NEXT 2006

Updated: December 7, 2006, 12:24 PM ET
By ESPN The Magazine

Bush | Young | Wie | U.S.A. Soccer

NFL coaches were forced to answer questions about losing intentionally for a chance at drafting Reggie Bush this April.

Who's NEXT? It's a simple question, yet there's no simple answer. We know Reggie Bush has talent so rare he must be seen to be believed. But you're thinking he wasn't even the Rose Bowl's best player.

We know Michelle Wie has the power to change not only a sport, but the world. And we know the world thinks U.S. Soccer has arrived, and it's time all of us noticed.

Choose just one as NEXT? That's no fun. What's fun is fighting about it. Let's get it on.

CAN'T TAKE YOUR REGGIE BUSH
by TIM KEOWN
We are a society of comparisons, which is why Reggie Bush represents a national crisis. Frankly, we don't know what to do with him. Everybody has to be somebody else, and this guy just won't play along. Bush defies comparison and category, leaving us lost. It's a combination of our obsession with prediction and the comfort of believing that everything we're seeing is a version of something we've seen before. But we're all alone on this one, with just our eyes and our brains. Sadly, we don't have much imagination.

It's easy to say that the former USC tailback/receiver/returner is a taller, thinner and faster LaDainian Tomlinson, or a smaller, faster, more elusive Bo Jackson. But it doesn't really advance anything except our own limitations. He's a little of this guy and a little more of this other guy -- and did we mention Gale Sayers?

The concept of NEXT is to find the athlete who furthers the species, a performer whose incandescence beams itself beyond the bounds of convention. Nobody, not even Vince Young, did that as frequently as Bush did in 2005. Nobody, not even Vince Young, carries as much anticipation and promise into 2006.

Next 2006
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Bush is NEXT because no one else takes us to the point where we lose the power of explanation. Bush is NEXT because NFL coaches were forced to answer questions about the prospect of losing intentionally for a chance at drafting him. Bush is NEXT, above all, because there is no comparison. We haven't seen this before, and that's why we can't stop watching. He had 513 all-purpose yards against Fresno State. He had 177 total yards against Texas in the Rose Bowl, on just 19 touches. After that game, everybody called him a disappointment. Such is the burden of his talent, a talent that invites hyperbole. He's Dr. J taking off from the foul line. He's Mays with his back to the infield. Damn … there we go again with the small-minded comparisons.

His ability is singular, and clearly we laymen aren't the only ones who feel this way. Watch the defenders when Bush erupts into the open field. See how they break down about 10 yards before he crosses their path, as if they were trying to read his mind. Coaches preach against hesitating like this, but the would-be tacklers can't fight human nature. This pause is a plea for mercy, an acknowledgment that sitting back and waiting will provide less overt humiliation than flying in, taking your best shot and being the stooge. So they break down, choosing benign embarrassment, and wait. It's prayer as body language.

The coaches called upon to stop him -- grizzled football men who have seen everything three or four times, men who are paid to find flaws and exploit weaknesses -- have no answers either. Go inside the film room with the Cal defensive brain trust in the days leading up to the Bears' Nov.12 game against USC. As they watch Trojans game tapes, they see Bush take off on a 45-yard touchdown run against Notre Dame.

They stop. They look at each other. It's a counter play from a one-back set. Bush breaks free, cuts it back, then jumps over a defender. After a moment of concentrated silence, defensive coordinator Bob Gregory says, "Let's see that again."

They watch it again. And again. They don't talk; they watch. They've gone from being analysts to admirers. The more they watch, the more they're fixated on one element of the run. They slow it down to get a better look. Right there. See that? When Bush leaps over the defender, he lands on one foot and seems to cut -- to actually change direction -- before the other foot hits the ground.

What the hell?

He lands and cuts on one foot.

Leap, land, cut.

He can't be doing that. Is such a thing even possible?

So they watch it again. And again.

Bush isn't landing and regaining his balance. That's what other backs -- even great backs -- do. Not this guy. This guy appears to be balancing in the air, as if gravity didn't apply.

