OFFSIDE REMARKS: Birth of a sportswriting career many years ago
Michael Lewis (left) and Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner (right) during a World Cup symposium in Brazil in 1987.
By Michael Lewis
On Monday, June 24, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis celebrates his 45th anniversary in the newspaper business. That was the day Lewis joined the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1974.
Six months later, Lewis was assigned to cover the Rochester Lancers of the old North American Soccer League.
Since then, Lewis has covered the sport at every level, from youth to high school to amateurs to semi-pro to professional to the international end.
He has attended and written about 13 World Cups (eight men and five women), seven Summer Olympics and a host of other championships and finals and is the only media person to attend and cover every MLS Cup.
Lewis also covered the game in which Pele scored his first NASL goal and attended his last competitive match at Soccer Bowl ’77.
This is the start of a two-part series on Lewis reflecting at his career and the beautiful game that has spanned the years. Yes, he interviews himself.
Today’s story is about how he got started and how he was introduced to the game kicking and screaming.
Michael: OK, so how did you begin covering soccer?
Lewis Well, it is a long story. I was somewhat familiar with the game. At Nassau Community College I did some rewrites of stories with my byline that included a goalkeeper named Bruce Arena. Wonder whatever happened to him. Yeah, that’s right, same Bruce Arena who went on to coach the University of Virginia, the U.S. national team and D.C. United, the Red Bulls and the LA Galaxy. Ironically, I never got to watch Arena play soccer, but I did watch him play lacrosse and he was some player, a junior college and NCAA Division All-America midfielder at NCC and Cornell University, respectively.
In an attempt to get some writing experience at the Syracuse University school paper, The Daily Orange, I volunteered to cover the soccer club. Yep, the soccer club, not team. It was the fall of 1972 and soccer was still trying to make inroad into colleges. I did not get off on the right foot. I was told the wrong time of the game. I showed up at the Manley tract (if my memory serves me correctly) and I found the club team’s head coach in a nearby brush searching for wayward soccer balls that were booted out of bounds. He found one. I did a retro interview on the match, which the Orange lost, 3-2. I remember my lead: Not all was lost. And I began writing about that the coach had a moral victory by finding one of those missing soccer balls.
At the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, I covered high school soccer, but I wrote more features than anything else. So I did not observe tactics that much. Like many other writers, I wanted to cover the big sport in town — football or basketball or baseball or hockey.
Out of all of the beats at the D&C, the only one I did not want was soccer. Why? Because it was foreign to me — on so many levels. I did not know much about the sport and there were, well, foreigners whose names looked quite intimidating to spell, let alone pronounce. I attended one Lancers game the summer of ’74 and that was during a dinner break on a slow Wednesday night. We got into the stadium for free. Heck, we got into the press box without a problem, though we did not have a press pass. I forgot the score of the match, but one thing I do remember: fans ran onto the field to protest a call in an international friendly against the Italian national team. That’s right, a pitch invasion. Not exactly a scene at your very first professional soccer game that will whet your appetite to cover it on a regular basis.
So, to make a long story even longer, on the night of Jan. 22, 1975 D&C assistant sports editor Bill Parker called me over to his desk. There was a pile of files and papers in front of him and I was wondering what they were for. He started telling me that he and the editor (Larry Greybill, that audacious man with vision who hired me in June 1974) liked what they saw of my work and my potential and that they wanted to give me more responsibilities. He probably said some other things as well, but my heart dropped into my stomach as it was becoming more and more apparent that I was going to cover the Rochester Lancers. I do recall Bill pushed the pile of files and papers toward my way and saying something like, “Congratulations, you are now covering your first professional team.” My first knee jerk reaction was to push the pile back to Bill and say, “No thank you.” Of course, I didn’t. Like every newly hired writer — sports or otherwise — we were on probation that year and I still had five months before mine was over. Of course, I took it, although I was asking myself, “What did I get myself into?”
Michael: But it wasn’t your fault. You were given that assignment.
