Remembering Pele

Everyone with any connection to soccer over the past 65 years has a Pele story.

I have several.

The Brazilian legend — remembered for his unparalleled athletic talent, grace under pressure, radiant smile and eternal humanity — died Thursday at 82. World leaders, players past and present, and billions of ordinary folks mourned his passing.

Pele transcended time and place. He grew older, but never lost his youthful wonder. He played, lived and traveled around the globe, yet he always held Brazil close to his heart.

Of course — this being Westport — we had a few special connections to The King.

My first encounter came a year after I graduated from Staples High School. My friend and former teammate Neil Brickley heard that Pele’s Santos team was playing an exhibition match in Boston.

We took a road trip to Nickerson Field. In the early 1970s, chances to see high-level matches were rare.

The program from the Santos-Astros game. (Courtesy of Neil Brickley)

It was a meaningless friendly, against an unworthy opponent: the minor league Boston Astros. But we were mesmerized, by Pele and the entire Santos squad.

The crowd was small. (The Boston Globe reported that Santos “awed 1,000 people … 1,000 spectators, and the 11 Astros”).

As we left, we saw the team bus idling on the street. We decided to wait.

Impulsively, we said we’d follow the bus wherever it went. It ended up at the Parker House.

The team filed into the dining room downstairs. Neil and I figured, Why not? 

We sat a few feet away. Food was brought to the team. We ordered our own.

We nervously asked Pele for autographs. I carried his in my wallet for years.

A hotel band played background music. Midway through, the leader stopped. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re honored tonight to have with us the greatest soccer player in the world. Let’s have a big hand for … Paulie.”

Two years after my “dinner with Pele,” he was back in the US. He had retired from soccer, but dogged negotiations by Warner Communications had paid off.

The New York Cosmos — a virtually unknown team in the struggling North American Soccer League — signed the legend to a 3-year contract. The idea was that he would jump-start interest in the sport in this country. (And make Warner Communications a ton of money.)

Many of the contract details were handled by Warner vice president Jay Emmett. He lived on Prospect Road here. And though he dealt regularly with the top entertainers in the world, he knew that Pele was bigger than them all.

His first game in the US was on Sunday, June 15, 1975. I had graduated from Brown University 3 weeks before. I was doing some soccer writing, and wangled a press pass.

The Cosmos played at Randall’s Island. The place was a trash-filled dump. Workers feverishly painted the brown dirt green. After all, the match — an exhibition against the Dallas Tornado — was televised by CBS, an enormous coup.

I have been in a few electrifying moments in my life (several others involving Pele). But nothing compares to being on that field, that day, when he appeared in a Cosmos uniform for the first time.

The sound and the emotion made it seem as if the world was shifting. I was 22, and thought I’d seen and felt everything.

But Pele’s impact on American soccer was just beginning.

Mark Brickley — Neil’s older brother, and a former Staples soccer player who graduated in 1970, a year before me — became the Cosmos’ very young director of communications.

Pele and Mark Brickley

He had an incredible workload. The Cosmos acquired a stable of world-renowned players to complement Pele — Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Giorgio Chinaglia. And as the team became a worldwide sensation, their visibility in New York skyrocketed.

Henry Kissinger, Mick Jagger — and everyone in between — wanted to see and be seen with the team (especially Pele). I had a front-row seat to it all. Mark hooked me up with press and field passes.

The press box was a madhouse. The field was the place to be. Watching from a few feet away — as a complete hanger-on — the adulation showered on Pele, by ordinary fans and the biggest names in the world, was astonishing.

The locker room was also a madhouse. Reporters who had seen everything jostled for a chance to ask Pele the same questions he’d faced a million times. Without fail he looked journalists in the eye, smiled, and answered in his imperfect, but lilting and lyrical, English.

Yes, that’s me (front row, right, striped shirt) with Pele in the mid-1970s. Also in the photo (from left): Bill Smith’s grandson and Westport Police Lieutenant Detective Bill Smith; Jay Emmett, Warner Communications vice president; Stuart McCarthy, Westport Soccer Association youth player and later Westport’s Parks & Recreation department director.

But there was more.

Mark Brickley also arranged for Westport Soccer Association youth teams that I was coaching to play several preliminary games, before the Cosmos took the field.

The summer of 1977 was one New York will never forget. The Son of Sam killer stalked the streets. A major blackout led to looting and violence.

But across the Hudson River at Giants Stadium, the Cosmos were magic.

Crowds grew steadily: 35,000, 50,000, then 75,000-seat sellouts. My 12-year-old team took the field before those packed stands, vibrating with energy and anticipation.