The coaches keep watching. By now, this has nothing to do with schemes and formations. This isn't something they will show their defensive players and say, "Okay, guys, we have to look out for this." No, this goes beyond the normal descriptives -- speed, moves, vision. This becomes a meditation on science, on possibilities.

"We weren't watching for scouting purposes," Gregory says later. "We were watching it over and over to say, 'Wow, look at what this guy can do.' Some of the physiological stuff he did on that one run was just amazing."

Long before they watched the play for the 15th, maybe 20th time, football was no longer the focus. It was about awe, about disbelief, about something that defies description or comparison. Bush has football coaches ruminating on physiology. And in those moments of wonder, they become just like the rest of us. They know it was easier to watch than describe. They also know why they kept watching, over and over.

They'd never seen anything like it.

REGGIE'S NEXT CRED
• Named nation's top high school RB by Parade Magazine in 2002
• Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005
• Voted USC MVP by teammates in 2004 and 2005
• Tied NCAA record with two seasons of more than 2,000 all-purpose yards (2004 and 2005)
• Led nation in all-purpose yards per game (222.3) and yards per rush (8.7) in 2005
• 2005 Heisman Trophy winner
• 2005 Doak Walker Award winner
• 2005 Walter Camp Award winner
• Likely No.1 overall pick in 2006 NFL draft


Reggie Bush? Did you see Vince Young in the Rose Bowl?
By David Fleming

Seleem El Banhawi doesn't want to be rude. He truly does appreciate The Magazine inviting him and 168,006 other fans to voice their opinions regarding who's NEXT. But the 14-year-old student and sports junkie from Cairo, Egypt, believes we tend to overthink the concept.

NEXT is about a lot of things: it's about change and transcendence, youth and hope, winning and losing. It's about embracing the unstoppable force of the future. But the one thing NEXT should never be is difficult. It should be pure. It should be easy. It should be obvious.

And it is, at least to a teenager halfway around the world, as well as a large number of his fellow SportsNation citizens who voted on espn.com. More than 36% of them picked Vince Young over Reggie Bush and Sidney Crosby (see box). "I chose Vince Young," Seleem writes in an e-mail. "Not for his origin or his race. I chose him because he is an extraordinary athlete. Seeing him collect 467 yards as a quarterback was perhaps the most amazing national title appearance in history."

Of course, there are those who disagree. According to some readers, NEXT is: Ultimate Frisbee (Alex, Portland); women's rugby (Steph, Providence); lacrosse (Fred, location unknown); "the dominance of Rutgers University football" (Chris, Hackettstown, N.J.); Denise Dahlberg, the catcher for the Texas Thunder of the National Pro Fastpitch League, who has an "arm like a cannon and a face like a goddess … because wouldn't you rather watch women running around in tight pants than men?" (Jordan, Dayton); Dallas Lauderdale, a sophomore at Ohio's Solon High who has a "buttery J" (Tim, Solon, Ohio); or some guy named Derek who proclaims simply yet proudly, "It's me. I'm NEXT."

Still, with apologies to Derek, nothing resonated across SportsNation more than Young's performance in leading Texas over USC for the national title. Whether it's Seleem in Egypt, or Jack Campbell, a 28-year-old expectant father and construction worker in Harrisonburg, Va., or 15-year-old Ryan Davis, a baseball player for Chandler (Ariz.) High, most of the voters had just one question when asked to compare Young with Bush: um, did someone at The Mag forget to TiVo the Rose Bowl? Or, as Seleem calls it, the "Rise Bowl," a slip of the tongue (or thumb) that may just be the perfect way to describe the game that launched Young's Q rating into the stratosphere. "It was something I will be telling my kids about years from now," echoes a not completely unbiased Richard Luna, a UT student.

In an era when sports is increasingly overrun by fantasy geeks, stat dorks, capologists and loudmouthed gurus of one kind or another, The Mag has always challenged fans and readers to look beyond the numbers, the headlines, the obvious. This time, you told us not to.

