Soccer

Rare card could help Houston couple have a child

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Rare card could help Houston couple have a child

HOUSTON (AP) Barry Sanders knows that his trading cards are bought and sold every day.

When the Hall of Fame running back learned that a Houston couple desperate to have a baby was auctioning off one of his most rare cards to fund one last attempt at in vitro fertilization, he was stunned.

Now the former Detroit Lions star is helping spread the word about the sale of the card signed by both he and Walter Payton so Todd and Ula Nelkin can raise $20,000. It's hard for Sanders to imagine one of his cards helping bring a child into the world.

``It would be very, very special,'' Sanders said in an interview with The Associated Press. ``I'm not sure that I even have the words, but it will be very special if I were able to help. Obviously we know there are no guarantees, but I will do as much as I can.''

The 1999 Donruss card has a picture of Sanders and his signature on one side and Payton, who died in November 1999, is seen on the other side with his autograph. It is the only one of its kind rated a 10 by the Beckett grading service.

The Nelkins are auctioning it off this week on eBay.

``I would love to keep the card, but I would rather have a kid,'' Todd said. ``It's a wonderful card. You daydream that maybe 30, 40 years from now, our son or daughter will find out where the card is and what happened to it.''

The Nelkins are huge sports fans and own a sports memorabilia shop in Houston. The met on an online dating site and had their first date at a Houston Rockets game before being married at another one.

``We're two big kids at heart,'' Ula said. ``Whenever we go to an outing, whether it be a movie or a symphony or a musical we think: `We just can't wait to bring our little one to this.'''

They've both always wanted kids, but the 45-year-old Todd and the 42-year-old Ula met later in life and when they decided to have children they learned her eggs were no longer viable. They've been trying to have a child for about three years and already spent about $40,000 on IVF with donor eggs, only to have both rounds end in heartbreak.

Ula had to have emergency surgery after the first try resulted in an ectopic pregnancy. On the next round she never became pregnant. They say their credit cards are maxed out, so they started thinking about their next step. The Nelkins, who are also looking into adoption, say they're financially stable but don't have another $20,000 for when the doctor says Ula is ready for the next procedure.

They hope their intention to use the proceeds of the sale of the card to have a baby will make it more valuable.

``That adds something to the legacy of the card,'' Ula said. ``Maybe this card will be known as the baby maker.''

The couple, who donned Lions shirts while talking about the auction, couldn't believe it when Sanders reached out to them on Twitter. They've since texted with and spoke to Sanders by telephone.

``That's a scream-in-your-closet type of thing,'' Todd said of Sanders' offering to help.

Sanders said he has his ``fingers crossed'' that the Nelkins are able to raise enough money for the procedure and that it's successful this time. Their story touched him because of the joy his children have brought him.

``Part of why I was willing to get involved is because it is a real unique privilege and something that's very important and precious and like nothing else you'll ever do,'' he said of parenthood. ``So the fact that I can maybe lend a small hand to a couple in this way, is a very unique privilege that I don't take lightly. I certainly feel for them. I know how much my kids mean to me, and I know that sometimes couples have problems with that, so I just wanted to do what I could to help them.''

Ula gets emotional when talking about the failed IVF attempts, and that prompts Todd to interrupt her to provide encouragement.

``She would be a wonderful mother,'' he says, patting her hand.

Todd's parents and Ula's mother are all elderly and they hope to give them a grandchild before it's too late.

``This is our last shot,'' Ula said.

On a night celebrating women’s soccer, a tale of two Roses

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NBCSW

On a night celebrating women’s soccer, a tale of two Roses

Rose Lavelle met the future of American soccer. Her name is Rose Lavelle.

Two Roses convened on the field Saturday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds - one a celebrity at age 24 after helping the United States women’s national team to a World Cup title this month, the other a seven-year-old girl who shares a name and a love for soccer with her favorite player. 

A National Women’s Soccer League match between the Washington Spirit and the Houston Dash brought the Rose Lavelles together. It’s one of the two big questions facing women’s soccer in the United States: Can the nine-team NWSL become a viable league after two of its predecessors failed? And will the women’s national team players prevail in their lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body and their primary employer, demanding equal pay and an end to what they call institutionalized gender discrimination? 

