By Kurt Austin, special KC Wizards correspondent and President, Mizzou Soccer Club
When Anne Felts enjoys her 24th birthday today, she has plenty to celebrate. Certainly more than most her age.
After all, Felts isn’t your average story. That goes without saying for those who know her, but like watching her play, it’s well worth reliving again. For those who don’t know her, it’s almost too good to be true; like the Cinderella story belongs more to a Hollywood script than an unassuming girl from Rolla, Missouri.
It’s a tale of a small-town girl – Rolla is almost an even 100 miles between Springfield and St. Louis, population nearing 18,000 – beating the odds to make it in a big-time way. It’s the chronicle of her perseverance through a rare autoimmune disorder – alopecia areata, a form of hair loss that left her bald at the most vulnerable of times, her senior year of high school.
It’s the account of the model student-athlete – high school valedictorian with a perfect 4.0 gpa while setting state records, captain of her college squad’s academic team and member of the university’s student-athlete academic council while winning a national championship, and now pursuing a master’s degree while taking on the challenge of a new sport.
And best of all, how’d you never know any of this by meeting her.
Felts is strikingly humble by anyone’s standards, let alone someone of her accomplishments. Then again, with her resume, the stats see to any need for bragging. At Rolla High School from 1997 – 2001, Felts played midfield and forward in a prep career that saw her finish her senior year as the Missouri record holder for single season assists (38), career assists (103), single season goals (56), and career goals (167). Her career assists mark ranked fourth all-time in the country at the time.
In compiling these records, she was named first team All-State four years in a row and earned selection as Missouri High School Player of the Year in 2000, NSCAA All-Midwest team in 2000, and NSCAA High School All-American in 2001.
But Felts insists it isn’t the records she remembers most fondly.
“For high school it was more just playing my favorite sport with all my friends and in my hometown,” Felts said. “A lot of people knew that I was playing soccer, but it was fun to go out and play soccer with all those people.”
Naturally, those numbers — and her level of play for St. Louis clubs JB Marine and Busch, as well as the regional ODP team – got the attention of college scouts. One of whom was Chris Ducar, recruiting coordinator for the University of North Carolina.
UNC is, for all intents and purposes, the New York Yankees of collegiate women’s soccer and arguably a greater dynasty than the pinstripes themselves. Of the 25 NCAA National Championships held, the Tar Heels have won 18 of them. Accordingly, it is the alma mater of National Team legends April Heinrichs, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, and Cindy Parlow among others.
Needless to say then, when North Carolina calls, you listen. Except for Felts, that wasn’t the case. She made the first move: attending the Carolina summer camps where she was named offensive MVP in 1998 and overall MVP in 2000.
“My club coach at the time in St. Louis was good friends with Anson Dorrance so (going to UNC camps) was the natural thing to do,” Felts said. Indeed, such was a valuable connection to have as Dorrance is the man on whom the UNC program owes its success. As coach for all 28 of UNC’s seasons, he has amassed an incredible 629-28-18 record, being named Women’s Coach of the Year an unprecedented seven times.
By her junior season in high school, Felts was in regular contact with Dorrance.
“Anson calls you every week whenever it was legal to call, and that was kind of a big deal,” Felts said. “North Carolina sends you this package, it’s like 50 pages of articles they put together and Anson writes this really eloquent letter. As a high schooler you can’t help but be impressed.”
She wasn’t the only one impressed. Dorrance was so impressed he offered Felts a scholarship to don the blue and white of the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Was she nervous?
“Oh God, how could you not be?” Felts laughed. “The first day you walk into this big auditorium and they’re there to talk to you about drug testing and academics and rules, and all sorts of things. I walked in and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Add to it her shaven head as a result of the alopecia, a condition that is sometimes called spot baldness for the patches of hair it suppresses from growing and is well documented for causing psychological stress including social phobia, anxiety and depression. Not for Felts, though.
“The disease I have, my hair could fall out tomorrow really,” Felts said. “It wasn’t as trying as many people would expect; a little awkward at first. My freshman year, walking in bald – girls are like who is this, what is going on? But you know, it’s just hair. It’s not a big deal and that’s how everyone else started looking at it too.”
Seeing the bigger picture is certainly a strength of Felts, and was one that benefited her as a freshman competing for her place on the team. A true team player, Felts assumed a defensive midfielder role despite having been known for her scoring touch in high school.
In fact, the media guide her first season lists Felts as a M/F/D, a foreshadowing of her versatility and willingness to play in all parts of the field. The next season’s media guide credited her freshman performance saying, “Felts showed tenacity and hustle in the midfield.” And by her senior season, the guide described Felts as “a warrior with three years experience.”