By the thousands, you implored us to recognize that the 6'5", 233-pound Young possesses a unique combination of physical gifts, competitive fire and clutch decision making skills; that his mind is as fast as his feet; that he went 30–2 as a college starter; that he outgained Bush by 290 yards and three scores in the biggest college football game of the century. By the thousands, you told us not to give too much credence to the old-boy network of NFL coaches, GMs and scouts whose pulses race when Bush swivels his hips. And by the thousands you said, "Do us a favor. Go back and watch the damn national championship game again."

In that game, who carried his teammates to heights they could not dream of on their own? Who shocked the sporting world? Who was as unstoppable and inevitable as the future itself?

"It was Vince Young," Seleem concludes. "And it was obvious."

Vince's Next Cred
• SportsNation Poll Results: Young (36.2%), Bush (32.5%), Sidney Crosby (17.1%), Adam Morrison (7.6%), Felix Hernandez (6.4%)
• Parade National High School Player of the Year (2002)
• 30–2 record as starter at Texas, tops in UT history
• Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year (2005)
• Led nation in passing efficiency (168.6) in 2005
• Only player in NCAA history to pass for more than 230 yards and rush for more than 250 in same game (2005, against Oklahoma State)
• Davey O'Brien Award winner (2005)
• Rose Bowl MVP (2005 and 2006)


Michelle Wie
BY Eric Adelson

NEXT SHOULD BE SOMEONE WHO STIRS DEBATE, WHO CHALLENGES WHAT WE KNOW.

We called Michelle Wie NEXT in 2000, when she was 11. Three years later, we called her Now. And in 2005, she made Time's list of "People Who Mattered," appeared on the cover of Fortune and schmoozed on The Late Show With David Letterman. What could possibly still be NEXT about Michelle Wie?

Open a web browser and find ESPN's Athletes of the Century. The list starts with Michael Jordan and ends with Jack Johnson. If we lived in 1906 instead of 2006, all 100 would be NEXT.

And not just because they won big. MJ redefined what it means to be a sports icon. Babe Ruth gave birth to modern baseball. Jim Brown quit at the top to make a statement about society. Jesse Owens stared down racial prejudice. NEXT isn't about pure dominance. It's about change. Matt Leinart may be the next Tom Brady, and Tom Brady may be the next Joe Montana, but did any of them shake their sport -- or sports itself -- the way Jackie Robinson or Jim Thorpe or Babe Didrikson did? NEXT should be someone who makes us uncomfortable (see Ali, Muhammad) because he or she stirs debate and challenges what we know.

So please, let's not settle for an athlete who might change games when we can choose someone who might change sports. Actually, let's not stop there. Let's choose someone who might stir a change in society.

Let's go to Lebanon, Ohio. It's 7:18 a.m. on a blazing July morning in 2005, and Ryan Sims is finishing his graveyard shift on the assembly line at a label-making plant. His feet burn in his black steel-toed boots, but he's not going home. He gets into his car and then sits in the teeth of morning traffic for nearly an hour. He exits and winds his way to a golf course. He parks, puts on his shades and prepares to walk 18 holes. A few of the older, whiter fans stare at the 31-year-old African-American in navy shorts and Timberlands, but Sims keeps his eyes on the teenage girl playing a USGA amateur tournament for a shot at the Masters. How could he not? "She's history in the making," he says. Sims has heard people say Wie doesn't belong in a man's game, or even in an older-woman's game. He smiles. "If she's got the ability, why not? With all the guys she's beaten, should they be allowed to play with her if she's better?"

Let's go to Kochi, Japan. This time it's an Asian man named Hifumi getting stares on the rope line at November's Casio World Open. Hifumi wears a white robe, a conical straw hat and tennis shoes. He's a computer programmer who just finished walking for 43 days straight -- 700 miles total -- while completing a spiritual pilgrimage to 88 different Japanese Buddhist temples. He tells a story about Day 28, when his knees screamed and his feet blistered and he wanted to fall down and sleep. Then he saw a flyer advertising that Wie was playing in a tournament against men here in this coastal resort town. He figured if some teenage girl could compete against grown men, then surely he could walk a little more to see it. And what does Hifumi think of those critics in America who cluck about Wie's never having won anything? Not much. He doesn't understand English.

