a 7 a.m. workout on a regular basis. He didn’t have a car, he had to sort one out … So he’s getting up before 6 a.m. and driving down to Manhattan Beach for an hour-and-a-half session, then he’s back on the freeway in rush hour, back to UCLA. Shower. Go to class. Then he has to get in his UCLA soccer requirements of lifting and practicing with the team. Then he has to hit the books and then there’s a social life … The next morning the alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m. and he’s in the car again.”

Harris also revealed plenty of amusing anecdotes about Friedel’s commitment.

[insert-quote text=”He would take the tape, put it to his left side and dive. Then get up and put it to his right side. Back and forth. With a piece of tape. In a dark stadium. By himself.” align=center]

“One time he had borrowed somebody’s car and it had rained real hard the night before and whoever’s car it was, they left the sunroof open or something and the car had about two inches of water on the floorboards, at least,” Harris laughed. “And he drove it with the water sloshing all around, then we had our session and he gets back in the ‘water car’ to get back to UCLA. This is the stuff he did, a lot of people don’t know this.”

When he first turned up at UCLA, Friedel was a pure athlete who entertained the idea of going to college to play basketball or tennis. Harris revealed that UCLA’s basketball team invited Friedel to try and walk on. The Bruins were a Top 25 team that year, but getting better as a goalkeeper was the only thing on Friedel’s mind. Day and night.

“He was dating a girl when he was at UCLA and she told me this story,” Harris chuckled. “One evening she had wanted to go for a run at the track stadium. So Brad said, ‘I’ll come along,’ just to hang out, or probably just to walk because it was dark and there was no lights. So she is doing her running and she looks around, and she’s like, ‘Where’s Brad?’ After a while she sees him in the middle of the track stadium on the grass field, he had gathered together some loose athletic tape on the field and had crushed it into a little ball. He would take this ball of tape and he would set it off to one side of him and then he’d get into a position and he would dive and parry the piece of tape. And he would take the tape, put it to his left side and dive. Then get up and put it to his right side. Back and forth. With a piece of tape. In a dark stadium. By himself.”

That story about a piece of tape in the track stadium at UCLA at night tells you all you need to know about Friedel’s insatiable work ethic.

“That’s why he has been doing this so long. He’s a guy who will dive after a piece of tape when he’s 19 years old, while his girlfriend is running,” Harris said. “Nobody does that! In this day and age, nobody does that. Now it is crazy, the pendulum has swung so far that everyone needs proper training. Goalkeepers are going to say, ‘I’m not diving after tape. I need goals, balls, cones and a trainer.’ This is why he’s where he’s at.

“He dives at a piece of tape in the dark.”


After excelling in college and being involved with the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 and the ’94 World Cup squad, Friedel finally sealed his passage to Europe with Turkish giants Galatasaray after work permit issues scuppered his stints at Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest. He never played for either team, but believes that situation made him strong. He raves about his time spent in Istanbul.

“Looking back to Galatasaray, being a kid from Cleveland going to live in Istanbul, that was probably the best year-and-a-half of my life, learning wise, off the field. It was a great experience and I look back on it with fond memories,” says Friedel. “Those are some crazy, crazy supporters. The Galatasaray-Fenerbache rivalry, there is no other rivalry I’ve seen that lives up to that sort of intensity. I’ve been at the Old Firm ones as a supporter and obviously been involved in Liverpool-Everton, Aston Villa-Birmingham, Arsenal-Tottenham, they all have their edge to them. But the Galatasaray-Fenerbache, that’s at a different level. Being able to play through that, you can pretty much play through anything. I found the Turkish people very endearing and very warm. For myself I couldn’t have been happier, and you knew if someone was a Fenerbache supporter they weren’t going to be your friend. That was fine. Overall, the neutral fans and fans of Galatasary are unbelievable and I still stay in touch with quite a few of them today. Funny enough, I was just looking through some archive photos the other day with my family. We pulled out a few of Galatasaray and it brings back some really good memories.”