Lewis: True. But I certainly wasn’t an authority on the subject. Like many kids of my generation, I grew up playing and watching, in this order: baseball, football, basketball and hockey. I might not have been a great athlete, but I loved and knew my sports. Soccer? I knew of this player from Brazil. Pele, was his name who could do magical things with the ball.
Now, I think I should put things into perspective. This was 1975, some youngsters might consider that the stone age. And compared to today, it probably was. We used typewriters in those days (some of my readers should ask their parents and grandparents what a typewriter was). Newspapers were published in a different manner and many cities had not one, but two newspapers, a morning paper and an evening one. There was no smart phones, internet or wall-to-wall, 24/7 soccer on TV. Videos? Ha. The VHS and Beta recorders were still two years away.
So, in other words, you had to look under rocks trying to find information about the beautiful game. I decided to do some research by asking Alex Loj and Jim Rickey, my predecessors on the Lancers beat, some obvious basic questions. I also discovered a couple of soccer books at bookstores. The first one I bought was “Soccer USA” by Chuck Cascio. I would devour whatever information I could find. In 1976 I discovered this book by a New York-based writer named Paul Gardner. It was called “The Simplest Game.” It opened my eyes to the sport like it never had. The sport was never the same to me after reading that masterpiece. But please don’t tell Paul that he will dismiss my remarks as dumb flattery.
Seriously, though, I could not watch soccer on TV because cable TV was in its infancy and there was little if none on the tube. The first real regular televised soccer was called Soccer Made in Germany, which was shown on PBS stations a week after the game was played. Better later than never when beggars were concerned.
Michael: So how did you, for lack of better words, get into the game and sport?
Lewis: I started to meet players and people around the world and learn not only about the game, but about their culture and personalities. The first Lancers team I covered in 1975 had Englishmen, Poles, Brazilians, Ghanaians, Argentinians, Canadians, Ecuadorians, Jamaicans, Romanians, and yes, even an American or two. Each year my knowledge, passion and appreciation of the game grew. It wasn’t until by third year in 1977 that I felt I could stand on my own opinion (even if it was not correct) with coach Dragan Popovic. I learned very quickly that soccer was a very subjective game.
Michael: How did you discover soccer outside of the United States?
Lewis: In 1982, when my ex-wife, Debbie, and I went to London on vacation for a week. Again, there was no internet in those days, no schedules handy. I wound up talking to Peter Short, a former North American Soccer League all-star who played with the Lancers for four years prior to me covering them and he gave me some good, general background. It’s funny how things happen. We were on a charter flight and we had to land in Shannon, Ireland to refuel. We were allowed out of the plane and in the duty free shop, I bought an Irish newspaper that said England was to play Germany in an international friendly that night. I told Debbie something to the effect that I don’t know what she’s doing that night, but I was going to Wembley. Did not have a clue how to get there. We went there, sat far away from the tumult in the stands. Germany, which had lost to Italy in the World Cup final only months prior, 3-1, grabbed a 2-0 advantage and beat the English, 2-1. We wound up sitting in the upper deck of the storied stadium away from the tumult of some crazy, overly passionate fans. Or so we thought. After Germany scored a goal, a loan German fan sitting near us proudly began to wave a German flag. An inebriated English fan came over to complain or bother him and then left him alone. After Germany scored again, the same fan came over wanting to cause some trouble before he was escorted away by the police.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
My so-called vacation became a working vacation. I decided to pursue a pair of stories about two lower division clubs in London. It would be easy to do something about Manchester United, etc. etc., but I wanted to get to the core of the game. I attended a game at Leyton Orient, then in the old English Third Division and had a fabulous time at Brisbane Road even though the home side lost something like 5-2. I also attended a game at Plough Lane, the old home of Wimbledon (which eventually moved to Milton Keynes). Another memorable experience. Soccer America published both stories and they still are favorites of mine, more than three decades later.
Like I said, I was hooked.
Next: Part II of a soccer-writing career.