One of those matches took place in a downpour. Still, the stadium was packed. As we left the field, and the Cosmos massed in the tunnel ready to run on, I looked up. The bright lights magnified the raindrops; every seat was filled.

“Look at this!” I said to the players. “Don’t ever forget it.”

They did not. (One of them — Mark Noonan — went on to a long career in the sport. He is now commissioner of the Canadian Premier League.)

The NASL included other Westport connections. A league rule mandated that at least 3 North Americans be on the field for every team. The star-studded Cosmos’ lineup included defender Paul Hunter. A 1973 Staples graduate (and recent University of Connecticut alum), he did the dirty work so that Pele, Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and others could shine.

Paul Hunter (front row, far right), one player away from Pele in a 1977 Cosmos pre-game photo. The top row includes Franz Beckenbauer (2nd from left), Giorgio Chinaglia (4th from left) and Werner Roth (6th from left). (Photo courtesy of Fred Cantor)

Pele played against other Westporters, including Hunter’s brother Tim (Staples ’71, UConn ’75) of the Connecticut Bicentennials, and Steve Baumann (Staples ’70, University of Pennsylvania ’74) of the Miami Toros.

Steve Baumann and Pele.

Like so many opponents, Baumann was both excited and awed by the chance to play against Pele.

Today — retired, after a long career as a college and high school coach, and museum director — Baumann ruefully recalls the day in 1976 Pele scored on a bicycle kick over his head, at Yankee Stadium.

That moment was immortalized on film. It lives today on YouTube, below.

But my Westport Soccer Association connections with Pele were not over.

On October 1, 1977 he was set to play his final match ever. The tribute game would include his first half in a Cosmos jersey. Then he’d switch to his beloved Santos club.

Thanks again to Mark Brickley, our WSA club was invited to participate in the on-field ceremony. Eight teams would ring the field, demonstrating soccer skills and then honoring Pele.

That morning was a whirlwind of activity. We “rehearsed” on a practice field adjacent to Giants Stadium, then were escorted into the tunnel.

A gaggle of celebrities were driven in golf carts past us. Our 12-year-olds did not care about Frank Gifford or President Carter’s son Chip. But when Muhammad Ali stopped by us — that was something.

The Greatest had come to pay tribute to The King.

Out on the field, our team had the premier spot among all 8: directly in front of the podium. (Thanks again, Mark!).

Speeches were made. Tributes were offered. Then came the time for each team’s captain to walk to midfield, and hand Pele a bouquet of flowers.

I told our captain, Peter Scala, to stay after he gave the flowers. After all, he’d be the first one there. Who knew what might happen?

Peter gave the bouquet. Pele pulled him close, and whispered something in his ear. Massed behind us, held back by dozens of security people, 700 photographers clicked their cameras. Across the globe, people in 42 countries watched.

Youth players give Pele flowers at his last match. (Westport captain Peter Scala cannot be seen.) Looking on are (from left) Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Muhammad Ali. (Photo courtesy of Mark Bieler)

Peter walked back to me, grinning from ear to ear.

“What did he say?” I asked.

Peter looked stricken. “I forget!” he said.

The ceremony moved quickly. Pele’s graceful speech was all about children, and how important they were.

Love was important too, he noted. “Join with me 3 times: Love! Love! Love!” he said.

Click below for that video clip. (And note another local connection: It’s narrated by Jim McKay. The “ABC Wide World of Sports” host was a longtime Westport resident.)

We headed to our seats in the stands. The game ended. As Pele was hoisted on the shoulders of Cosmos and Santos teammates, it began to rain. A Brazilian newspaper said, “Even the sky was crying.”

Pele in the rain, after his last game.

I had a few more encounters with Pele after that. In 1988 — then a longtime writer for Soccer America Magazine — I was invited to Brazil, to cover the first-ever Pele Cup Youth Tournament.

It was a memorable 2 weeks, for many reasons. (Including the 48-hour, trip-from-hell route there: New York to Orlando, Miami, Jamaica, Manaus and, finally, São Paulo).

There were plenty of highlights, including a trip to Belo Horizonte — the site of a spectacular World Cup upset in 1950, when the US beat England 1-0 (we traveled there with players from both teams).

But the crowning moment was a trip to Pele’s home in Santos. Seeing his trophies, his birds, his pool — his life — was a day I have always treasured.

My path crossed with Pele a couple of times afterward. He was a guest at conventions of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, our professional organization.

