Ever since the age of 3, Clint Peay has been on the ball -- well, actually, his feet have.
"For me, soccer was love at first kick," the Columbia native, now 22, recalls. "I have always loved and enjoyed it."
Peay remembers the thrill of watching Brazilian superstar Pele on television and then attempting to duplicate the legend's moves on the front lawn with his older brothers, Sean and Eric.
Saturday, almost two decades after his feet first touched a soccer ball, Peay will fulfill a dream when he suits up as a starting defender for the men's U.S. Olympic soccer team.
Peay is excited by the opportunity to play in front of the world.
"Personally, it's a great, great honor. It's something every kid in whatever sport dreams of playing in. And, professionally, it's a great place to showcase my talents," says the former Oakland Mills standout.
Peay is the third local star in recent years to play for the Olympic squad. Howard High graduate Desmond Armstrong participated in the 1988 games, and Oakland Mills graduate Dante Washington did so in 1992. Still, Peay is uncertain what to expect when he finally takes the field.
"I guess you don't realize it until it happens," he says. "I welcome the challenge to do my best and impress the countless number of people watching. To get the full effect, I'll have to wait and see until the 20th comes around."
July 20 -- Saturday -- is when Peay and his teammates will open play against powerful Argentina in Birmingham, Ala. The U.S. team, considered an underdog in the tournament, remains in Birmingham to take on Tunisia Monday and then travels to RFK Stadium in Washington to face Portugal July 24.
The top two teams from each of four brackets advance to the quarterfinals July 27-28 in Miami or Orlando. The winners will meet in Athens, Ga., for the semifinal and final rounds.
Joining Peay on the Olympic team is fellow Columbian and longtime friend Hamisi Amani-Dove, who will serve as an alternate.
The two have squared off in high school (Amani-Dove as a forward for Wilde Lake and Peay as a sweeper for Oakland Mills) and in college (Peay's University of Virginia team defeated Amani-Dove's Rutgers squad in the 1994 NCAA semifinal game, 2-1).
Amani-Dove will cheer on Peay and the rest of his teammates from the sidelines, though he would rather be on the field with them.
"Obviously, I would like to be playing, but it is great just to be on the Olympic team -- just the whole experience makes you a better player," Amani-Dove, 22, says. "I want Clint to do well especially, because I've known him for so long."
Over the years, people involved with Howard County soccer have come to know Peay and his on-the-field exploits. His career began, according to his mother, Della, at a summer fair event at Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia's Town Center when her son was not yet 5.
"Clint shot the ball at the goal and Adil Shamoo, a local coach, saw him and was impressed," Della Peay remembers. "He kept saying, 'Sign him up, sign him up.' "
She did, and by age 5, her son was playing organized soccer in a local recreation league. He continued his fledgling career at Oakland Mills Middle School and on the Columbia Diplomats, a )) team that competed against teams of similar caliber from across the country. Peay become an all-American at Oakland Mills High School.
Peay dedicated summer after summer and countless hours to practicing and playing the game about which he was so passionate.
"One thing led to another," says Della Peay. "Overall, he's been an average kid who just loves playing soccer."
Don Shea, Peay's coach at Oakland Mills, who has known him since elementary school, lauds him foremost as a person.
"My impression of Clint is as a mature, well-rounded young man. He is an excellent soccer player, but he has a lot more going for him than just soccer," Shea says. "He will succeed in any endeavor he applies himself to. He is a very, very fiery competitor on the field, but he has always been modest and a perfect gentleman."
The praise for Peay's soccer prowess, however, is not far behind. Shea credits Peay, a four-year starter at the sweeper position, with being instrumental in helping to lead Oakland Mills to state championships in 1988 and 1990.
"As a sophomore, he played older than his years, and in his senior year, he was a man among boys," Shea says. "His No. 1 asset is his ability to read the game during the game. If Clint would beat you, he'd beat you with his head. He knows the game well and has seen every situation under the sun."
It was that shrewdness and leadership that Peay carried with him to the University of Virginia, where, as a perennial starter, he garnered all-Atlantic Coast Conference first team honors and helped anchor the defense on the history-making team. Four years, four championships.
"It was sort of like a utopia," Peay, a communications major, said. "There was a feeling amongst everybody that nobody could beat us -- it was a confidence bordering on cockiness. It was really uncanny. Winning was almost expected; it was commonplace."
His team visited the White House after winning the championship during his junior year, when he was co-captain, and he and President Clinton talked soccer.
"We chatted for five minutes," Peay says. "The president was down to earth -- he talked about his daughter playing soccer and congratulated us. It was a big thrill."
Peay returned to the nation's capital after graduating in 1995 to play for D.C. United, a Major League Soccer team. He will return to the team after the Olympics.
Peay will especially savor his Olympic experience because a knee injury sidelined him from the under-20 World Cup team in 1993, when he would have been captain.
An Olympian now, he understands that as the level of play increases, so does the level of challenge and responsibility.
"What everyone's asked of is to be a leader on the field to some extent. My job will be to organize and keep things sound as
much as possible," Peay says. "Olympic competition is a lot tougher, and there is more at stake in terms of consequences and ramifications of doing well.
"Soccer is now my profession and is more than something I just do."
In the coming weeks, Peay will put his skills on display with the world as his audience. But he seems to take all of the attention and pressure that accompany the sport in stride.
"The biggest thing for me is just to have fun," Peay says. "I want to gain an unforgettable experience to share with my kids and grandkids."
He pauses, then adds with a chuckle: "And a medal wouldn't hurt."
Pub Date: 7/16/96