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Quakes' Donovan has star quality
The Oakland Tribune

SAN JOSE -- Landon Donovan is the boy wonder of American soccer. He's 20 years old and an emerging international star after scoring twice for the U.S. quarterfinalists in the recent World Cup.

Now he's leading the defending Major League Soccer champion San Jose Earthquakes, who play Dallas tonight at Spartan Stadium, back to the playoffs.

Fame has hit Donovan with the force of a tidal wave. He has appeared on four covers -- Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, GQ and Rolling Stone. He has been interviewed by David Letterman, Connie Chung and Regis Philbin. All this occurred in the space of a few months.

The media blitz has slowed down a bit, so Donovan was more relaxed and not so bleary-eyed when he sat down with Dave Newhouse of ANG Newspapers.

Q. How has your ego stayed in check with all this publicity?

A. First and foremost, my family. I have a twin sister who keeps me in check, along with my mom. So if I ever get out of line, they let me know. They use different ways. Like I'm just my sister's dorky brother. Or my mom's little boy. They just knock me down.

Q. Have they ever said that you're out of control?

A. I don't think they would say that. They'll just say, "Your head's not going to fit through the door if you don't shut up."

Q. What's the best advice you've received on handling fame?

A. The only thing that comes to mind is my mom always tells me to have fun with it.

Q. How has your life changed with this rash of attention?

A. I think it's made me a meaner person. Because a lot of times, I have to turn things down, tell people, "I'm tired and I have a game to play. I can't be doing this all the time." People don't know how to take that sometimes. They expect that I'm going to be there for them, and do this and do that. Unfortunately, you gotta look out for yourself, too.

Q. What are the benefits and pitfalls of being a celebrity?

A. The pitfalls are when you get seen by groups of people, and you're going somewhere, and they all want autographs. So I sit there and sign for 15, 20 minutes. If you sign one, you gotta sign them all. There are a lot of benefits. You go somewhere, someone recognizes you, and you eat for free. You golf for free. People with American Airlines hook me up with good rates on any flight for my family. You get everything.

Q. How different are you from a year ago?

A. A lot different. A lot wiser, but I'm learning that I just need to be a kid sometimes. Be myself. I try not to get too caught up in ... take it too serious. I try to surround myself with people who let me be just me when I'm away from soccer.

Q. What's the best way to stay a kid?

A. Go to the movies, whatever. Be with people who mess around, play around. Old friends from high school (in Redlands). Girlfriend, sister, friends like that. Don't talk to me about soccer. Just have fun.

Q. What is it exactly that you want from a soccer career?

A. I just want to be happy. I'm not a career-driven person. I'm very competitive, and I want to do well, but it's not the end of the world if I don't.

Q. What is the U.S.' ultimate potential in men's World Cup soccer?

A. I think we saw even this year we weren't the best team by far, but we outplayed a German team that lost in the finals. Who knows? You need a lot of luck, a lot of good bounces, a lot of good performances from different people consistently. But why not? Why can't we win it?

Q. What's it like seeing your image on four national covers?

A. Crazy. Especially me, because I was such a big sports fan growing up. I don't look at it like it's Sports Illustrated. I just look at it as "What the heck am I doing on the cover?"

Q. Are you a GQ dresser?

A. Sometimes. Not during the hot summer months, but I like to dress up and go out on a Sunday off day.

Q. What's the ideal car for you?

A. Probably a sports car. I'm not a big SUV guy. I drive a little BMW, so that kind of defines me.

Q. Why not a Bentley or a Rolls Royce?

A. When I start getting that kind of paycheck, maybe.

Q. You mentioned having a girlfriend. Is it a hard choice between dating someone who likes you as a soccer star and someone who likes you as a person, or do you care?

A. If you want to date someone to say you're dating Britney Spears, that's fine. But where you going to go with it? I think the object of dating is to find a find a person you can fall in love with and be with. If you're in it for another reason, then you're just fooling yourself.

Q. Of all the talk shows you've done, who made the biggest impression on you?

A. Connie Chung was so nervous because it was her first show (on "Connie Chung Tonight"). But she was completely sweet. Really, really nice. I really liked Craig Kilborn. I heard different things, but he was really nice, down to earth. With Letterman, he doesn't talk to you beforehand. You go out there, and you don't know what's going to happen. It's complete ad-libbed. The other (hosts) tell you, "Here's what I'm going to ask you."

Q. What's a great day for you away from soccer?

A. To me, there's nothing greater than to wake up on a Sunday morning in Redlands with nothing to do but play soccer with my friends in the street, shoot hoops or go for a run. And I just love being on the beach. I don't surf, but there's no worries on the beach.

Q. What part of the world would you like to see for the first time?

A. I've heard a lot about Aruba. I'm a big Caribbean fan. And it sounds cheesy, but I've never been to Hawaii. I think I'm too young to see castles in Switzerland and Germany.

Q. You grew up with a twin, an older brother, and a single mom who supported the family. How did your mother's example rub off on you?

A. She's been everything in my life. Everything that's me is her. For 25 years, she's taught in Fontana, one of the poorest areas in California, teaching special-ed kids how to read. She loves doing it, never has a complaint. She's a wonderful person.

Q. Your father was out of your life a good while, then re-emerged as a "soccer dad" after you became nationally known. How has that been?

A. My dad's great. For various reasons, he didn't get to see us a lot when we were young. He's probably the proudest guy. He's so proud of everything we do, always bragging, always showing pictures of his kids.

Q. You've grown up so fast, what with a single-parent home, signing your first professional soccer contract at 16, and having no time for college. Do you feel like you've missed out on anything?

A. Sometimes. Anything substantial? Probably not. But I probably missed out on a lot of fun. I didn't go to my high school proms. Didn't have a senior year of high school. But that's life. You make decisions. You just live.

Q. If you could be a teammate of any all-time soccer great, which one?

A. I always idolized Roberto Baggio of Italy. I'd love to have played with him. We're similar in that he's extremely dangerous in front of the goal. But he's also a deadly passer, has great vision, plays the game well. He's got everything.

Q. How have you've been able to be so good so young?

A. It's completely instinctual. For some reason, it's in my blood. More often than not, I know what to do in certain situations. I'm not saying I've worked harder than anyone else. It's just a talent that's there, and it was found at an early age.

Q. If you could sit down with any living celebrity, not necessarily in sports, who would it be and what would you like to know?

A. It would be Wayne Gretzky. What would I ask? What's it like to be you ... the greatest player in his sport. Just to get it from his perspective. I've tried to emulate him on and off the field. He's just special.

Q. In your next life, after soccer, what will you be doing?

A. Laying on the beach in a lounge chair, drinking Coronas. When that commercial comes on, I go "ahhhh."

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