Jon Stewart said that playing in the 80s was like being in black and white films, soccer has advanced so much in the past two decades. (Photo courtesy of United Soccer Coaches)

This story appeared in March 5 2006, the night John Stewart hosted the Oscars.

By Michael Lewis

Philadelphia — Jon Stewart was on a roll. Then again, when isn’t he?

Whether it was a bunch of sportswriters or entertainment writers in a press conference or some 1,600 young men and ladies and their parents and coaches during an awards luncheon, the host of The Daily Show had them rolling — yeah, even the sometimes jaded media — with laughter.

Before he received an honorary All-American from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America in January, Stewart was asked what the award meant to him.

“You know, it’s interesting,” he said. “I was not a particularly a great student. I was not particularly a great athlete and I have an honorary doctorate and an honorary All-American certificate. It means the best thing to do I think is honestly not to pay close attention and to write a lot of jokes. That’s the way to the top.”

As it turns out, playing to some 1,600 people at the All-America luncheon was only a warm-up to what Stewart will be doing on Sunday night as he faces one of his biggest challenges of his 43-plus years on this planet when he hosts the Academy Awards (ABC, 8 p.m. EST).

Stewart follows in the rarefied shoes of Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal and Whoppi Goldberg, among others.

It is indeed a daunting task but it seems like a job created for someone as quick witted on his feet (or sitting down) as Stewart.

Don’t worry, he’ll come properly attired. Asked what he would wear to the Oscars, Stewart replied, “The shame of a nation. Yeah, I’ll wear a tux, man. I’ll look sharp for the Oscars. I’ll shower and everything. It’s going to be awesome.”

Of course, it’s not like Stewart is a film buff or anything.

He’s just, ahem, a wee bit behind the times when he was pressed on who was going to win best picture.

“Uh, uh … I’m going to go with Marty,” he said of the 1955 Oscar winning film that starred Ernest Borgnine.

Someone mentioned he was a little late with Marty.

“Is that true? I just saw it,” he said.

“I’ll be honest. I have an 18-month old.”

Translated: Stewart hasn’t gotten out much to the movies in the past year or so.

But regardless, the questions about movies and soccer were relentless.

Hosting the Oscars seemed like a natural for someone who has made a career taking on demagogues and phonies.

“I think my film work speaks for itself,” Stewart said. “I’ll be excited to be there. As roller-blader No. 1 in Mixed Nuts, I am hoping to get a [nomination]. We’ll see what happens.”

David Letterman has talked about retirement as part of a semi-joke and not surprisingly, Stewart’s name popped up. Did he think his talent as a soccer player gave him an edge over others?

“Yeah, I’m going to do a 90-minute show. And if the show is still no good, I’m going to go into two overtimes and then a joke-out.”

A joke-out?

“A joke-out. One joke after another until one team goes down,” he said.

Stewart downplayed the Letterman rumors.

“I don’t hear talk like that,” he said. “All that stuff is just silly. He’s the greatest one of our entire generation. All that stuff is because there are a lot of radio stations and papers and things like that that you know need to talk about lots of different things. There are so many other things that are more important.”

Such as the best soccer movie ever.

“I think when [Sylvester] Stallone decided to make Rocky for soccer.” he said. “The best soccer movie ever made? You know, was it Victory? Were there any others?”

Someone mentioned Bend it like Beckham.

“Bend it like Beckman I never saw,” he said. “It doesn’t have the lure in this country like a baseball movie. There is no Bang the Drum Slowly. There is no Natural. I guess they really haven’t turned to soccer filming yet.

“Soccer is peripheral. They don’t do soccer film making use of the lure of the game, using that as a metaphor like they do with baseball.”

To borrow a phrase from that other sport, asking him questions at a press conference was like batting practice. You threw a line or question his way and he would hit it out of the park.

And he didn’t need a set-up, he would fungo it as well at the luncheon.

Stewart, who played his collegiate soccer under coach Al Albert at the College of William & Mary, is the first Academy Awards host with a soccer background. Someone noted that should help the growth of the game.

“I was hoping that South America, Europe and Eastern Europe would finally pick up on this game with my help,” he said. “I am like the George Bush of soccer. I am going to spread soccer throughout the world.”