But what about the work permit issues in England? Surely that had to be tough for a 20-something American goalkeeper who kept getting knocked back at every hurdle?

“After the 1994 World Cup, then came the process of trying to find him a dang team,” Harris explained. “And he had all of these moves to teams like Nottingham Forest and elsewhere but since then Gordon Taylor, the head of the PFA, has spoken to Brad about how difficult they made it for him to get in and he ends up being one of their longest-ever professionals. He had all these problems … but he wasn’t going to be denied. He had worked so hard for this opportunity. Again it comes back to this emotional maturity because at that time he is 20, 21. Most kids would have packed it in and would have been too frustrated.”

“When we were going through that process,” Harris continued, “we were at somebody’s place on Manhattan Beach. It was right on the beach, we were all sitting outside enjoying the view. Brad is inside watching some U-19 U.S. Cup game on TV because he’d rather do that than sit outside in the sun. The guy was not going to be denied.”

After spending time in Istanbul and then playing for Brondby in Denmark, Friedel finally landed at the club he supported as a boy, Liverpool, making all of those paperwork issues worthwhile.

“The work permit issues … It was very discouraging. A very difficult time,” Friedel explains, looking down at his shoes, as he handles a coffee cup gently in his gigantic hands as if it was an egg. “You always wondered why top managers thought you were good enough but the department of education and employment had different rules. It was a very frustrating time but also when you look back at it, it makes you a little bit stronger.  It is set up much better today as they have an appeals process. And the appeals panel now, there are actual football bodies on it so if you present your case very strongly then you have a good chance of getting enough help. I’ve helped many American players over the years get their work permits.”

If you look back through the history books, Friedel was part of an elite group of U.S. players who helped pave the way for Americans to head to England and the rest of Europe to make their way as professionals. The first wave of Americans to play overseas were the likes of Friedel, Kasey Keller, John Harkes and a few others who all arrived in soccer’s homeland with a point to prove: Americans can play. Friedel can rattle off a long list of American players who came over in the 90s to try and crack Europe and whether or not they succeed or failed. “Every time one of those guys came over and did a decent job it helped pave the way for American players.”

That said, gaining respect was not easy, as Friedel reflected on the role he, and others, had on helping the modern day Americans playing in Europe.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Friedel playing for Liverpool in 1998. (Getty Images)”]

“It was tough going. It was really hard not just to get a work permit but tough for American players in general. Sitting here in an interview talking about it doesn’t do it justice. There were always guys coming over and trying to make it. Every single time a player came over, it helped. Whether they made it or not.” Friedel said. “Looking back on it, that is probably one of the proudest things in my career. I was one of those founding members, if you like, that helped pave the way for American players. Claudio Reyna did the same, Brian McBride did the same a couple of years later. But they had very good careers here in Europe. Alexi [Lalas] was probably the biggest name at the time and he went into Serie A when it was the biggest league in Europe. That was big news. Then he chose to go back to MLS, which helped the notoriety of MLS at the time. Everyone had a hand in it, but looking back on everything it is probably one of the proudest things about being involved for the U.S. Coming from Bay Village, Ohio, to then having the ability to help out, if you like. If you take the performances of Kasey [Keller] and performances of myself, of Juergen Sommer, we would have paved the way for Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and a kid like (Southampton’s American goalkeeper) Cody Cropper, if you like. And it goes on and on.”

“If you look at strikers,” Friedel continued, “there will be strikers out there (and) coaches will say, ‘He’s very much like Brian McBride.’ And they will go into the visa process and say this is what they need and they will be able to relate to American players. Whereas before there was no American player to relate to at all. It was, ‘Yeah, this kid is playing amateur soccer in California or he is at the University of Virginia’… It was all of us back then, we all helped pave the way for guys who are playing now.”

