Former Lancers midfielder Frank Odoi remembers incidents on and off the field in Atlanta that occurred almost half a century ago. (Photo courtesy of the Rochester Lancers)

This is the second part of a three-part series multi-part series, looking at several soccer players’ experiences with racism — past and present — whether it was in their face or systemic. All stories have ties to Atlanta. Part II concerns itself with the Rochester Lancers’ visit to Atlanta for a North American Soccer League game on Aug. 8, 1970 and what transpired at the end of the game with the Atlanta Chiefs and its aftermath.

This is an excerpt from Michael Lewis’ upcoming book: Alive and Kicking: The Incredible Story of the Rochester Lancers. The book is expected to be published in 2021. If you want to get updates on the book and when the official website for the book is unveiled, please send an email to SoccerWriter516@aol.com.

Since the Rochester Lancers were going to play a ridiculous back-to-back road games within 24 hours, reporter Alex Loj wrote in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that they “will encounter their toughest North American Soccer League schedule of the season.” He was correct, although there were other reasons for it.

The first game was at the Atlanta Chiefs on Aug. 8, 1970 With the league holding on for dear life, the Chiefs downsized, moving out of voluminous Fulton County Stadium and to Tara Stadium in nearby Clayton County.

The Chiefs worked out a deal with the Clayton County Board of Education to play 10 regular-season games and four international matches at the 12,000-seat high school stadium. The school board unanimously approved the deal, according to the February 1970 edition of The Pacesetter, the official newsletter of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce.

The stadium was built in 1968 for more than half a million dollars (equal to least $3.6 dollars in today’s currency), Tara “is considered the finest high school in the state” and was located 15 miles south of downtown Atlanta.

“The field is ideally suited for soccer, and the size of the facility will create a better opportunity for the game,” Chiefs vice president Dick Cecil was quoted in The Pacesetter. “We are also happy to be in a prospering area like Clayton County. The people there have been very enthusiastic about the Chiefs coming in, and I see a bright future for major league soccer in the community.”

With the Northern Conference crown within striking distance, the Lancers went out and managed to play their worst game of the season on a rainy night in northern Georgia Saturday, Aug. 9. Nothing went right for the visitors as they lost for only the second time under DeRosa, a 3-0 defeat to the Chiefs before a cozy crowd 1,318 at Tara Stadium.

For a good 15 minutes after the game, Rochester head coach Sal DeRosa lectured his players as he kept the locker room door locked. “Our players were just not up to it tonight,” he said. “The tempo from our last two games was of and we just couldn’t clock and finish the play. Without any doubt we played our worst game since I took over the club,” he said. “I don’t know what was on their minds. Maybe they were thinking about Kansas City so much that tonight’s game was completely left out. I felt we didn’t give everything we had and that’s why we fell.”

It was the Lancers’ first season in which they played south of Washington, D.C. and a good part of their roster during their three American Soccer League years was white or Hispanic. The inclusion of Ghanaian players Frank Odoi, Gladstone Ofori and Yao Kankam, who had attacking roles, changed the team’s color, outlook and the way it was treated on the road.

Few things went right on the field.  Captain Charlie Mitchell’s own goal that was deflected off goalkeeper Claude Campos 10 minutes into the game gave the Chiefs a 1-0 lead. Henry Largie dribbled through two Lancers to double the lead in the 62nd minute before Nick Papadakis, now the USL director of marketing, put the finishing touches to win, scoring off an Art Welch feed from inside the area four minutes from time.

Tempers flared as the Lancers claimed Atlanta was offsides. The Rochester bench emptied and surrounded referee Roger Shott, who refused to nullify the goal. “I cautioned some of the players, but did not throw anybody out,” Shott told the Atlanta Constitution. “There was no offsides on the play, however, because the ball hit a defender’s leg.”

After the match high drama was played out. First, Ofori let Shott have it: “You are a no-good rotten referee.”

Odoi, who claimed the game was interrupted five times by incidents and felt that 10 minutes were wasted while the game clock ran, had a front seat to the entire episode. “Honestly, it’s so wrong. He was talking. He was upset,” he said of Ofori, who told the policeman he should mind his own business. “He was upset about the game. He was so was upset. There were 10 or 15 minutes where we didn’t play.”

