In the 1960’s I attended the second smallest school in Maryland. Marion High School had a little over a hundred students in grades 7-12. There were only three sports offered for boys; soccer, basketball, and baseball. For girls, the choices were field hockey, basketball, and softball.
I had fallen in love with basketball in junior high and was on the team during my last three years of high school. My playing time was limited for most of my career, but I spent endless hours playing with local African-American teens on the courts outside my school. Due to segregation most of my basketball buddies were forced to attend another school in nearby Crisfield. I enjoyed the fast-paced “run and shoot” game played by my African-American friends and never seemed to fit in the slow pace played by my white teammates. Maybe that’s an excuse, but I know which style I preferred.
I never considered another sport until I reached my senior year. At that point I decided I would like to letter in a second sport. Baseball was out of the question because I stopped playing after the eighth grade and didn’t consider myself a good player. I had continued to play soccer in physical education class and practiced with the team members although I never officially attempted to make the team.
So, my plan was to play soccer and get my second letter in that sport. I tried out and was added to the team. Early in the season, most of my time was spent playing either fullback or midfielder. Most of my playing time was limited to practice, where I took great delight in making my starting teammates look bad. Strikers and wings were equal targets for my spikes when they entered my area.
You must understand that soccer as we played it was a lot different than what you will see at the World Cup. Of course, the World Cup players are infinitely better, but they don’t show the same bravado we did. World Cup level players seem to drop at the merest touch, pretending great pain as they roll in agony. The idea is to help your team by getting a penalty called on your opponent. We didn’t play that way. We took great delight in seeing who we could knock down or draw blood from. We didn’t care about penalties because there were no yellow or red cards. You had to do something really bad to get thrown out of a game. Something like starting a full-fledged brawl. It was not out of the question.
Modern players would be surprised at the shoes some of us wore. My shoes had leather spikes that were driven into the bottom of the shoe with small nails. As the leather wore down, the nail heads became exposed and you could do some nasty work on an opposing player’s legs. I was part of a group of players known as the “meat club” and if you think we had evil intentions, you are right. The referees began to have spike inspections before the games and would have the team gather in a circle as they walked around and checked spikes. I beat that by simply walking around the opposite side of the circle and was never noticed.
About midway through the season, we were scheduled to play a bitter rival, Deal Island. Deal Island was the smallest school in the state and things never went well when we played each other. Let’s just say hostility was rampant. Deal Island had a player who seemed to have been part of their squad forever. For sake of anonymity, I will call him “Timmy”. I don’t know what the eligibility rules were back then, but I truly believe I saw “Timmy” play for them when I was in junior high and he was still playing when I was a senior. To borrow a line from an old Eagles song: “He had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude. They said he was ruthless, they said he was crude.” “Timmy” was also their best player, and the one who emotionally fueled them.
Some of my teammates shared time with me in our coach’s consumer math class. The day before the game we sat and discussed the strategy for Deal Island. I nearly fell from my chair when the coach told us his “bright idea” to remove “Timmy” as a threat. I would be inserted into the game with the purpose of goading “Timmy” into a fight that would result in “Timmy” getting thrown out of the game. “What if I get thrown out,” I asked? My coach just smiled and said, “Doesn’t matter.” One of my teammates laughed and said, “Punched out is more like it.” Well, the idea of punching “Timmy” in the fist with my face wasn’t the most appealing one.
Sure enough, the next day, I was inserted into the game as the right wing. Something strange happened. I played the best game of my life. I made one or two laser-like passes to teammates that were converted into goals and I scored a goal of my own; the only one of my career. I might add, I stayed well away from “Timmy,” but it didn’t matter because we played well and my coach was happy. That game was the highlight of my soccer career proving fear is a great motivator I guess. I continued to play, but not with the same skill, and often would hear my coach yell, “Why did you do that?” I couldn’t answer because I didn’t have a clue.
I went on to Carson Newman College and made the team there, but soccer was demoted from a sport to a club and I couldn’t afford the expense of buying my own uniform and shoes. For a short time I did get a chance to play with the best players I had ever seen and to steal the ball from the best of the best. Somewhere, an African by the name of Valentine M’bong is probably still scratching his head.
I could author many basketball stories, mostly from my 20 years as a high school coach, but this is my only significant soccer story. It’s a special one though, because for one afternoon in 1965, on a field behind the old Marion High School, I was Pele.