U.S. national team players like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore have a lot to thank Friedel and his band of American pioneers who stuck it out in the 90’s to build a good name for American soccer players in Europe.

When it comes to Howard, damning accusations were present in his book which was released recently about Friedel trying to block his move to Manchester United back in 2004. Friedel vehemently denied the claims and to clear all of this up once and for all, Howard has since released a statement that says his version was incorrect and harmful words written against Friedel in his book will be extracted.


In all, Friedel made 82 appearances for the U.S. national team. He went to the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups. For most of his time with the Stars and Stripes, Friedel was embroiled in a battle with two other ‘keepers for the starting spot. Kasey Keller and Tony Meola.

Both of them earned 100-plus caps for the USMNT, but when speaking to Meola, he revealed perhaps Friedel’s greatest strength and one of the main reasons why he has flourished in England for over two decades as a professional.

“Brad has always been a pure shot-stopper,” Meola said. “I’ve said that for years. It was always myself, Kasey and Brad and if it was just about pure shot-stopping from the top of the 18, that wasn’t a competition I was going to win. (Friedel) was much better at that than I was. For lack of a better term, he’s a very English style goalkeeper. Big guy, rangy, good shot-stopper. No frills in the back, he isn’t a guy who was going to take chances and flick the ball over someone’s head. Very straightforward. It is no surprise that he was attractive to English teams.”

Friedel retired from the U.S. national team in February 2005 at the age of 33. Now, at the age of 43, he’s still playing in the PL but has no regrets about calling it quits with the USMNT when he did.

“After the 2002 World Cup I took a year off basically, and then I only played one more game after that. I went in away at Poland. I think it was me and Marcus Hahnemann … Do I wish I would have kept going? No,” Friedel says bluntly. “My decisions that I’ve made in my career were made for the right reasons. When the teams were rolling out for the World Cup finals, you get a bit of an itch. But then you quickly go back and say, ‘Yeah, but I would have been doing the qualifying and the trips back and forth.’ The World Cup is not just the World Cup, it is the four years leading up to it. I had some great times with the national team, and the players there. And some interesting times with a couple of the staffs that were there and some learning experiences that were remarkable. When all is said and done, I’m not giving to live on woulda, coulda, shouldas.”

Friedel is remembered fondly for becoming the first ‘keeper since 1974 to save two separate penalty kicks at a World Cup finals tournament during the USA’s run to the quarterfinals in 2002. Leading up to that tournament in Japan and South Korea, competition between Friedel and Keller for the number one jersey was intense. In a pre-tournament camp in North Carolina things boiled over between two of the greatest American goalkeepers to play the game, briefly.

“I joke about this story with Bruce Arena, but I was probably the guy who was brought in [as third choice] because I was the most capable of separating those two if anything were to happen,” Meola laughed. “It boiled over one time in North Carolina in the camp. Those two got up in each other’s personal space, I guess. It took myself and George Gelnovatch [head coach at UVA] to separate them. I don’t recall how it all started but it was quick, over and then back to peace and harmony. But I think Bruce Arena was happy I was part of that group at that particular moment!”

Just like any competitor at the top of his sport, Friedel wanted to play and wanted to win, at all costs. He loved rising to the occasion to perform. Reflecting on which stadium was his favorite to play in throughout his career, Friedel answered without a second of hesitation.

“I loved playing at the Azteca Stadium. What a place,” said Friedel, with a beaming smile on his face when recalling the home of Mexico’s national team. “The atmosphere, the hatred towards Americans, 120,000 people … What a place to play.”

Friedel proved himself to be worthy of leading the U.S. into such hostile settings. When polling experts about where Friedel ranks all-time among U.S. Soccer greats, the consensus is that he’s right up there.