Let's go to Las Vegas, to Southern Highlands Golf Club, which oozes old money and testosterone. Let's walk into the clubhouse at 8 a.m. on the last Sunday in October and marvel at the plush carpeting, the wing chairs and the oversize door handles straight out of a Dickens novel. Now look at the gilded members board. There are only 260 names listed, but you've heard of a few: Rudolph Giuliani, Reggie Jackson, Baron Davis, Steve Wynn. There's even a man named Lexus.

Two VIPs are playing today. The first arrives with her parents. The second, a self-described "old man" from Arkansas, arrives next. They shake hands, exchange gifts and take some questions from a handful of reporters. The man says a few words about the girl, Michelle Wie. "Hawaii and California are the only two states where the majority of people are not of European heritage," says Bill Clinton. "By 2050, the U.S. will have no ethnic majority. America's great gift is our global independence, and that we are held together by our ideas and values. Other nations may have bigger economies and bigger militaries, but America has the power of example. Michelle represents that."

Ryan from Ohio did not see a 15-year-old qualify for the Masters. Hifumi from Japan did not see a girl make the cut against men. And Bill from Arkansas is still waiting for his young friend to win a pro tournament. Does it matter? No. Because they can look forward to 2006 knowing that all three might happen. And even that wasn't possible in 1996 or 1986 or 1906. In those years, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club didn't open the British Open to women on the same day a 15-year-old girl turned pro. In those years, the LPGA commissioner didn't call for a national convention to discuss lifting age restrictions. In those years, Hootie Johnson didn't say he'd welcome a female entrant into Augusta if she qualified. And in those years, Asian-Americans, now one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country, didn't have an icon who challenged stereotypes about height and charisma.

"There isn't a vocal leader or political figure in Asian-American society," says Michael Won, a reporter with a leading Korean newspaper out of Seoul. "Asian-Americans feel a little insecure. If they show an opinion, it's taking a risk."

Wie shows an opinion, and takes a risk, simply by playing against adults and men. "I'm proud to be Asian-American," she says. "I'm proud that I'm fully Korean, and that I'm fully American. I want to represent hope, the belief that it can happen. I made my goals very high, and it's going to be very hard for me. But I enjoy it."

Look back at that Sports Century list. There are more horses (three) than Asian-Americans (none). Now look ahead. If Wie is, as former President Clinton calls her, "the future of America," imagine the list in 100 years. Will you be able to complete it without Michelle Wie? Without a girl who has affected sports and culture in a way that someone with 30 tourney wins never will?

You can't say no. Not yet. And that is the promise of NEXT.

MICHELLE'S NEXT CRED
• Shot a 64 as a 10-year-old
• Also at 10, became youngest player ever to make a USGA amateur championship (U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links)
• At 12, became youngest player ever to qualify for an LPGA tournament (2002 Takefuji Classic)
• At 13, became youngest winner of U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links
• First golfer given exemption to U.S. Women's Open (2004)
• Finished second at 2005 LPGA Championship as amateur
• Tied for third at 2005 Women's British Open as amateur
• Turned pro in October 2005, just shy of her 16th birthday


The World says U.S. Soccer has Arrived. It's Time For Us To Get On Board
by Luke Cyphers

You've heard the breathless predictions before. You've heard them for 30 years. Soccer will take over. It's the next big thing. It's inevitable. Look at all the youth leagues. Look at all the immigrants. And yet, when you finally succumbed to the hype, when you finally looked, this is what you saw: empty seats, boring games, second-rate American athletes who lacked charisma and power and charm.