A police officer grabbed Ofori by the neck. “Boy, you should watch your mouth, you’re in Georgia,” he said.

“Who are you calling boy? I’m not your boy,” Ofori responded.

Odoi said: “Gladstone is the type of guy, you don’t intimidate him. He can run his mouth. He is very eloquent.”

Ofori then told the officer: “I am going to write a letter to the State Department. You won’t wear this uniform the rest of your life.”

“The officer freaked out,” Odoi said. “All of a sudden they’re calling troopers. We’re going to be arrested. Arrested for what?”

The Lancers marched from their locker room and Schiano planned strategy to get his players out of harm’s way and onto the team bus. In recounting the story years later, Lancers co-owner Charlie Schiano, also the team general manager at the time and an attorney, said there were 30 state troopers. That seemed to be excessive, but the tension certainly wasn’t.

Schiano gave his wallet and important papers to DeRosa. “When they arrest me, you use that to bail me out,” he told the Lancers coach. He led the players out of the locker room and walked over to a law enforcement officer who supposedly was going to arrest the African players.

“Then I really went crazy,” Schiano said. “I said, ‘Listen, do you know who I am? I’m Senator Keating’s nephew. I’m going to have your ass on the front page of the New York Times. I went to his nose. He looked like Bull Connor with all their troopers and their guns.”

Kenneth Keating was a New York senator who served from 1959-65.

Bull Connor was the commissioner of public safety for Birmingham, Ala., who was a symbol of international symbol of institutional racism and forged a reputation for strongly opposing activities of the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s by using, force violence and bullying tactics. In May 1963, under Connor’s orders, police ordered the use of fire hoses and police dogs on protesters in the Alabama city. Many of the protesters were students from the all-Black Parker High School.

Schiano, an imposing 6-4, wasn’t finished. “I’m taking our players out and if you touch one of them you son of a bitch, you’re going to be on national television,” he said.

To which the officer replied: “Get on the God damn bus and leave us alone.”

Back in Atlanta, the Lancers experienced even more racism when they went out for a postgame meal at a local restaurant near the team hotel.

After returning to the hotel, several players said they were going to get a bite to eat. The group included Ofori, Winston Earle, Peter Short, Mitchel and Carlos Metidieri.

“There was a sign, an old southern side that they had a right to serve whoever they wanted,” Odoi said. “They weren’t served. When they were leaving, they got stopped. ‘Did you guys pay for the bill?’ Pay for the bill? You didn’t serve us. You didn’t even give us water. What are you talking about? There was a … commotion. I was already disgusted from the game. I wanted to stay in the hotel. We were leaving the next day, going to Kansas City. The officer came there. ‘Oh, you guys again?’ They wanted us to pay. Pay for what? Pay for something we didn’t have? Do you believe those were happening in those years?”

When Odoi journeyed to the U.S. from Ghana in 1968, he received an unwanted education in segregation. During his first week of training with the Washington Whips in Orlando, Fla., Odoi and teammates from Denmark, Germany, Brazil and Jamaica went out for dinner.

“They got to the gate [of the restaurant] and they said you come in, but they wouldn’t let him in,” Odoi said about the Jamaican player. “A fight broke out. They were very rough. What is this? Why can’t he go in there? It is mind boggling. It hard for you to believe it, but it’s happening. I saw it back home, when I read the news how they keep out black people. They got different facilities for them to use and they can’t go. This is like South Africa, apartheid. This is like apartheid. In this country, this thing still exists. You won’t believe it, but I came, and I observed it and I experienced it myself.”

“When the British were in power in Ghana, we go to the beach and we couldn’t go to certain areas because these are the white [areas]. After we got our independence, the president says, ‘Ghana belongs to Ghanaians and nobody can say where Ghanaians can go and where they can’t go.’ It’s as simple as that.”

This is an excerpt from Michael Lewis’ upcoming book: Alive and Kicking: The Incredible Story of the Rochester Lancers. The book is expected to be published in 2021. If you want to get updates on the book and when the official website for the book is unveiled, please send an email to SoccerWriter516@aol.com.

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