“In terms of goalkeepers he’s in the elite of the U.S. goalkeepers,” Schmid said. “The U.S. is very blessed that they had a really good run of goalkeepers there with Keller, Meola and Friedel. Each one has his strengths. For me Brad was always the guy who had more of the complete package. So I think he’s right there as one of the top goalkeepers ever. In terms of playing-wise as well. The interesting part is that those three ‘keepers all had a ton of caps and played in the same era. If there would have only been one strong goalkeeper in that group, that guy would have had 200 caps. Brad, in terms of U.S. soccer players, is in the elite and is in the top 10 of U.S. players all-time.”

Naturally, that respect for Friedel’s achievements extend beyond the USA, as he is extremely highly regarded in England as well.

In fact, there’s something that I personally remember from the start of the 2013-14 Premier League season that really speaks to Friedel’s character. Wandering around in the depths of Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park stadium following the opening game of the season, Tottenham had just won 1-0, and I came across Friedel with new signing Etienne Capoue in the tunnel. Friedel was on his cell phone, arranging things for Spurs’ new signing from France and making him feel at home right away. Which is the kind of guy Friedel is. Always around to help, and someone the younger guys look up to.

And then recently, when meeting Friedel one afternoon in Spurs’ immaculate new training facility in the suburbs of north London, Tottenham’s manager Mauricio Pochettino walked past and whistled at us as we were chatting away on the sofa. Friedel gave Pochettino the thumbs up and a wink. Moments later, a random member of the office staff walked past and Friedel gave her a warm welcome. It went on and on. From first team manager to a club staffer, the respect shown by everyone at Spurs towards Friedel was immense. During his long career, the way he’s conducted himself and performed has earned him respect in the country which soccer calls home.


That accumulated respect is down to Friedel’s legacy of being reliable and hard-working. And, for a number of years, being Mr. Consistent. If you speak to anyone about Friedel’s career, especially in England, the first words that come out of their mouths are either “machine,” “beast” or “superhuman.” All of those are true.

In 2012 Friedel set the record for the most consecutive performances by a Premier League player with 310 games, after playing in every match from the start of the 2004 season until the start of 2012. He did not miss a PL game for eight whole seasons, as he kept his ageing body supple with yoga and whatever else he could do to prolong his career. Freidel now holds many records in English soccer. He is the oldest player to play for both Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur throughout their illustrious histories, and if he plays for Spurs before the end of the current PL season he will break John Burridge’s record as the league’s oldest ever player at the age of 43 years and 162 days.

Sit back and think about all that. For a player to be able to go without injury for eight years, in the modern era. That’s unheard of.

Friedel’s longevity is the first thing that pops into people’s minds, and rightly so, because to still have a Premier League contract at the age of 43 is quite remarkable. But the people who know him best aren’t surprised that his incredible career is still going on.

“Speaking to Brad over the years, early on it was also apparent that he wanted to make his career in Europe, and in particular in England, and he has been able to do that and done very well with that,” recalls Meola. “It is no surprise that he is still playing now because he was always very, very fit. For a goalkeeper, he was always at the front of the line for running. He was a runner… those things generally don’t come easy for goalkeepers! It was apparent early on that he would have a long career and a very successful one.”

Sigi Schmid wasn’t surprised Friedel’s career has lasted as long as it has.

“He was a guy that I felt had the abilities to go and play in Europe and the fact the he lasted as long as he did is always a little bit of a surprise, but it also isn’t because of how dedicated he is,” Schmid said. “I know yoga became a big part of his routine towards the end and he has just always been a good trainer and very dedicated. He’s a big guy, so a lot of time getting down low and stopping shots going in close to his body was difficult. If he took a goal that way, he wanted to work on that. He really improved in that area and was just really committed in everything he did.”

Back in 2008 Stoke City’s current manager Mark Hughes, who played with and then coached Friedel at Blackburn Rovers, spoke about the American’s reliability and his incredible longevity.