You had other options, so you stopped watching. But then, while your head was turned, it happened: American soccer arrived. Savvy investors, companies and tastemakers noticed. So did every football-crazy fan around the world. But you, well, you won't be fooled again. You want hard proof before you'll commit.

Okay. Here it is, in the form of a 23-year-old physical marvel from Olney, Md., named Oguchi Onyewu. He's a homegrown, corn-fed, weight-trained soccer player, the kind they didn't used to make here. He's 6-4, 210 pounds, the kind of athlete who used to be abducted by the high school football coach every fall, then turned over to the basketball coach. But Gooch didn't get the memo. "When I hit high school," he says, "I just liked soccer better."

And soccer is better for it. Onyewu's combination of size, strength and agility make him not only an able defender but a scoring threat on set pieces. He'd make a tough NFL matchup; in soccer, he's a monster. Currently a popular star for the Standard Liege club in Belgium, he's being eyed by a soccer team even casual fans recognize: Manchester United.

There's more evidence. Take Onyewu's teammate on the U.S. national team, Eddie Johnson. He's the one who's faster than everyone else -- the one built for the open field and the extra base—as he dashes across Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., on the way to one of his seven goals in World Cup qualifiers. Johnson, a six-foot, 180-pound ball of lightning, wouldn't have made it to the pitch two decades ago. The Florida football factory wouldn't have let him. But the kid from the Daytona Beach projects tried soccer at 10 and found a coach who nurtured his talent, and by 15 he was in the Adidas-sponsored Olympic Development Program, traveling the globe and discovering he could make a living playing this game. Now the FC Dallas striker earns $875,000 a year as the second-highest-paid player in MLS. "My friends used to say to me, 'Go kick that ball around with those white boys,'" says the 21-year-old Johnson. "Now they're my No. 1 fans."

Actually, they're not. U.S. soccer's biggest fans at the moment are money men like Philip Anschutz. The Denver-based billionaire, who has backed MLS for 11 years, is digging in and spurring a stadium boom that, within two years, will put the game in packed, 25,000-seat grounds rather than half-empty NFL houses. The fans are the suits at Adidas who just signed a $150 million deal with MLS, and the execs at Nike who—in an ad resembling the Declaration of Independence—proclaim that a soccer revolution is coming. This support is all new. This is what was missing when soccer's arrival was trumpeted in the past. From a marketing standpoint, soccer is where the NBA was in, say, 1980, just before the sneaker wars made David Stern a genius.

More important, soccer is where football was in the late 1950s, a marginal sport about to be lifted by television—in soccer's case, high-definition television. The new generation of TVs flying off shelves is perfect for the world game. When people see soccer on HD, they'll finally see the sport's speed and emotion and color, the little things that went unseen on little screens. Says New England Revolution owner Jonathan Kraft, "On HD, it's finally going to translate to Americans."

Need more proof? The guys who have been cashing NFL checks for years see it all clearly. Rupert Murdoch has devoted a whole U.S. cable channel -- Fox Soccer -- to the sport. The Hunt (Chiefs) and Kraft (Patriots) families are charter MLS owners. And Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer just bought Man U. Meanwhile, for the ultimate in cliché cachet, hip-hop's Jay-Z has made noise about buying London's Arsenal football club. None of these guys got rich missing trends.

This is what's been developing while we all ignored the game the rest of the planet loves. Players like Johnson hone their skills here in MLS, then use international matches as coming-out parties. Players like Onyewu branch out to earn money and respect overseas. Fans from Dublin, Tel Aviv and Tegucigalpa increasingly say the same thing, that the seventh-ranked Americans are good, they're getting better, and maybe sooner rather than later, they'll be good enough to win the World Cup. "You can see it coming," says Itai Reicher Atir, an Israeli fan. "In the next decade, the U.S. will win it all."

For once, American talent is beating hype to the punch. Which means that in the near future, possibly when this year's World Cup is over, Eddie Johnson will see his real dream come true: "I want Jay-Z or Diddy wearing my jersey in a rap video." Then soccer will finally be able to say, "Made you look." And this time, we'll be happy we did.

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