“I got to play a lot,” Felts said. “I was kind of all over the place.”
Indeed, Felts was a constant contributor from day one. In her four-year career she played in 100 of the team’s 102 games, recording 5 goals and 12 assists. The team’s 92-4-6 record over that time was highlighted by 2003 when Felts played in all 27 games of a 27-0-0 season that culminated in a 6-0 National Championship victory.
Following the 2003 season, Felts hair filled in fully for the first time since her senior year of high school. “It’s true. Who knows?” Felts said of the timing. “Before the National Championship I think my head honestly looked like a leper, in patches. I kept shaving it and shaving it. But then after the National Championship, it was like all over. So it could be a coincidence, who knows? I had a full head of hair next season.”
Along with her locks came another important change in her game appearance her senior season: the captain’s armband. “It’s a great honor to have your teammates vote (you captain), but it was being a leader both on and off the field really,” Felts said. “It was being someone for your teammates to go to for help if they needed it, or advice on the field. Really for me it was leading by example rather than voice.”
The example Felts set was an exemplary one, excelling on the field and in the class room where she earned her degree in geology. “It was hard in some ways because North Carolina was such an academic school,” Felts said. “It’s a really great school, so the professors obviously expected a lot out of you. But most of them were very understanding; they understood you were also there doing something else.”
With the pressure to succeed in school, one can only imagine the pressure to perform on the famed Fetzer Field, captain or player. But you’d be wrong, Felts said. “I don’t think we ever had any pressure, he just wanted us to play our best. And usually with the collection of players that meant winning. I think that we all wanted to win.”
That collection included 2003 National Players of the Year Cat Reddick and Lindsay Tarpley, and 2004 National Player of the Year finalists Heather O’Reilly and Lori Chalupny. Chalupny, from St. Louis, and Felts played club soccer together for five years before representing the Show-Me State at UNC. Prior to the two, only one other Missouri player had played for North Carolina many years before, said Felts.
“It was just awesome getting to play with (Chalupny) in college as well,” Felts said. “We were roommates. She’s just a wonderful person to begin with and I learned a lot from her on the field, too.”
Tarpley, O’Reilly, and Chalupny were all named to the 21-player roster for this September’s Women’s World Cup in China. “Growing up, you knew it was going to happen,” Felts said of their success. “I played with Lindsay Tarpley on the regional team as well. When we were 14, you could tell that there was something special. She understood it higher than the rest.
“And the same with Lori, she just has that extra level of commitment. She’s always two steps faster and she’s had that ever since I knew her. Seeing those girls, I played with them every day in practice and I saw what they can do. It’s pretty unbelievable really – pretty amazing.”
You can sense the pride Felts takes in having played alongside such talented teammates, especially now that they will be showcased on the world’s largest stage. “I’m excited to see how they play, how they do because I know they’ve been working for it for so long,” Felts said. “I really honestly think they have a chance of winning. They’ve beaten a lot of the best teams in the world in their friendlies leading up to the World Cup.”
As for Felts, who married her high school sweetheart Wes after graduating from UNC, she plans to graduate in May from the University of Missouri – Columbia with a master’s degree in architectural studies. After that, she said she is entertaining the idea of continuing in school. She said she would also be interested in coaching, which she got her first taste of when she helped out at the Sedalia High School camp last summer. “I hope so. I really do. I hope so,” Felts said of the coaching prospect. “Just seeing how I could help the littler kids and seeing the light bulb turn on in the high school kids when they understood something or realized how something worked, it was very fulfilling. But also I don’t think I would ever be able to settle for anything less than my best. If I’m going to do, I’m really going to do it.”
It is this over-achieving attitude that has largely kept her off the soccer field since her college glory days. “I don’t (play) to be quite honest,” Felts said. “I tried to at first but it was just settling for less than my best, I just couldn’t do it with soccer. I’d always want to be out there running and training, but with soccer it’s either everything or nothing.”
Instead she has taken up the sport of cycling after a friend helped her to get on the Mercy Cycling, an elite regional squad out of Fort Smith, Arkansas that gives cyclists such as Felts support for going to races. “I started racing a little bit last year,” Felts said. “It’s a way for me to have a competitive outlet without wrecking my body playing soccer. I just want to have fun with it. With soccer I was always pushing to go to that next level, cycling is something I love to do and something that’s healthy.”
It’s only fitting then that her 24th birthday will be spent on a bicycle, participating in several races in Kansas City. “Hopefully I’ll celebrate with a win,” Felts said.
Photos provided by NC-Soccer.com