As always, he was generous with his time, and graceful with whomever he was with.

And he never stopped smiling.

Pele at a National Soccer Coaches Association of America reception. (Photo/Dan Woog)

One year, our convention was in Cincinnati. President Bush stayed at the same hotel. His handlers wanted him to meet Pele.

Pele’s people said he had no time. He needed to meet with the players and coaches.

They were not kidding. The All-American banquet is a long affair. There are many honorees — NCAA Division I, II and III; NAIA; junior college; high school. All have men’s and women’s teams.

The celebrity each year poses with each group. But Pele made each team seem like it was the only one in the world. And that meeting them was the most exciting day of his life.

One more presidential story. In the mid-’80s, one man’s introduction went this way: “I’m Ronald Reagan. I’m President of the United States. But you don’t need to introduce yourself. Everyone knows Pele.”

I did not know Pele. He certainly did not know me.

But ever since I was a young soccer player at Staples High School, my life was enriched by sharing space with him.

(I can’t resist two final Pele stories — neither of which I could fit in above. On a road trip to Toronto with the Cosmos, I was in the hotel lobby as the team was getting ready for their bus. An older couple approached Pele, and asked for a picture.

(The man posed with him. His wife nervously fumbled with the camera. Pele stopped, and walked over to her. Very gently, he said, “You must first remove the lens cap.”

(And this, as told to me by a reporter friend who was there. A crew filmed Pele with a Special Olympics team. He got in goal; a young girl took a penalty kick. She stubbed it; the ball rolled slowly toward the line. Pele dove high; it skittered in underneath him.

(“I scored on Pele! I scored on Pele!” the girl yelled with joy. “There was not a dry eye anywhere,” the reporter said.)

28 responses to “Remembering Pele

  1. Lots of great stories here indeed. I either didn’t know or I forgot that the crowd for the Santos game in Boston that you saw with Neil was so small. When I first saw Pele in person in 1966 at Yankee Stadium, the crowd was over 40,000. It was against Inter Milan but still…

    Pele scored in that game in 1966—and he did so as well in seven other matches I know for sure I saw him play in person (including his Cosmos debut at Randall’s Island in ‘75). He always seemed to come through big-time when I saw him play (and I am referring to his flair for both playmaking and dribbling, in addition to his incredible goal-scoring abilities).

    But it was an opponent’s goal at one of those matches that, even without any YouTube video to commemorate it, remains so clear in my memory and ranks among my all-time favorite soccer memories (whether as a player or a fan). And that’s because it was a remarkable goal from virtually no angle scored by our Staples teammate/classmate Tim Hunter at a game at Giants Stadium where Steve McCoy and I assisted you in chaperoning a Westport youth team you were coaching in the summer of 1977.

    The fact that Tim scored that goal in front of 46,000 with Pele, Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and Chinaglia on the field—well, when we were playing pick-up soccer in summers during high school, that would have been even beyond our wildest dreams because, at that time, who could have ever imagined that such soccer legends would be playing professionally in America less than a decade later. But that dramatic change in the soccer landscape in America in such a short time was unquestionably due to Pele’s having joined the Cosmos.

    One final note: if the President Bush you’re referring to was George H. W. Bush, his interest in getting together with Pele in Cincinnati could have been due to his personal interest in soccer. Although he was better known as a college athlete for having been a captain of the Yale baseball team, he also played varsity soccer.

  2. Yes, I knew when Pele died that we had lost a great athlete and extraordinary humanitarian. But your closing story about the little girl was priceless!

  3. … word….WoW!
    Thanks Dan, you took us with you on your journey .

  4. What a story! BTW regarding the photo with Jay Emmett, you Stuart etc. that is actually Jay Emmetts close friend Bill Smith who probably was a Detective Lt. at that time…

  5. Excellent story, Dan. And you should be proud for the impact you have had on so many young Westport players over the years.

  6. What a great set of stories, Dan! You primarily write about others’ experiences on 06680 but this was post about you. Your writing skill made me feel as if I were there with you. And that photo of you and Stu McCarthy with Pele is a hoot! Thank you again for all you do for Westport and the surrounding communities. Happy New Year!

  7. Roseann Spengler

    WOW. What a terrific story. Congratulations on all you have done for soccer in Westport. Happy New Year. I will look forward to 2023 and many great 06880 stories.

  8. What a lovely tribute! We Brasilians thank you!

  9. Bonnie Scott Connolly

    Wow! Best column ever!!