“Brad stands comparison to any of the keepers that I was fortunate to play with, such as Peter Schmeichel and Neville Southall,” Hughes said. “He’s right in the top bracket. The continuity and consistency that he’s been able to display is a credit to him and how he goes about his every-day work. Brad’s one of the best professionals that I’ve come across as a player, and certainly as a manager. He’s at the top of the tree because he works extremely hard to stay there. He embraces new things and new thinking, such as yoga, and anything that could give him an advantage to prolong his career. I think Brad embraces things more readily than the other guys to push down a certain route. He’s young in his mind and also surrounded by young guys.”

After signing with Aston Villa at the age of 37, Friedel was lauded by his manager Martin O’Neill for several superb displays which helped the Villains finish in the top six during his time at the club.

“He was really class. He’s come up big for us,” O’Neill said after Villa beat West Ham back in 2008. “I was comparing that to Peter Schmeichel being sensational for Manchester United and I played with two unbelievable keepers — Pat Jennings and Peter Shilton. Friedel has not played all those games for Blackburn and us not to be considered as good as anyone else. He was outstanding and it would have been something special to have beaten him.”

When he arrived at Tottenham in 2011, Friedel even got Spurs boss Harry Redknapp to do a bit of yoga and the other players followed suit. Redknapp didn’t take to it, but Friedel’s unique routines have become commonplace in his success in the Premier League for over two decades.

In fact, when he looks back at his entire club career, the only place he didn’t shine was at Liverpool. For whatever reason, it just didn’t work out for Friedel at the club he grew up supporting in Ohio.

“The funny thing is that I grew up a Liverpool supporter in the States and the worst that I played in my career was probably my first 10 months that I was at Liverpool,” Friedel said, shaking his head but with a wry smile on his face. “I just had a real tough time finding my feet. I played some good games and some bad games. But looking back on my career, one of my strengths as a goalkeeper has always been consistency. And at Liverpool I was anything but consistent during that first 10-12 months. I know there was a lot of change going on at the club with Roy Evans as the manager and then Gerrard [Houllier] and Roy as co-managers. Maybe looking back on it, because I was younger and from a goalkeeping standpoint I wasn’t strong enough to be more of an individual in all these changing circumstances that were going on and I just got caught up in it. With the inconsistency of the club came the inconsistency of me. Who knows?”

“But going to the club you support, and then the latter games I played for the club were quite good but I had to move on. I was desperate to go play but I was gutted I was leaving Liverpool,” Friedel continued. “But you have to make a professional decision and the best for your career and I needed to go play football. They had bought Sander Westerveld and he was playing. So I had to go.”


Throughout his career many rumors circulated that Friedel would go home and play in MLS. That never panned out, for various reasons, but Friedel still spends plenty of time watching North America’s domestic league grow and flourish from across the pond and is delighted to see what it has become.

“Looking back there was no real substantive professional league, no MLS,” Friedel said of his late teens. “The MLS today compared to 1996, it is just night and day. There are better opportunities now. We didn’t have that. It was, go to college, play semi-pro and get a job.”

“Now, as a young American player, you don’t have to come to Europe to have a career anymore. When I was growing up you did,” he continued. “If you wanted a top career you had to come to Europe. That was a fact. Foreign players that were going back to MLS were on their last legs. It was a retirement league. Some of the players may still say that now, but it has evolved.”

Asked if he has seen the perception towards MLS change in recent years, Friedel was extremely positive.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Friedel celebrates the U.S.’s win over Mexico with Landon Donovan in the 2002 World Cup. (Getty Images)”]

“Yep. But the reality of the league has changed as well” he explains enthusiastically. “It is not a simple league to go back to anymore. If you have lost your legs, you will get found out. Guys like a Robbie Keane, that’s why he prospers over there because he still has his legs and is such a clever player that he will be able to deal with it well. Frank Lampard and David Villa, you will see that when they come over there. They both have a lot of legs left in them and will do very well as foreign players. That will in turn help the U.S. players. If you are a U.S. player now and you are in the Olympic or national team and you are 19, 20 (then maybe you’ll) have the opportunity to go to a second division team in Holland (where) you may or you may not play. Or you have the chance to stay and play in MLS, it is better to stay in MLS.”

