Walter Bahr (right), Prof. Julio Mazzei (center) and Wilf Mannion in Belo Horizonte in 1987, (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
On Jan. 23, 1991, the phone rang in the Walter Bahr home in Boalsburg, Pa.
Bahr answered the call and recognized the familiar voice of the New York Daily News sportswriter. Oh no, he thought, the writer was going ask him about some ancient soccer history, as he liked to call it, again.
Nope, not this time.
My interview was about another kind of football, the American gridiron kind and the topic was about his son, Matt, who had just kicked the New York Giants into the Super Bowl a few days prior by connecting for a 42-yard field goal in the waning seconds for a 15-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Whose father doesn’t like to talk about his sons?
“I think you’re always more proud of your sons’ accomplishments instead of your own,” he said.
And that’s what I wrote my article about, looking back at the game and forward to the Super Bowl against the Buffalo Bills in Tampa that upcoming Sunday. And Walter had plenty to talk about with his sons as his oldest, Casey, played at the 1972 Summer Olympics, and Chris, was the 1975 North American Soccer League rookie of the year with the Philadelphia Atoms before getting his kicks and much more money in the NFL.
I had the privilege of knowing Walter Bahr for more than 30 years. He passed away Monday after complications from a broken hip. He was 91.
With a heavy heart, I wrote his obituary and reposted some of my favorite stories about Walter on this website. Needless to say, memories of my time with him came back to me.
Some of the early conversations centered around what transpired in Belo Horizonte on June 29, 1950.
If you are a U.S. soccer fan don’t know that the Americans stunned England (first), 1-0, and then the rest of the world that day, then shame on you.
In 1987, I was fortunate enough to be in Belo Horizonte for a special 1950 World Cup reunion. U.S. teammate Harry Keough, with whom Bahr had forged a friendship through the years, and former England national team player Wilf Mannion attended the gathering organized by Prof. Julio Mazzei.
We visited Mineiro Stadium, where history was made almost 68 years ago. I felt I was a kid locked in a candy store. Armed a tape recorder in one hand and a camera in the other, I allowed Harry, Walter and Wilf talk about how history was made on that field. I managed to snap some photos, not exactly Pulitzer Prize quality, but unique, nonetheless.
When Walter was describing the play that led to Joe Gaetjens’ goal in the 1-0 victory, I thought I was dreaming, it was such a surreal experience.
Gaetjens, a Haitian-born forward, scored in the 37th minute, a tally that has been debated about for years. The English claimed it was a lucky strike.
“It wasn’t an accident,” Bahr said. “He got to the ball by design. The ball itself was a deflection. It wasn’t a clean head ball, but he has to get credit for getting his head on the ball.”
Bahr walked his way through the sequence, starting with Frank McElvenny’s throw-in from the right side 35 yards out.
“I was playing left halfback,” Bahr said. “I came in for McElvenny’s throw-in. I dribbled the ball . . . maybe to here.”
Bahr stood 25 yards from the goal.
“I took a shot,” he said. “It was going to the far post. The goalkeeper had to move to his right to get the ball and somehow Joe Gaetjens came from that side and deflected it with his head.”
Past goalkeeper Bert Williams into the goal.
“We were happy to get off the field with maybe a 2-, 3- or 4-0 loss and to get a goal like that, we maybe awakened the sleeping giant,” Bahr said.
Surreal, just surreal.
Walter Bahr might have been born on April Fool’s Day in 1927, but he hardly was anyone’s fool.
He had a lot of grit, which he demonstrated in several soccer arenas, including playing for the national team and professionally and coaching at the amateur, semi-pro and college levels.
After retiring from coaching, he became a great ambassador of the game, sometimes traveling with the U.S. national team as head of delegation. He and Keough, another member of that 1950 team, were in Port of Spain, Trinidad for the U.S.’s 1-0 qualifying win over the hosts, which ended the 40-year World Cup drought Nov. 19, 1989.
My wife Joy and myself would run into Walter and sometimes his family on a regular basis at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America conventions. Many times the conversations centered around the beautiful game, sometimes about life in general and even common sense.
He was humble, down to earth and seemingly always had some wisdom to share.
And oh yeah, about my story about Matt. Walter admitted he was all nerves watching his son late in the game. “For sure I was a lot more nervous watching him than he was,” he said. “He was doing his job.”
Later in the interview, Walter said something telling about himself and his character, something he probably taught his sons. Earlier in the game, Matt had missed a 37-yard attempt earlier in the fourth quarter.
“I’ve coached them as much to lose or miss as well as to win,” he said. “Matthew always had a pretty good attitude when he stepped up to hit the ball. The important thing is: Can you come up and make the next one after missing one?”
I considered Walter Bahr a friend.
I hope he felt the same way about me.
He was one classy guy, on and off the field.
My deepest sympathies and condolences to the Bahr family and his extended family in the U.S. Soccer community. We lost a great one today.