One of those issues will be decided in a courtroom, the other on nights just like this one when an announced sellout crowd of 5,500 fans showed up to watch nine players who played for their countries in the recent World Cup in France. It would have been 10, but Lavelle’s hamstring injury kept her on the bench.

If the crowd was disappointed, it didn’t show. Despite withering heat that pushed the game time back an hour to 8 p.m. and never relented, fans banged drums, waved flags and cheered for Lavelle as she worked with a team trainer before the game. Not even an hour-long lightning delay at halftime dampened the mood. Many fans returned from the safety of their cars to finish watching a game that didn’t end until 11 p.m. 

Everywhere you looked there were young girls in the crowd wearing Spirit and national team jerseys. Sometimes it was their dads who bought the merchandise. 

Juan Reyes sported a blue and grey “Lavelle” t-shirt bought online moments after she scored in the World Cup final against the Netherlands while his eight-year-old daughter, Sia, admitted her favorite player is actually Alex Morgan, the long-time United States national team star who plays for the NWSL’s Orlando Pride. 

This was their first Spirit game, a short drive from their home in Montgomery Village. Sia is playing club soccer for the first time this year. On the drive up father and daughter even talked about the pay disparity issue. 

“The boys weren’t even chosen for the World Cup!” Sia Reyes said. “And they still get more money.”

“It’s a very important subject and it’s a great way to broach that subject,” Juan Reyes said. “We want to come out and support the league. Buy the shirts, get the hats, get the interest going.” 

Lavelle will be the Spirit’s star attraction when she returns. A relative unknown to casual fans before the World Cup began in June, Lavelle became a household name during it. She scored a goal in the 69th minute of the final against the Netherlands to give the United States a 2-0 lead. That ripper of a left-footed shot, after an electric run from just inside midfield, ended any hope of an upset and ensured the United States’ fourth World Cup title. 

Lavelle scored three goals in the tournament and did wonderful work as a central midfielder. At 5-foot-4, she’s not an imposing physical presence. She wins with exquisite skill and footwork and by thinking a few steps ahead of most everyone else on the field. That style of play quickly turned her into a fan favorite. 

On Thursday, Lavelle was honored at halftime of an MLS game in her hometown of Cincinnati. On Friday, hundreds packed downtown Fountain Square to celebrate her achievement and she received a key to the city and the day named in her honor. It’s been a whirlwind since returning from France a World Cup champion. 

Sitting on a blanket with her parents on the grassy hill behind one of the SoccerPlex nets, seven-year-old Rose Lavelle was entranced. She wore a red and black striped Spirit jersey with her name stitched on the back. It didn’t matter that the other Rose wasn’t playing. 

Asked if she wanted to take part in a postgame ceremony honoring the five Spirit players just back from the World Cup, she beamed. 

“Can I?” Rose Lavelle said, not quite believing. Minutes later, after a 2-1 Washington loss, she and her father, Shawn, walked onto the field with a bouquet of flowers in hand to present to the players. 

You could be skeptical about Saturday night. The U.S. women’s national team captivated the country in 1999 when it won the World Cup with a roster full of legends, but 20 years later we’re on a third professional league that has made a limited impact in seven seasons.

In a country infused with cynicism, smothered by it, it’s always easier to just assume the worst. Next year the women will make another splash at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. But will the sport retreat again until the next World Cup comes around? Will the NWSL struggle to draw crowds and television exposure? Will a court victory only create a caste system between the haves on the national team and the have-nots left off it? 

The NWSL has already lasted longer than the first two professional women’s soccer leagues combined. After the World Cup, ESPN picked up 14 games to broadcast nationally. Budweiser announced a multi-year sponsorship. The true test is replicating nights like this in cities across the country, expanding that base of support, not rebuilding it every four years. But the world we inhabit so rarely exists as we’d want it to. And, yes, the cynics are sometimes right. 

But see little Rose jump up and down when she’s told she can go onto the field to meet her namesake. Hear her say “I’m a brave girl” when asked if she’ll be nervous. “I didn’t even cry for my flu shot.”

And she will be brave. She will accidentally be called up to hand her flowers to a different player than expected and, for a moment, it looks like the Roses will not meet after all. 

The ceremony ends and Big Rose is pulled in different directions, quickly signing a few autographs for the kids on the field before she must attend other duties. Little Rose waits her turn patiently, holding a folded program, expectant, hopeful, as the adults around her fret that a major disappointment is coming. But then Rose Lavelle sees the young girl, smiles broadly and bends to greet her. 