According to Harris, Friedel’s plan was to return to MLS at the age of 35 and see out his playing days in his homeland. But that just never materialized.

“We used to say, ‘Let’s get to 35 and then come back to the MLS for a couple of years and then that will be that’” Harris revealed. “We used to visualize a scenario where he would get to 35, come back to MLS and we will somehow engineer it where I can come and be the goalkeeping coach and that’s how we will finish. To finish sort of how we started. But somewhere along the way the masterplan didn’t work and he kept staying and staying. That final MLS thing is never going to happen. But never say never… not with him!”

After playing alongside MLS’ leading goal-scorer Landon Donovan for the U.S. national team, I asked Friedel about his thoughts on Donovan’ legacy and the fact that he played the vast-majority of his career in MLS rather than gutting it out overseas.

“My take on all this is that, if your mindset is not right then you are not going to play well. Wherever you go. In Landon’s case, I think he made the most of his career doing what he did. He came over on a couple of loan spells and did really well. But he knew in the back of his mind that he was going back and that’s where his mind was happy,” says Freidel. “He had an incredible career with the national team and his legacy will be there forever within the MLS.

“I don’t think it is down for you or I to say what was right or wrong,” continues Friedel. “I think everyone knows that if you are a player and you have the opportunity to go and play with Real Madrid and you are going to play all the time and you are happy doing it, then that would be the ultimate and you would be one of the world icons of the game. But if you have the opportunity to play somewhere and you’re not happy doing it, and you don’t know if it’s right and you want to be somewhere else, then you shouldn’t be at that place. That is a fact … That is a fact. It is going to affect the way you play. It is going to affect the way you act. It is going to affect the way you feel and you shouldn’t be there. It is not for somebody else to decide where (Donovan) plays. Looking back on his career, do I think he chose to play in the right place? Yeah. He played really well for them and set records everywhere.”

Speaking with Friedel about MLS, it is clear his passion for the league remains and he recalls his one season in the league with Columbus Crew in 1996-97 with great pride. We discussed at length the difficulties in having an August-May schedule in MLS, the likes of DeAndre Yedlin heading to Tottenham from Seattle and Friedel was insistent that there was one area in which MLS needs to improve: coaching at the youth level.

Asked if he would like to play a part in helping develop young players in North America, Friedel was coy. But given his coaching badges and work with Spurs’ youngsters in recent years, it seems like an area close to his heart.

“In soccer, I think you never say never with a scenario,” Friedel explained. “The reason that I know a lot about youth development is that during the last three-and-a-half-years of it, I have been coaching here with the academy. The youth development side of things is something that is in my mind but I also think that because I’ve been in the game for so long, I understand the psyche of a senior professional as well. Where I see myself fit in is quite a big spectrum.”


At this point, Friedel has made his decision to move into the media realm, as the door is creeping shut on his playing days. He knows it, and the decision about his next move has arrived. Yet he is at ease with the future and doesn’t seem scared or afraid of leaving his playing days behind and moving on to the next chapter in his life. That’s probably because Friedel has put himself in a phenomenal position to move into whichever aspect of the game he so chooses.

For a long time he’s had an active role in the media, with the likes of FOX in the USA and BBC Sport and Setanta in Europe. Friedel’s relaxed demeanor sits well with the audience and his vast experience as a player enables him to instantly gain respect from whoever is watching. A career in media now beckons after his playing days are over.

