Gene Bodenstein started a soccer store in the seventies, before the youth soccer boom. (Photo courtesy of Helen Fishman)
By Michael Lewis
It all began, quite innocently, with a second grader wanting to play in this new soccer league with one of his friends.
It turned into both his parents embracing and falling in love with the beautiful game.
To many soccer aficionados in Massapequa, N.Y., on Long Island and even on the East Coast, Gene Bodenstein did his part in helping fuel the youth soccer boom with an iconic soccer store almost five decades ago before the sport became ubiquitous in the 21st century.
As co-founder of the Massapequa Soccer and Sport Shop in Massapequa Park, Bodenstein and his family were the go-to place as they supplied soccer players and teams with uniforms, equipment and balls during an era when they were difficult to find.
Bodenstein passed away, his family said on Tuesday. He was 86.
“Soccer was his life,” his daughter, Helen Fishman said.
Indeed, it was – in so many ways.
“He loved he loved the game. He loved his family,” she said. “He loved the people he met along the way, whether it was it was part of the business, through us playing, through his involvement, just so many people. Their friendship.”
It’s funny how minor events can impact us to make some major decisions in life.
In the early seventies, Alan Bodenstein, the oldest of three children of Gene and Fay – Mark was his younger brother — came home from school one day. Alan said that his friend’s father was starting a soccer league, Fishman said.
“I want to play,” Fishman recalled her brother tell her parents.
“My father goes: ‘What the hell is soccer?’ He was a Brooklyn, Brooklyn baseball, stickball. He didn’t know soccer from a hole in the wall. My mother the European she knew about soccer. They go up to the school and they register my brother.”
In case you were wondering, Alan’s friend was Paul Bradley, the son of then New York Cosmos head coach and National Soccer Hall of Famer Gordon Bradley. Bradley helped form the Massapequa Soccer Club.
Naturally, the Bodensteins watched their son play.
At the time, Bodenstein was the vice president of a construction company in New York City. His offices were near the Doss Soccer Supply Store and he would shop for Alan’s shin guards and soccer shoes.
At the time, Fay was a stay-at-home mom.
“My mom was like, ‘You know what? Why don’t you bring a couple of things in and I’ll set up a little store in the garage. We’ll just charge a dollar or 50 cents more just for convenience,’ ” Fishman said. “It’s a little extra pocket money.”
It was a humble beginning but a start.
All of sudden boxes were brought home from the city with shoes, balls and whatever equipment was needed. Pat McComiskey, Hank Oustecky and Bradley asked Bodenstein to be on the fledgling’s club uniform committee. He went to Doss to get custom uniforms made. Slowly, but surely, he became much more involved. At the time, the construction business in NYC wasn’t exactly thriving.
“He wasn’t really happy with what was going on,” Fishman said.
The Bodenstein sold their soccer stuff out of their garage, but then came a game-changing event, which was a negative turned into a positive.
“My mom also was kind of evicted from the garage. Somebody complaining because she was running a business in a residential area,” Fishman said.
So, in 1973 Bodenstein rented a store on Front Street in Massapequa Park, across the street from the Long Island Railroad Station. They were on the ground floor of the building that was the headquarters of the legendary publication, Soccer Week, which was a flight up.
That was two years before Pele joined the Cosmos, which ignited a youth soccer boom that has been felt to this day.
“They started a little sporting goods store and my mom and I ran it while my dad still worked in construction, trying to bring home some money,” Fishman said. “She was really just trying to get rid of the stuff. The store just evolved.”
In an interview with the SGA Sports Retailer years later, Bodenstein remembered how small that store was. Customers just about had to shop single file. “We had about 500 square feet of selling space,” he said with a grin. “As a matter of fact, it was probably closer to 400 feet.”
The Bodensteins learned more about the game and soccer merchandise They eventually moved the store a block to the west to Park Boulevard.
“It just took off from there,” Fishman said.
The shop didn’t just become the mom-and-pop soccer store that could. It soared.
Well before you could buy a soccer ball at a drug store, the shop became the go-to place for soccer equipment and just about everything else about the sport. When she played with her Connecticut team in a Massapequa Soccer Club tournament, future National Soccer Hall of Famer and U.S. women’s national team legend Kristine Lilly shopped there.
The story also became an unofficial gathering place where soccer fans, Soccer Moms and Dads and even media could talk about their favorite sport.
Some 20 years ago, the SGA Sports Retailer, the official publication of The National Sporting Goods Association, featured Bodenstein and his soccer store on its cover.
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It also pictured Bodenstein helping a youngster try on some shoes.
“We always laugh when we look at the picture because he’s sitting on a chair fitting a kid for shoes,” Fishman said. “My father didn’t fit a freaking customer for shoes in the in the almost 50 years he was in business. And that was the front page.”
You could tell who Gene Bodenstein was at the store. He was the man with the pipe in his mouth.
The store’s reputation grew well beyond Long Island. Companies asked the Gene and his son Mark, to work their exhibits at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (now United Soccer Coaches) convention.
Diadora, a soccer uniform company, flew the Gene and Fay to France for the 1998 World Cup final.
Fishman said they were “like one of the top 10 people in the country. That’s how they were. I mean, not now in the industry because it’s changed so much, but in the day, my parents were something in this industry. They would call my father, asking his advice.”
Bodenstein could be gruff with friends and family at times, and doubling and tripling down on his opinions, even if they weren’t always spot on.
“He was stubborn,” Fishman said.
But he also had a heart of gold.
Bodenstein coached a youth team, the Massapequa Red Barons, named because he loved the Peanuts character. Snoopy. He had a thing for dogs, there seemed to be one in the store all the time (Gene called one his vice president of security) and his favorite TV show once was Alf.
But beyond his family, Bodenstein’s heart belonged to soccer.
He served as president of the Massapequa Soccer Club (Long Island Junior Soccer League), got involved with the Long Island Soccer Football League that he was honored with a 25-year pin in 1998. Bodenstein took a boys’ team to the Netherlands. Fay helped start the Massapequa SC’s girls’ program, Fishman said.
On Saturday mornings, Bodenstein would watch his favorite team, Liverpool, compete in the English Premier League.
When many former youth players returned to the town as adults, Bodenstein formed an Over-30 team called Massapequa Reunited. And he put his money where his heart was.
“He paid for that team,” Fishman said. “That was his love and his joy to have that team in the LISFL. I think that was like one of his happiest [times] being the team manager or the money man for that team. The guys never paid for anything.”
The team won several LISFL and Eastern New York State Soccer Association State Cup titles and reached the national O-30 tournament’s Sweet 16. Bodenstein paid for the charter bus to Boston for the players. He always made sure he had a cooler stocked with beer for postgame refreshments.
Not surprisingly, the Bodensteins were among the first inductees into the Massapequa SC Hall of Fame.
“He never wanted any accolades,” Fishman said. “There’s so many times I wanted to put his name in for the Hall of Fame, the LIJSL, but he never really met their credentials because he was a quiet man behind the scenes. If clubs needed something, he would help them, if a player needed something he would help. That’s how my parents were. They didn’t want people to know what they did. They just did it for the love of the game and to love the people that were involved.”
To get away from soccer, the Bodensteins and their entire family would take a trip to Aruba each year.
Fay, a Holocaust survivor, passed away in January 2016.
Gene Bodenstein is survived by his children, Alan, and his wife Jennifer, Helen, and her husband Yuri Fishman, and Mark, and several grandchildren.
A service is scheduled for the Star of David Memorial Chapel in West Babylon, N.Y. on Wednesday at 2 p.m. Burial will be at Wellwood Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y.