Oct. 10, 2003
By Elliott Finebloom
It is funny to hear Seminole senior Amber Tollefson describe herself as a mediocre player. One of just four Seminoles to ever be named All-ACC, the midfielder is FSU’s all-time assists leader in conference games, she is tied for the lead in game-winning goals in ACC play and she has the third-most game-winning assists in school history. But when she participated as a youngster in Olympic Development Program (ODP) camp, she felt she wasn’t where she needed to be.
“I looked around at ODP and I saw myself as a mediocre player,” said Tollefson. “There was so much talent out there and I wanted to be better. I wanted to be where those girls were”
The Boca Raton, FL native, who got caught kicking around a soccer ball in the garage at the age of one, has gotten better. She quit playing softball after her sophomore season of high school and started to focus on soccer. While she jokes around that she was raised on the mean streets of Boca, it was those very streets where Amber took her lumps early on and started to become the player she is today.
“I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys and they wouldn’t let me play. I would look out my window at the yard and just watch,” said Amber. “I would get so mad that I couldn’t play. My brothers slowly started to let me in the game and I would have to crunch them to compete and prove my worth. They started to let me play more and that spawned my love of sports.”
Amber plays the game of soccer with a passion and that has probably got her as far in this game as anything else. She remembers those games played out in the yard by her house and then her first exposure to the great women’s players in the world who had a profound impact on her.
“Growing up I was a tom boy,” remembers Amber. “All of a sudden I started to see Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers on TV in the World Cup and I knew there were other girls and women like me out there.
“When you watch the WUSA or World Cup, you can see the passion in the player’s eyes. That made me want to play more passionately. For all young girls playing soccer, having role models is crucial to your development as a player.”
Role models were crucial to the development of Amber’s game. One of the most influential was from her very own high school. Kristy Whelchel was a member of the ACC’s 50th-Anniversary team and a four-time All-ACC selection that went on to play in the WUSA. She was an NSCAA All-American her senior year at Duke and Whelchel played a major part in Amber’s soccer career.
“I had so many role models. Kristy Whelchel was always a role model for me,” said Amber. “She was my high school coach my senior year and to see her be successful in the WUSA was great. It made me want to thrive.”
But according to Amber, nobody deserves more credit for her development than FSU head coach Patrick Baker. Amber was part of the first recruiting class to come to Tallahassee when Baker had a full year to recruit and she was one of the players he knew he had to have.
“It just seems like the other day I was doing the home visit with Amber,” said Baker. “I can almost remember that visit verbatim. When I recruited Amber, she was thought of as the number two player in Florida and I told her ‘people are going to know where you go to school’. I really wanted her to come to Florida State.”
“I have learned so much from coach Baker and from my time at college. I never thought I would grow into a Division I player,” recalls Amber. “I always saw myself as mediocre but coach Baker has made me and everyone here a better player and a better person.”
As much as Amber has appreciated every minute of her stay in Tallahassee, so has Baker. The two have a special bond that has been forged over four years and Baker knows just how special Amber is. Amber bought into Baker’s vision for the Florida State program from day one and has helped fuel the Tribe’s metamorphosis into a national powerhouse based on her belief in Baker and what he wanted to do at FSU.
“I can’t put my finger on why I came home from school one day and had to call coach Baker and commit to Florida State. It was the intangibles,” said Amber. “Something was tugging at my heart leading me to FSU. I had total faith in the program and what coach Baker was doing here. I made the best decision when I decided to come to Florida State. The second I stepped on the campus and spoke to coach Baker, my heart was in Tallahassee right from the start.
“Sure enough he started bringing in the top recruits in the country and great people, not just great players. Then my freshman year we beat UNC. That is the school every young soccer player dreams about and we beat them. They are a dynasty and it felt like we won the national championship. It was magical. Moments like that just kept coming throughout my career here.”
Those moments are special to Baker as well. He’ll remember Amber’s two goals, including the game-winner that gave FSU it first-ever victory over Clemson at Riggs Field. He’ll remember her goal and assist in the team’s first-ever win over Duke in a two-goal comeback. But mostly it is the stuff off the field Baker will remember about Amber.
“After every season she (Amber) will send a card, note or email to me asking if I can imagine how far we have come together and as a program,” said Baker. “She had a hand in bringing in half of our recruiting class this year and you can’t put a price tag on how she attracts quality people to our program. Players want to play with her.”
People do want to play with Amber and it is for one reason, she cares about them. Every player on this team has been touched by Amber’s empathy at one point or another. Nobody takes the rookie’s in like Amber does. Nobody knocks on your window late at night with a smoothie for you after a bad day like Amber does. And nobody puts more of herself on the line for her teammates than Amber does.
“I care for everyone and I want them to care for me as well. I want to really know everyone on this team. I like to take the time to sit next to somebody different and talk to them and find out about them,” said Amber.
“The team is your family. We need to know each other because these are the people you are working so hard for everyday. I have always believed that if you care for the person next to you on the field, you are going to work 10 times harder because you don’t want to let them down.”
As she hears about how her teammates recounted all the things she has done for them, the emotional leader begins to cry. Making others happy is such a huge part of who Amber is but it didn’t seem like until that point, she knew just how much of an impact she had on their lives.
