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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.)