If a Hurricane hadn't destroyed the house in Texas, and if an underground lake hadn't swallowed the home in Minnesota, Briana Scurry is convinced she wouldn't be playing in the Women's World Cup final against China this Saturday. It's that simple. Had these Stephen King plot twists not befallen Ernest and Robbie Scurry (tentative movie title: Scurrying for Safety), their family never would have moved from Galveston to Minneapoli's inner city and then again to its lily-white suburbs, and nine-year-old Briana never would have seen that flyer in school announcing tryouts for a soccer club.
Good thing she did. In the U.S.'s 2-0 semifinal win over Brazil at Stanford Stadium on Sunday, one factor was impossible to ignore: Scurry, like the freakish events that ultimately led her to the sport, is a force of nature. Goalkeeping becomes increasingly important in the latter stages of the World Cup, when one save or one mistake can change a tight game, and Sunday provided a perfect example. While Brazil's Maravilha made an unforgivable gaffe, muffing a cross and spoon-feeding striker Cindy Parlow for the U.S.'s first goal, Scurry's superheroic stops were worthy of escalating exclamations. She acrobatically arched back to punch Nen�'s looping floater over the crossbar! She launched herself sideways to parry a screaming drive by Nen�!! She stoned lethal striker Pretinha in a one-on-one breakaway!!!
In a game in which the Americans were short on offense Scurry was the difference. "It was the best game I've ever played," said Scurry, 27, the U.S. starter for the last five years. "My team needed me more this time than any time before." Scurry's former coach at Massachusetts, Jim Rudy, sums up her skills this way: "Playing against Briana is like rock climbing a slab of marble. There are no weaknesses in her game."
Not now, at least. In college Scurry used to stay rooted to her goal line, relying on her extraordinary reactions to make saves. These days she roams around the box with confidence, snuffing out crosses before the opposing team can even get off a shot. "The modern game requires more from the goalkeeper, and she has increased her range because she has the athleticism to do it," says U.S. coach Tony DiCicco, himself a former national team netminder.
"She's the best goalkeeper in the world," U.S. defender Carla Overbeck said after Sunday's semifinal. "Having her back there has a calming effect on all of us."
Scurry's relatively reserved demeanor is by design. When many male keepers, most notably Manchester United's Peter Schmeichel, get angry with their defenders, they'll wave their arms wildly in disgust, as if they're trying to put out imaginary fires on their jerseys. Not Scurry. After teammate Brandi Chastain knocked the ball past Scurry for an own goal in the U.S.'s 3-2 quarterfinal win against Germany last Thursday, Scurry refrained from unleashing any five-alarm tirades. One reason is that she knew her teammates wouldn't respond well ("We'd be like, 'Talk to the hand....," says midfielder Julie Foudy), but there was more to it than that. "I don't want the other team to see me upset, because I like to win the psychological battle in a game," Scurry says. "Being ice cold is the way I do it."
It's only after the final whistle that Scurry's frost tends to melt. When UMass clinched a Final Four berth in 1993, she ran the length of the field, jabbed her face into a TV camera Maradona-style and maniacally screamed, "We're going to Disney World!" Then, of course, there is the Streak. No, not the five straight games Scurry has won during the Cup, but something different (in the) altogether. At the end of the 1996 Olympics she kept a promise by running through a secluded street in Athens, Ga., wearing her gold medal—and nothing else. The videotape of Briana's Excellent Scurry is kept under lock and key at her house outside Detroit, where she lives with friends. Requests for a private screening are met with smiling threats of bodily harm. "It's not like I'm going to whip it out at a party or anything," she says.
Inevitably, though, Scurry stands out for another reason. She is the only African-American starter on a team that plays in stadiums filled with more WASPs than a mud dauber's nest. It has almost always been this way, ever since that second natural disaster forced her family to move when she was five. After Hurricane Donna wiped out their house in Galveston in 1960, Ernest and Robbie headed with their sizable brood—Briana, the youngest, has three brothers and five sisters—for south Minneapolis. But soon after their baby was born, in 1971, the Scurrys' new house began sinking into the filled-in lake beneath it, causing it to list like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "Every other year we needed two truckloads of dirt to fill in the hole" that endangered the house, says Robbie. "We decided we were going to find a place where the houses didn't sink."
They chose the suburb of Dayton, which was as white as a set of goalposts. "In the four-town radius where I lived we were the only African-American family," says Scurry. "But I never got singled out. My parents never let me think that I was alone in anything. They taught me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, and the odds against that didn't matter." Though Scurry's first love was tackle football—she scored nine touchdowns as a wide receiver in a league for 11-year-old boys-soccer was more readily available. Immediately cast as a keeper, she chose it over football and basketball as her No. 1 sport.
As a college sophomore Scurry had her first contact with the national team, which turned into an unqualified disaster. At the 1992 U.S. Olympic Festival she started for the North team in an exhibition against the U.S. team. DiCicco, who was the U.S. women's goalkeepers coach at the time, approached Scurry before the game, patted her on the shoulder and said, "I'm going to be watching you today." Scurry freaked. "It scared the crap out of me," she says, which was plainly obvious. She gave up three goals in 15 minutes and was yanked from the match before halftime.