  10. Dan, thanks for the tribute to Pele and interwoven Westport stories. I was at one of the Cosmos games in ‘77 because Paul Hunter was playing. It was quite a site to see Paul out there with the global greats!

  11. Lynda Shannon Bluestein

    What a wonderful read for New Year’s Eve. Thank you. I was so star struck by Pele I couldn’t wait for my children to get old enough to start to play, and then, when they were in leagues, I found W.I.S.E. Women’s Instructional Soccer Experience in Yorba Linda, CA and started to play in my late 30s.

  12. Stephen Axthelm

    Wonderful stories Dan!

  13. Stephen Dickstein

    Brilliant and personal tribute to the king! You’re a lucky man for having your life’s work enable such heartwarming, repeated “touches and stories of a special, one of a kind, athlete/human. Is Pele the GOAT?

  14. Richard Rosencrans

    Maybe the best story I’ve ever read on 06880. Every encounter you had with Pele was positive and certainly memorable for you, and all because of such a wonderful man and athlete. Unforgettable lifetime memories for you and all the other characters who experienced the great Pele.

  15. Amazing post. Thanks for the history.

  16. Thank you Dan, for that wonderful tribute full of endearing stories.

  17. Dan, thank you for these wonderful anecdotes! Pele and that extraordinary international Cosmos roster (w/ ex-Wreckers to boot!) turned the soccer buzz in Westport up to 11 in those summers of the mid/late ’70s. In addition to the squad you reference that got to actually play on the turf, I’m recalling that a slightly older cohort (from your 1st Westport “C” youth soccer team,) were granted a block of seats for maybe a couple of other games…I’m remembering for some reason a game vs. the Tampa Bay Rowdies? And, unless memory is bending reality for dramatic effect…Pele scored a hat trick? The record, however, is clear on who gets the assist for all these terrific stories….Dan Woog!

    • Thanks, Doug — and yes, your team benefited from Mark Brickley’s generosity with the Cosmos too.

      PS: Great “Spinal Tap” reference to “11.” Still one of the classic movie scenes of all time.

  18. Interesting post, although when you write that “Hunter did the dirty work so that Pele could shine” you simultaneously disrespect both. Now we are done.

    • It’s a common reference to what defenders do. They seldom get the glory. “Dirty” as in dirty hands, not anything nefarious.

      See ya.

  19. Great journey of memories. Certainly gives meaning to life and a game that has been part of your world all these years. So many names on posts and in yours of old players who played below the hill and I had a pleasure of refereeing. Soccer in Westport certainly has been exemplary.

    One other memory about Westport and the Cosmos. I remember I believe in the seventies the Cosmos came to Greens Farms Academy to play a little exhibition against UConn. Joe Morrone was the coach. Pele was not on the team at the time but other greats Chingilia and Alberto were. All though past their prime they really made Uconn, a top team look like school boys with there skills. It was something watching them.

  20. I’ll add another. . .

    Pele was representing Umbro at NSCAA convention where @ 100 or so of us were invited to a reception sponsored by Umbro where it was rumored that Pele was to ‘stop by’ and say a few words AND maybe sign autographs.

    The gathering hushes then explodes as Pele enters the banquet hall as we were all taken aback by being so close to the player we all idolized.

    Yes, autographs were to be available (ever see an instantaneous line form so quickly) as Pele was to sign posters for each of us. He signed one for our daughter “With Love Pele” – she at age 50 still treasures the poster.

    The next in line was Ray Cieplik, long-time US Coast Guard Academy men’s coach and then athletic director and well-known as the voice of the association’s major banquets at conventions. Noting the long line (we were near the front), Ray said please sign one poster for Chris, Tim and Scott his three sons. Pele asked if they were brothers? Ray replied yes they are. Pele then immediately said “Then I will sign three as I don’t want to start an argument.”

    A sign of how caring so ‘real’ a personality he was.

    Long live the king!
    Jeff Vennell

    • Hi Jeff, wondering how you are connected to 06880 but perhaps you got to know Dan through soccer. Hope all is well with you. Sincerely Tom kretsch

  21. Wow, Dan! What an awesome story with so many great memories! Though I never met him, I coached elementary school girls soccer in the early 90s and we had pizza nights at my house during which we showed movies of Pele playing (borrowed them and the projector from the library) so to utilize/encourage positive visualization techniques for our girls!!

  22. Thank you for sharing this post, Dan… wonderful stories about a truly kind, caring, and loving man as well as the “best there ever was.” What a great way to start 2023! Happy New Year!

  23. Jim Bacharach

    Thanks for sharing these great memories with everyone!