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Family Helps Lopez Focus on the Field

Growing up, Sharing Took On a Whole New Meaning for U.S. U-19 Defender Stephanie Lopez, Perhaps Making Her the Perfect Teammate

On the soccer field, not too much seems to rattle U.S. Under-19 defender Stephanie Lopez.  With the game moving at high speeds, in a split-second the silky smooth Lopez is able to make sense of the maelstrom, settle the ball and play a user-friendly pass to a teammate.  The natural right-footer is a rare player in the women's game, able to serve a driven ball 50 yards with her left foot.  With world class forwards thundering down the wing at her, the USA's left back has an innate sense of where to put her body to come out with the ball.

Her calm under fire certainly comes from many years of high level soccer for her club Elk Grove United (who won the Western Regionals as U-19s in 2003) and the U.S. youth national teams, but to really understand how Lopez is able to absorb with aplomb everything that's thrown at her, we need to dig a little deeper.

We need to go back to a modest two-story brown house on a cul-de-sac in Elk Grove, California, and the two little boys playing in the back yard.

Their names are Justin and Daniel. But more on them later.

Lopez' parents, Cindy and Rob, have two children of their own in Stephanie and her older brother Jeremiah (20).  But through the years, the Lopez family has taken in "at risk" children who had nowhere else to go.  In fact, growing up, there were six children in the Lopez house, Stephanie, Jeremiah and four foster siblings who stayed with the Lopez family through their teenage years.

"My mom always wanted to run an orphanage when she was little and I think she feels like there's so many kids out there that she can help," said Lopez, who was in the same grade with two foster siblings in elementary school.  "My dad is really supportive of her and she loves taking care of kids.  It was a very different upbringing I think, but I was too young to react to it negatively.  I just kind of took all it in and went with it.  You know, there was always someone to play with.  Not to say it was all fun and games, there were definitely some hard parts."

Amazingly, over the years Cindy Lopez took in more than 50 so-called "emergency babies" who needed temporary housing while the courts investigated where the baby might be raised.  They would keep the babies for anywhere from two hours to several months, and Stephanie learned quickly the responsibility of caring for someone who couldn't care for themselves.

When Lopez was 11, her dad took her to the hospital where they picked up baby Justin, now seven.  Two years later, they got Daniel, now five, also as a newborn.  The Lopez family twice went through the two-year process of officially adopting the boys (making for eight kids in the house at the time), and Stephanie had two new brothers.  She feels that experience, along with living with her other foster brother and sisters, changed her life.

"For my own personal growth, I saw how much my mom had to deal with so I always tried to be on my best behavior," said Lopez, who calls her dad the jokester and her mom the disciplinarian, a combination that helped make the family unit work. "My faith really helped me mature me a lot during those years.  I couldn't be selfish.  God showed me the importance of the life-changing power of sharing my parents and my own love to kids who needed it so much."

Lopez admits that it was tough a times, and often used to wonder what it would have been like had it just been her and Jeremiah.

"I know I wouldn't be the person I am today if we hadn't done it," said Lopez.  "I definitely have a lot of patience and compassion.  I tried to see things through the eyes (of her foster sisters and brother) and why they would do the things they did.  Even though they had problems, I always tried looking past that and finding the person you can love in them."

Which brings us back to Justin and Daniel, who Lopez confesses, are the joys of her life.

"I just love their smiles and their laughter," says Lopez of her little brothers.  "Little kids are so innocent and the things they say surprise you.  They are just so smart and they make you enjoy life more.  You see them grow up right before your eyes.  Every time I come home they have just grown more.  They can read now and Justin is the quarterback on a flag football team."

Lopez admits that because of the age gap with her brothers, there are times when the boys have mistakenly called her mom.  One time they were sitting on her lap at church and a man thought they were her kids.  At least when she does have kids, she'll have had plenty of practice.  

"It was definitely a learning process," said Lopez.  "My mom just needed help, so I was there for her.  I changed plenty of diapers and fed the babies.  Maybe my parents would look back and do a few things differently, as they were pretty young parents, but I look back on it all as a positive experience and respect my parents so much more for what they have done.  They are warriors for working so hard and helping change children's lives.  I admire them so much for standing up for what they believe in and for doing the right thing."

Justin and Daniel are now a big part of Lopez' life.  She recently took them to their birthday party at a roller-skating rink (the brothers' B-days are two weeks apart) and to the zoo.  They come and see her play at the University of Portland, where she started every match as a freshman last season.  Lopez even visited Justin's school, where he introduced her as "my sister the soccer champion."

It's no wonder that some players on the U.S. U-19s think of Lopez as a "team mom."  It is her life experiences that have helped make her the teammate and player she is today.

"I don't take things for granted as much, because I know how blessed I am," said Lopez.  "Now that I am away at college, when I go home, I see even more how great my mom is.  Parenting is kind of like a skill, and my parents are really good at it.  I look at my foster brother and sisters and what they have faced in their lives and I know the opportunities I have had are amazing.  I am so grateful."

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