“My name is Rose Lavelle,” the child says without hesitation because she is brave.  

NBC Sports Washington’s Anna Witte contributed to this story.

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With trade deadline creeping, Nationals’ needs and situation remains the same

With trade deadline creeping, Nationals’ needs and situation remains the same

The Nationals left Atlanta on Sunday in the same place as they entered: 6 ½ games behind the first-place Braves.

A four-game split without Max Scherzer is palatable. A 5-4 overall road run since showing up in Philadelphia after the All-Star break is acceptable, though an easy argument could be made the results should have been better. Chances to sweep both in Philadelphia and Baltimore slipped.

What changed in the first nine games since the break? Nothing for the Nationals. They need bullpen help -- still. They remain in a solid position to make the playoffs -- still. Their health -- outside of a new heel flareup for Ryan Zimmerman -- remains decent. Scherzer’s lobbying to pitch Sunday night failed. However, he’s expected back on the mound Thursday against Colorado, which would put him on turn to face the Braves on July 30.

That Scherzer start would arrive a day before the trade deadline. This year, July 31 is it. No more post-deadline deals, no more scrapping pieces after a couple more weeks of testing the waters for a truer read on outcomes. It’s get it done by July 31.

Like their standing in the National League East, nothing changed over the weekend for the Nationals when it comes to need. They need another reliever. Probably two. And, they need to get in line.

Sunday night, reports began to percolate about Boston being interested in San Diego closer Kirby Yates and Toronto closer Ken Giles. The Red Sox are 11 games out of first place and three games out of the wild card. They, of course, are traditionally a go-for-it organization in such instances. As are the Nationals. The questions will be who else is joining them to drive prices and who will be willing to pay them.

Take Yates. He’s the National League’s best closer this season. He is ultra-low-cost. The salary-tracking site Spotrac pegs him as the best relief bargain in baseball. San Diego has another year of control and expects to improve next year. Is he someone it really trades? If so, how epic is the cost? Would the Nationals ever meet it with a higher-end prospect out of a sagging farm system?

What is San Francisco thinking now? It’s 2 ½ games out of a wild-card spot. It is suddenly -- somehow -- a .500 baseball team with 50 wins. The Giants are 22-10 in one-run games. That typically represents two things: a good bullpen and unsustainable results. The Giants’ bullpen has the seventh-best ERA in baseball. Three of the teams ahead of them currently hold a playoff spot. None of the other three are more than a game out of a playoff spot. The group is legit and seemed to be the basis of a pending sell-off from San Francisco (along with, possibly, Madison Bumgarner). But, now? They have to decide, and everyone waits.

Among the Giants’ would-be trade pieces is closer Will Smith. He has moved from a decent reliever to an excellent one the last two seasons. He knew at the All-Star break what might be ahead for him. Smith was the Giants’ lone member of the National League All-Star team.

“I don’t really pay attention to [trade rumors],” Smith told NBC Sports Washington. “I think that’s a distraction, kind of.... I don’t try to think too much into it, really. I play for the Giants right now. I’m going to play as hard as I can for as long as they want me to. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, oh well, I still get to play baseball. It’s kind of a win-win for me.”

Smith has been traded four times. The first time was as a 21-year-old minor-leaguer. He was stunned and disappointed. 

“I thought I was in trouble,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

By now, he’s moved to a more Zen approach.

“Now -- the whole control what you can control, it really applies to this,” Smith said. “There’s nothing you can do about this, so why even try to drive yourself crazy.”

The potential playoff pile has tempered movement. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera on June 18 last year. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson arrived on July 16, 2017. If he can, Rizzo has shown a willingness to pull in problem-solvers well before the deadline. If pushed to the edge, like he was for Mark Melancon on July 30, 2016, he’ll move then, too. He’s yet to find a bullpen solution this year -- just like everyone else.

Yates, Smith, Giles and Detroit’s Shane Greene are assumed to be destined for new teams.  Four teams are within 2 1/2 games of the National League’s second wild-card spot. Washington holds the top spot by a mere half-game. Demand is high. Stock is low. Going for may get you in. Holding may send you home. In those ways, nothing has changed for the Nationals.

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