During a press conference, Stewart addressed a number of subjects, soccer, career and Oscar related:

* On how long he plans to do The Daily Show: “What do you know? Is this how they fire me? We do this whole thing, pretending I’m getting an award and one guy quietly in the back says, ‘You have two weeks.’ One thing I’ve never been good at is long-range thinking. So I just don’t know. I’m enjoying it now. My guess is that we’ll probably do it two years longer than we should have. That’s my guess.”

* On his son: “He’s 18 months old and he’s on two traveling select teams.”

* On whether he was going to put a soccer ball or a baseball glove in the crib of his newborn: “You know, I’m a dreamer. So the first thing I think is going to be a basketball ball. I want him to the first in my family to dunk. We’ll see what happens. My gut is that is not going to happen.”

* What was his inspiration: “Like most teenagers, I was very into public affairs. This was the days before C-Span, so I spent most of my time just pouring over transcripts of Nelson Rockefeller speeches. Back then, honestly this all came about with great serendipity. These guys who went to school with me [will tell you] I was not particularly focused. But soccer was the saving grace. That was the thing that I looked forward to and that’s the thing that kept us together and kept us believing as far as spirits are concerning. If I was ambitious, I probably would have gotten up before 11 and then perhaps gone to class.”

* If he misses playing the game: “Every morning I get up at six, have half a melon, jazzercise and get out to the practice field. I am in peak condition, possibility the top shape of my career and actually, quite frankly, winded just standing here. But I thank you for the question.”

* On whether he plays pick-up games: “I haven’t done that in over 10,000 Marlboro miles ago.”

* Does he still follow the sport at all: “Yes, I just follow Group C of the Mexican League.”

* On being one of the guys again with a reunion with his former William & Mary teammates: “I get to be one of the guys again? Are you reading my diary? It’s going to be awesome. A lot of these guys I haven’t seen for many years. A lot I have. But that’s always the most fun, the guys that you have played with. Those are the ones you look the most forward to seeing. Chances are many of them are still drunk.”

* On playing as a high school all-star at Veteran Fields in Philadelphia: “My cement basement was a better field. It was literally the hardest surface I had ever played on. I could not believe they were forcing people to play athletic sports on it. . . We actually played the Comos B team at the Meadlowlands. But their B team is like Nelsi Morais and [Vladislav] Bogicevic. Those were the kind of guys you’d be marking them and when the ball would come their way, they’d just move, and they’d whack you in the back of your nuts. These guys were 38 and 39 and not at the peak of their careers. But they had come to America to play. ”

After the press conference, it was showtime, Part II, speaking to 1,600 people — an NSCAA all-America luncheon record crowd in the grand ballroom of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

He was introduced to the throng and in telling moment, instead of sitting with the high and mighty of the NSCAA at the dais, Stewart opted to sit with his former William & Mary teammates at a table in the audience.

“If you want to get a chance,” he told the assembled, “Just walk up to our table later and see how badly we can age. It’s so shocking.”

And then he asked no one in particular: “When we did the national anthem, were you saluting the American flag or the adidas logo?”

The latter is the NSCAA’s sponsor.

Near the end of his All-America speech, Stewart became serious. Well, as close to serious as Jon Stewart can get.

“On an honest note, I can’t tell you how really impressed I am with the quality of American soccer,” he said. “It is a remarkably different game in the game than the one we played in the early 80s. In a way, I almost feel like the old black and white films of Bob Cousy. You’re watching them and you see the white guys in there. You see the game and you don’t see people dunking.

“We were talking about soccer at the table. The quintessential American turning point moment in soccer was in the last World Cup when America was playing Germany. I remember watching the game. ‘Oh my God, we’re better than them.’ It was a shocking moment for someone who was accustomed to the old NASL [North American Soccer League] when they would bring in Bogie [Bogicevic] and Beckenbauer and Pele and every team would have to have one American. He was always the guy they would have stay in the corner.

“What you have done is unbelievably impressive. You play a beautiful game, a technical game, a strong game. It’s really, really fun to watch, especially for someone who knows how far this game has come. As a matter of fact, we were laughing that back in the day, we were still allowed to use our hands. But I just want to think what incredible achievement for a sport 20 years ago was not really on the national radar the way it is now. It’s a credit to the coaches, players and to the parents and families.”

And of course, Stewart had to have the last (funny) word.

After he received his All-America plaque and some soccer gear from the NSCAA, Stewart walked of the stage with his prize package held over his head and proclaimed:

“I’m selling this on e-bay!”