To many Westporters, Giants Stadium means football.
To others, it’s a soccer stadium.
The premier arena in the country when it opened 32 years ago, Giants Stadium will be demolished next year. Tonight, the professional Red Bulls play their final soccer match there.
Which makes me think back to the stadium’s 1st year, 1977.
The Cosmos took the world by storm. Mick Jagger, Henry Kissinger and a host of other boldface names showed up for games. Capacity crowds jammed the stands. And throughout that amazing spring and summer, there were several key Westport connections.
The team’s all-star cast included Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgia Chinaglia — and, starting on defense, Staples graduate Paul Hunter. The public relations director was 25-year-old Mark Brickley, another Staples grad. And overseeing it all was Westporter Jay Emmett, the #2 man at Warner Communications, the deep-pocketed company that owned the Cosmos.
Two years out of college, I was coaching youth soccer in Westport. My friend and former Staples teammate Mark Brickley made sure that my youth teams played several preliminary games, right before the Cosmos took the field.
There were many memorable moments from those matches, but 3 stand out.
In mid-August, we played right before a Cosmos playoff game. Despite torrential rain, the largest crowd up to that point — over 77,000 people — filled Giants Stadium.
As our game ended, and the Cosmos stood in the tunnel waiting to be introduced, I told my 12-year-old players to look around. The stands were packed; the rain was coming down in buckets, and the greatest players in the world were a few yards away.
“Never forget this moment,” I said. They haven’t — and neither have I.
Two months later, we were back at Giants Stadium. It was October 1 — Pele’s last game. Westport was 1 of 9 teams selected to show off their soccer skills prior to the match — which would be televised around the world.
In the tunnel, celebrities roamed. There was President Carter’s son; ABC sportscaster (and Westporter) Jim McKay, and many others. The only 1 our players cared about was Muhammad Ali.
A few days earlier, he’d had a title fight. His face was puffy, and he wore sunglasses. As he walked by, one of our players — Phil Dalmage — yelled out, “Hey, Ali!”
The boxer turned. His hands were at his sides. Instantly — so quickly I could not see it move — his right hand was on top of Phil’s head.
“Hey, bro,” Ali said, tousling his Afro. And just as quickly, he was gone.
Soon, we were out on the field. Our players demonstrated their skills, and 77,000-plus fans applauded.
We were escorted back to our spot on the sideline. Thanks to Mark Brickley’s help, we were the closest of all 9 teams to the center stage. Behind us, New Jersey state troopers held back a throng of several hundred photographers.
The plan was for the captains of each team to walk to the stage, and hand Pele bouquets of flowers. I knew that because of our position, our captain — Peter Scala — would get there first.
“Don’t just give him the flowers and leave,” I said. “Stay there. You never know what might happen.”
Peter did as I said. Pele took the flowers, put his hand on the back of Peter’s neck, drew him close, and spoke quietly to him. Behind us, several hundred cameras clicked furiously. The next day, that photo — of Pele and our captain — appeared in newspapers around the world.
Peter came back to our team, grinning broadly.
“What did Pele say to you?” I asked. These were words I could use for the rest of my coaching career.
Peter looked stricken.
“I forget,” he said.
I have never forgotten that moment. Giants Stadium will soon be gone. But nothing can ever erase the memories of that magical time, when the Cosmos ruled the soccer world.
And Westport shared the stage.