“I treat people the way I would want them to treat me. It brings me happiness to see other people smile and that becomes contagious,” said Amber. “If the people around me are happy, I am happy. I believe if I care for the person next to me, I think they will care for me. It is so sweet to hear that they remember that stuff.”
In her two years as a captain, Amber has not only forged an amazing bond with her teammates, she has developed a deep love for the program. She is consumed with taking Florida State to new heights and she believes in Baker and the Florida State program.
“There is a pride factor. That FSU emblem on your jersey is a source of pride. There is a tradition here now. Look at what coach Baker has done. I am just very confident in the philosophy coach Baker has instilled throughout this program,” said Amber. “The heart, the work ethic, the premium he has placed on this program. The rivalry he has built with Florida. The great traditions. You really can’t understand it until you are here.
“He (Baker) raises the level every year. The standard keeps getting higher and that’s what it needs to be to reach our goal. We want to win a national championship here. That’s what we are all working for and we’ve made great strides towards that goal.”
Amber’s role as captain hasn’t been an easy one though. The senior struggled at times last year thinking she could always fix every problem. She always wanted to make everything all right for everybody and when she couldn’t, it affected her play.
“If everything isn’t OK on the team, I can’t keep that out of my mind. I get uneasy in the games. I think that was apparent last year,” said Amber. “There were some things going on off the field and it affected my play. It sounds corny but I want everyone to get along. There is always going to be tension and I have learned it is impossible to make everything OK for everybody. I can’t work everything out but I can try to alleviate problems by being there for whomever needs me. I am not a mediator but I feel better if I have helped my teammates in some small way.”
On top of caring deeply for the people around her, Amber probably has more passion for the game of soccer than anyone else on the team. Maybe it was instilled in her when she was getting knocked around by the neighborhood boys or by watching her role models in the World Cup but however it happened, she plays the game with passion and emotion every time she steps out.
“It is frustrating when people are playing without passion and emotion because it is so important. I think soccer is about how much emotion and passion you bring to the field everyday,” said Amber. “I have always been passionate about life and it filters into everything I do.
“I have this motivational notebook that I used to keep that had stuff in it that motivated me like quotes, stuff about Kristy (Whelchel) a picture of me with my first trophy. I look at that smile on my face and it reminds me of why I play. If you don’t have that type of passion, I don’t know why you play. You have to have a love for the game.”
With time winding down on the senior’s career, she is trying to stay focused rather than looking at her career as being just six more regular season games. Amber is not one of those players ready to move on. She isn’t ready for her career to be over but that doesn’t mean she isn’t satisfied with time at FSU.
“I am getting really sentimental lately,” said Amber. “I am thinking about everything in terms of it being my last. That brings a special element to the game for me. Especially since I have been playing since I was six. The clock is now ticking on my soccer career. I don’t look ahead. I try to keep it out of my mind. I am enjoying every moment and soaking it all up. It goes by fast. When this year comes to an end, I will be satisfied with my career and what we have accomplished. I have no regrets.
“My heart still beats fast when I step on the field. I thought I would lose that over the years but I haven’t. Soccer has brought so much happiness to my life why would I want it to end? I am going to miss this aspect of my life.”
Amber has been a part of the most amazing four years in Seminole soccer history. From an upset win in Gainesville that sent the team to its first-ever Sweet 16 in 2000 to the four overtime win against Virginia that sent the Tribe to its first-ever ACC Championship final. Tollefson has been at the center of it all. In her first year at FSU, she helped the Seminole record first-ever wins over North Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Wake Forest en route to the schools first NCAA Tournament berth.
“So many players have contributed to where the program is today but that 2000 season was magical. It is cool to be a part of something that really took off the year we got here,” said Amber. “I knew I had made the right decision to come to FSU after that amazing season. Every moment has been so special for me here. Every player who has worn this uniform has left a legacy. The program is where it is because of the collective effort of every player, not because of Boyce and I.”
Although Amber knows the legacy of Seminole soccer began before she arrived, she is adamant it continues after she is gone. She is trying to help this team win in her final season but she is also trying to instill in the players behind her what she feels makes FSU soccer so great.
“I want to make sure the players behind me have a great work ethic but also a love for the player next to them. I hope nobody ever loses sight of why they played in the first place,” said Amber. “Remembering back to the smile you had as a little kid. Running to get orange slices at halftime. It is more serious now but don’t ever forget why you started.
“I know these girls and I know they have an understanding of what is going on at Florida State. I have the utmost respect for all of them. Most of them are my best friends. They see what (Kristin) Boyce and I do and have heard how much this program has changed. We have tried to instill values in the players who come in. I am extremely confident in the caliber of player and person coach Baker is bringing in. That is so apparent.”
Amber is a winner; there is no question about that. Nobody on the field brings the intensity she brings but when it is all said and done, she knows it is about more than the victories. She will always savor the wins over Florida and North Carolina but the friendships mean the most to her.
“Soccer is just a game. I play soccer because it makes me happy. I love being around the people,” she said. “If that doesn’t make you happy, why come out everyday? The people you spend everyday with are more important to me than the wins. I just hope we never lose sight of that. I’d rather see my teammates fly then die.
“I will never remember the fitness or the 120’s but I will never forget the way this team has always fought for each other. The way my teammates have picked me up when I was down. The successes are great but they are a bonus to everything else. This is a powerhouse program now, on and off the field.”
Florida State is a powerhouse soccer program now because of Amber Tollefson the person and the soccer player.