You can play a game your whole young life — very well, in fact — and have it be just a game. Then it can change.

Suddenly, you can be paid for it. You can become a national-level star. You can endorse apparel and grace magazine covers.

You can be a broadcaster, a bobblehead doll and . . . uh, a babe.

Just ask Heather Mitts.

“It’s all been kind of a whirlwind,” Mitts said.

The 24-year-old Hyde Park native, a St. Ursula graduate, is describing her sudden celebrity in the soccer world. She is a defender for the Philadelphia Charge, one of the emerging young stars in the Women’s United Soccer Association. Modeling and endorsement opportunities are raising her profile. A poll suggests she’s the league’s most attractive player.

“When you look at the league and all the flank defenders in the league, she’s at the top of a short list,” said WUSA commissioner Tony DiCicco, who coached the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup championship team. “When you couple that with how personable and attractive she is, you’ve got quite a marketable package.”

One shouldn’t overstate this, for Mitts isn’t a household name. When she returns to Cincinnati and sees old friends, she said, many aren’t aware women’s professional soccer even exists.

But when Mitts watched the United States beat China in that memorable ’99 World Cup final in the Rose Bowl, she could hardly have imagined the doors that would open for her.

Mitts had been an All-American at the University of Florida, winning a national championship in 1998 and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated For Women. But being able to make a living in soccer wasn’t realistic until the eight-team WUSA was founded last season.

Mitts had gained name recognition as a color analyst for Southeastern Conference women’s soccer on Fox Sports South and the Sunshine Network. Then she was drafted by Philadelphia and played well in the league’s inaugural season last season, helping the Charge rank No. 1 in defense.

Mitts dated Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell last year, a publicized relationship that boosted her notoriety even more. Soon she had her own fan base and Web site ( There, fans debate All Matters Heather in a chat forum, and she answers their e-mail.

Mitts’ breakthrough came last summer when she made the national team and played against Germany in the Nike U.S. Women’s Cup. Unfortunately, the rest of the tournament was cancelled because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and a knee ailment kept her from joining the team for tournaments in China and Portugal.

Despite having played just two games for the national team (one was in 1999), in March she signed a two-year contract with Fila USA. She is the only women’s soccer player Fila has under contract.

Mitts’ deal with Fila is incentive-laden, both for on- and off-the-field performance. For example, she gets a bonus if she makes the cover of a magazine.

“Heather is a very attractive young woman who is very stylish, and she fits a certain profile that our brand looks for in professional athletes,” said Howe Burch, Fila’s senior vice president for sports marketing. “She does all our soccer apparel modeling, but we see her as a potential icon in other areas, too, such as women’s fitness (apparel) — even some tennis apparel.”

This spring, the Mitts hype took off.

There’s the June issue of Philadelphia Magazine, with Mitts on the cover in a see-through, $3,000 black Versace dress. The cover story is about the city’s sexiest singles, with Mitts referred to as “the Anna Kournikova of women’s soccer.”

There’s the Mitts bobblehead doll, a giveaway that drew 9,650 fans — the Charge’s largest crowd of the season.

There’s the sitcom My Wife and Kids . . . well, almost. ABC asked Mitts to appear in an episode, though a script change meant her part was cut before filming.

And then there’s the Playboy poll. In recent years, the magazine’s Web site has run polls asking readers which female sports figures they’d most like to see nude, and it is currently running one with 10 WUSA players.

Mitts is dominating. As of Saturday afternoon — the poll ends Monday — she had 51 percent of the 31,974 votes cast. Philly teammate Rakel Karvelsson was next, at 15 percent, then Washington’s Mia Hamm at eight percent.

“I’m very flattered to even be a name in that poll,” Mitts said. “But that (posing in Playboy) isn’t something I’d consider.”

The WUSA sent out a collage that featured sexy images of its players, including Mitts, as part of a press packet. Mitts has posed for model cards that have been sent to TV and movie directors.

Meanwhile, Mitts is the ironwoman of the WUSA’s first-place team (7-1-2). She played in 93 percent of the total minutes last season and is at 99 percent this year. Mitts also has anchored an even stronger defense this year — ranking No. 1, with just eight goals allowed.

Mitts is expected to be invited back to national team tryouts next month, hoping to make a push toward the 2003 World Cup and 2004 Olympics.

“It’s been so neat to have all this (off-the-field) attention about me, but I always tell people, what I really want to achieve is to be on the World Cup tam and to be in the Olympics,” Mitts said. “If I could be a part of those teams, I’d be happy with my career.”