At his online launch in March, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis read a passage from his book, ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers, about how Don Lalka and his family left Ukraine at the end of World War II. With what has transpired in the past year, we thought it was appropriate to share this piece.
This excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 4, And so it really begins, is used with permission.
Don Lalka learned at an early age that very few things were given to many people on a silver platter, and that he would have to work hard to achieve his goals. Lalka lived in his native Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and Germany for the first seven years of his life before journeying to the United States.
By the time he joined the Rochester Lancers in 1967, the 23-year-old center back had accrued a ton of experience, playing for professional and semi-pro teams on the East Coast, in the Midwest and Canada.
At the time, North American pro soccer was the sport’s equivalent of the wild west, with two new national leagues and the American Soccer League. Players were in demand, especially good, young defenders such as Lalka. A naturalized citizen, he became the Lancers’ first Homegrown Player, in today’s Major League Soccer parlance.
Born in Rohatyn, Ukraine on July 3, 1944, Lalka emigrated to the U.S. with his parents at a very young age. Rohatyn is a suburb of Lviv, the second largest city in the western part of the Ukraine. When Lalka was one-year-old, his family was forced to escape the city because it was about to be reclaimed by the communists in 1945. His father was an anti-communist, and an active member of the underground movement. “The communists were coming back, and my father knew it would be Siberia for us if we stayed,” Lalka was quoted by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
The Lalka family’s goal was the United States. Since thousands of people wanted to emigrate to America after World War II, they were forced to wait. “We grabbed whatever we could and left,” Lalka told the D&C. “We stayed just behind the lines, as the Germans were being pushed back. It was like a wagon train.”
The family was fortunate to take a train to the American zone in Ingolstadt, Germany, in a displaced persons camp. The Lalkas lived in cramped quarters in old Army barracks for six years. Lalka attended kindergarten there, first hearing about America while watching movies. GIs gave him and other children chocolate bars. “We used to get packages from various organizations like CARE,” he told the newspaper. “I remember once we got a package of toys and there was a baseball glove inside. One of the kids picked it up and said, ‘God, it must be cold in America. Look at the size of this glove.’ We had no idea of baseball then.”
Soccer, though, was something else. “We had one ball, and it must have been sewn together 3,000 times,” Lalka said.
In 1951, when Lalka was seven, the family’s paperwork came through. They boarded a train to Munich for processing before traveling to the port of Bremerhaven, and boarded the ship, General Taylor, for a two-week journey to the USA. “It was an old army transport, and I remember 95 percent of the people on board getting sick,” he told the D&C. “It was a miserable trip for everybody, but I loved it. I was just a kid, and I was running around everywhere. The ship hands gave me chewing gum and I was into everything.”
Don Lalka (Courtesy of the Rochester Lancers)
The General Taylor pulled into New York Harbor at night. Lalka and his sister went onto the deck and could not help but notice this great green statue — the Statue of Liberty, which greeted many an immigrant. “We were amazed at all the lights,” Lalka said. “The Statue was all lit up, and you could see the city, all lit up, in the background. I was very impressed.”
The Lalkas moved in with a distant cousin in Brooklyn, N.Y. before traveling upstate to Utica and settling in Rochester, thanks to another relative, in 1953. Lalka’s father became a night watchman at Sibley’s, a local department store. Lalka’s love affair with sports, particularly soccer, blossomed, although that sport wasn’t always high in the local pecking order. “We’d go to the old Washington playground to play soccer,” he said. “The kids would come up with big gloves and bats and throw us out. I think I’ve been thrown out of every field in Rochester.”
He attended Franklin High School and played basketball and ran track alongside Rochester legend Trent Jackson. “Sports here have opened up everything for me,” Lalka was quoted by the D&C. “I got caught in the wrong sport and didn’t get rich, but the traveling … it opened things up. … At Franklin, there were blacks and Jewish and Italians and Ukrainians. Through sports, we learned to get along. If you scored 20 points [in a basketball game] on a Friday night, nobody cared where you came from.”
Lalka was called into the U.S. national team and was one of the Lancers’ early stars.
ALIVE AND KICKING details Lalka’s career and many backgrounds of his teams from the American Soccer League and the North American Soccer League. That includes what was called the wild west days of professional and semi-pro soccer in the USA.
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