“As far as the television, I was asked many moons ago to go on Match of the Day and Sky. It is just something that is enjoyable to me,” Friedel says. “I think I have always tried to be accountable for what I say and I mean what I say. So if somebody wants to come back and wants an answer (from) me, I try not to say things flippantly. I try to see it with an education behind it, but I do enjoy it.  Almost all of my work is studio, analytical, being a pundit. I was at the World Cup with the BBC doing things from talk shows to (co-commentaries) to Match of the Day. I enjoy the studio work far more than the other stuff. I like the camaraderie, the family feel to it. You are usually in with some fellow or ex-pros that you haven’t seen for a long time. I do enjoy it.”

Alongside his media work, Friedel has also been working hard to get his coaching badges in England. He has the UEFA A license and is currently completing his UEFA Pro license, the highest badge you can get. Along with working with the youth teams at Tottenham over the past years during his coaching education, Friedel has taken a lot of time to think about his next step.

Friedel’s coaching badges have helped him become ‘a sponge’ in his own words. It doesn’t matter that he’s been playing professionally for over two decades, he still wants to learn and grab whatever he can from the game that has given him so much too, and vice-versa.

“You ask me why and what is the end product [of getting his UEFA Pro license],” Friedel said, thoughtfully. “In any of the jobs I go into, it helps. It doesn’t matter whether you are a part owner of a club, or a coach or in the media. Every course you take and person you meet who keeps you current with the latest things people are doing, you are always trying to get that extra edge to make yourself the best that you can be in whatever it is you do.”

Just like the kid messing around with the piece of tape at UCLA, Friedel is doing everything he can to be the best.

“The coaching qualifications, it is not about having a piece of paper. It is about actually going in and doing the work,” explains Friedel. “(It’s taken) many, many years to (get to) the point I am at. Okay, I’ve done it a little bit pedantically as I am still a player, but I have read every book that I can, met with every person that I can. I have tried to attend every match that I can. I try to watch (everything) from the U-9’s to the developmental side, as much as I can. I am just trying to be a sponge and absorb everything. I am not pro-English in the way that they play. I have been all over Europe and watched the different academies play. I have spoken to many people in Germany, Holland and Spain, gathered as much data as I possibly can.”

What about the man who first spotted Friedel in that field in Virginia back in the 1980’s? What does he think of Friedel’s career and his next move?

“I saw him play and develop over his collegiate career into one the top goalkeepers this country has ever produced. And that was all from the result of a simple opportunity and what he decided to make of it,” Wurzberger says. “Brad has to be considered in the top three ‘keepers the USA ever produced.  He has had success at every level of play and I think he will also have a successful career as a manager or a coach if he chooses to do that.  He has a lovely demeanor and is such a humble character. “

Schmid recalled a story about Friedel’s arm span being such that he could touch the goalpost while standing as a teenager. But other than this, nothing seems to surprise the Sounders coach when it comes to the Spurs ‘keeper, and that includes his future.

“Every time you did something with him, you’d find out another skill that he had,” Schmid said. “For me the number one thing that I will always remember with Brad is just his dedication to working and working on something when he thought he gave up a bad goal. I mean, he was just relentless on trying to train on that. That is what sets great players apart.”


When you are around Friedel, you can’t help but be relaxed.

When we spoke I found myself lounging back, arm up on the sofa, and the minutes ticked by as we spoke about his career (believe me, that takes a while) and the soccer world in general. His calm demeanor means he is a likable character, and he’s made so many friends on and off the field over the years that you know his next step in soccer will be every bit as successful as his career as a pro.

Harris, for one, doesn’t expect Friedel to waste any time in moving on from playing.

“His stone doesn’t gather a lot of moss,” Harris explains. “When he finally is done, there’s not going to be a lot of down time. He doesn’t deal well with down time. When it is done, he will be moving along. There won’t be a break. He’s going to move on to his next gig. His ego isn’t so much that he is not unwilling to not be the smartest guy in the room. Meaning, his ego is such that he allows himself to be the dumbest guy in the room so that allows him to learn. And then grow. That takes a lot of maturity to do that and to have the emotional equity built up inside you to say, ‘I’m okay being the dumb guy in the room.’”

