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For some sports legends, first jobs included garbage man, phone rep

Mia Hamm, of the United States, stretches during practice in Carson, California October 10, REUTERS/Mike Blake MB - RTRPLT4
Mia Hamm, of the United States, stretches during practice in Carson, California October 10, REUTERS/Mike Blake MB - RTRPLT4

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - For American sports fans, this time of year is something close to Nirvana.

The NBA playoffs. The NHL playoffs. The beginning of baseball season. The NFL draft. In short, a perfect storm of professional athletics.

Throw in the imminent arrival of the biggest sports event on planet Earth - soccer's World Cup, which begins this June in Brazil - and sports fans can barely contain their glee.

But even our nation's greatest sports heroes put their pants on one leg at a time.

Here, as the latest in Reuters' monthly First Jobs series, we talk about the first gigs of legendary athletes. Not just any athletes, but those who could legitimately be considered the Greatest of All Time in their respective sports.

Long before they adorned posters on our childhood walls, how did they get their start - and what lessons did they learn?

MIA HAMM, SOCCER

Named by ESPN as best female athlete of the past 40 years, she has two World Cup victories and two Olympic gold medals under her belt.

Her first job? Customer service rep.

"This was back in 1991, and I took the semester off from school at UNC-Chapel Hill to play for the women's World Cup. I started answering phones and taking orders for Eurosport, which is a soccer supply company. Now it's one of the biggest distributors in the world, but back then it was just five of us working in an old red barn."

"The hardest part of the job was telling people their orders weren't ready. Those were never fun conversations. At that point, I was already on the national team, but the callers had no idea who they were talking to."

"The pay was only around $8 an hour, but it helped me stay in my apartment and follow my dream of playing for the World Cup. I wasn't going to go to my parents and ask for money. I had to find a way to eat."

"Now whenever I talk to customer-service reps, I always sympathize with them. I know how it is. They're just trying to do the best they can."

ERIC HEIDEN, SPEEDSKATING

He won five individual gold medals at 1980 Winter Olympics and was named to ESPN's 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century - the only speedskater to make the list.

His first job? Garbage man.

"Back when I was 16 years old, I signed up for a summer job on a garbage truck. This was in a Wisconsin village called Shorewood Hills, and it was actually a lot of fun.

"It was amazing what people would throw out. All the toys and trinkets: For us kids it was like a gold mine. Sometimes you would find sunglasses, or golf clubs, or books. I don't think I ever adopted any old clothes. But every day, you would bring something back to the office."

"This would have been about 1974, and I was paid $1.50 an hour. I gained a lot of respect for the guys who do that. That's a hard job. The older guys on the team were usually volunteers in the fire department, so whenever there was a fire, we would hang onto the back of the garbage truck and fly down to the fire station. When you're a young kid, that's pretty exciting stuff."

"I was already training for skating at that time, though I wasn't on the national team yet. So finally I had to give it up, because it takes so much out of you. It's hard to have a full-time job and be an athlete at the same time."

JENNIE FINCH, SOFTBALL

The 2004 Summer Olympics gold medalist was named by Time Magazine as most famous softball player in history.

Her first job? Waitress at a burrito stand.

"There was this burrito stand at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and a few teammates and I were invited to become waitresses. I had no experience, and knew very little Spanish, so it was all pretty overwhelming. I was thrown right into the fire."

"It was a very busy restaurant, so there was never a dull moment. Time really flew by. About 60 percent of our customers spoke Spanish, so if I didn't understand them, I would just laugh and they would repeat their order in English."

"The best part of the job was that at the end of the night, we would take home a ton of burritos. Food was gold back in college. I also have a greater appreciation for waitresses, and how hard they work."

"My old roommates and I still talk about that time. We remember how horrible we were as waitresses. We would sit in the back of the restaurant, laughing until we cried. We had no idea about who ordered what or what was supposed to go where."

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum)

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