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Friedel with Spurs. (Getty Images)”]

Meola, meanwhile, believes Friedel has a lot to give to the next generation of American players.

“I would think somewhere along the (way) we will see him in a camp with at least the youth national team,” Meola said. “He is a resource for U.S. Soccer and U.S. soccer players and it would be crazy not to use that resource and let it go to the waste.”

Wurzberger agrees.

“He seems to have a passion to give back to the game. And I am sure he will have a positive impact with this endeavor. He will continue to impact the game in a positive manner.”

And Harris is adamant that whatever Friedel moves on to, he will make a success of it.

“He will dive after the ball of tape, he will do whatever he has to do to achieve what he has to achieve. Whether he is diving after a ball of tape in the dark or driving in a flooded automobile for a 7 a.m. workout or going all over Europe to do a training course. He does what has to be done.”

As for his future in the game, Friedel will move into media, but he will also keep working on coaching and continue to be involved in various projects. His options are endless. But one thing remains: Does Friedel miss the USA?

“Sometimes,” Friedel admits. “My Dad is quite ill, so not being able to be back as much for him, these last five years he has been healthy on and off. Those times you wish you were back, those times are testing. As far as life, my kids were all born over here. This is all they know. I suppose if they were a little older and they were born in America and then we came over here, there would be more of an itch to get back. In the summers when we go back, we are always talking with each other saying, ‘Should we stay?’” laughs Friedel. “Because there are some amenities over there that are not available over here but there are also some areas of England that are wonderful that aren’t on offer in the States. The big exception is the sun, the weather. But I must say the weather is much better in London. I spent many years up North … Wow, it was cold up there!”

Reflecting on his incredibly long career, Friedel revealed that he and his wife sometimes sit back and are amazed at how it has all panned out.

“You just can’t believe … I firmly believed at 35 I would be done and dusted and back home,” Friedel says. “Then you get the contract offer and you feel good, so you’re like, ‘Eh, let’s do it!’ Then at 37, two clubs, both progressive clubs, put in offers for you, and with Blackburn at the time I knew I was going to leave. Again I wasn’t desperate to leave, but I knew they weren’t going forward. Listen, it just happened that at 40 I got another two-year offer and that’s just how it goes.”

Now, as Friedel is expected to call time on his playing days in May, it seems as though it is finally time for one of the greatest soccer players the USA has ever seen to return home.

“I’ve been doing quite a bit of media work and I always knew I would still be involved in soccer,” says Friedel. “I am still going to finish my UEFA Pro license as I feel that will help with my analytical and punditry side. Soccer is in my blood and I will be involved in it in many capacities for the remainder of my working life. With the way soccer has grown in MLS and the notoriety of the national team, I think it is a great time to come back.”

From starting up at 17 at UCLA to being 43 and playing at Tottenham Hotspur, what a journey it has been for Friedel and those who have watched him and played a part along the way. Now, it’s on to the next step, as his next journey in the soccer realm is just beginning. Could it turn out to be even more fruitful than his playing days? If it is anywhere near as successful as what he’s managed in England, then Friedel will play a hugely important role for soccer in the U.S. for decades to come.

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    Peter King goes 1-on-1 with Cowboys’ Jason Witten

    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
    Originally aired on: NBC

    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has done it all during his 15-year NFL career. The two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards and is third in franchise history in touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer let Peter King of The MMQB and Football Night in America behind the scenes for a look into Witten’s recovery process. The end result is an incredibly rare shot of what it takes for an NFL player to take his body from gameday to gameday and perform at their absolute best week after week.

    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

    Jeremy Roenick was as outspoken as he was talented during his 20-year NHL career.

    Now 47 years old and almost a decade out of the league, the NHL on NBC analyst opens up to Kathryn Tappen about trouble with coaches, life after getting traded, close family ties and much more in the debut episode of “Off Script.”

    Once more, with feeling

    NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN,, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

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    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?