Pele passed away on Friday. He is a special memory of long-time soccer player and fan Scott Grillo when he met the Brazilian superstar back in the day
Here is the front of the Pele medallion on a key chain. (All photos courtesy of Scott Grillo)
By Michael Lewis
As a 13-year-old ball and errand boy for the Rochester Lancers way back in the day, Scott Grillo ran all sorts of errands for the North American Soccer League team at their home games.
Grillo did not get paid, but he did it for the love of the game. He was close to the Lancers in more ways than one, living but two blocks from Holleder Stadium.
“I did whatever they needed me to do just,” Grillo said. “I was part of the family and was always around them. If they needed runners for coaches and trainers to retrieve things and do odds and ends, I was that kid. I would always be at the Lancers practices behind Holleder Stadium at No. 40 school. They all knew me and treated me like their son.”
After not one, but two New York Cosmos games at in Rochester, N.Y. in 1977, Grillo got much more than he had bargained for – in a good way.
He pretty much had free reign of the stadium.
“I had a stadium pass around my neck to be able to go wherever I wanted to,” he said. “All the stadium security and workers knew me as well.
“The week leading up to the big game against the New York Cosmos was very exciting because for the first time in my life I had the opportunity to see the legends of the game that compared to the Michael Jordans of the world, and I was about to get up close and actually meet them and talk to them if I could. I was so excited!”
Before the Lancers took on the Cosmos in a regular season game in July, head coach Don Popovic told him that he was going to work the visitors’ bench and locker room.
Grillo was in soccer seventh heaven.
The front of the Pele medallion
“I could not believe I heard what I heard!” he said. “He said you need to sit on their bench and service and run for whatever they need. I was so unbelievably excited! I left our home locker room and had to walk across the middle of the field to be able to get to the visitors’ locker room where the great Pele and all the superstar players were.”
The Cosmos locker room.
“As I was getting ready to cross the field a few of my friends were on the other side of the gated fence and said where are you going? I didn’t make out what they exactly asked me because I was shocked and amazed to see how many people were there,” Grillo said.
A soccer-record crowd of 17,572 fans packed Holleder.
“I told my friends that I was going to see and meet Pele in their locker room and boy were they freaking out yelling to me how lucky I was,” he added. “I was so nervous, excited, and cocky at the same time. I proceeded to run across the field and couldn’t wait to knock on the door for security to let me in.”
The first thing Grillo asked? Where was Pele, who was in the back of the locker room.
“He had one leg up on the bench tying his cleat and I sat right next to him and said hi,” he said. “He asked me my name and waved his hand on my head. I said Scott and said that I was going to beat his record when I get older. He laughed with a big smile. He asked me to walk out with him while he held my hand to the field. I was in another world thinking I was the luckiest kid in the world.”
Close to game time Cosmos head coach Eddie Firmani gave Grillo new cleat that were for forward Giorgio Chinaglia.
“He told me to go back in the locker room and put them in hot water for a couple minutes to soften them up,” he said. “I did that and came back quick.”
Those cleats were not very magical for Chinaglia and the Cosmos, who lost in a shootout to the Lancers.
After the match, Grillo started to walk home but could not help but notice a bus with throngs of people around it.
“It had to be eight to 10 rows deep surrounding the bus,” he said. “I knew it was the Cosmos bus and I worked my way over to see what was happening. I wiggled my way to the front row and while I was just standing there I couldn’t see through the windows of the bus because they were tinted and then all of the sudden a tall white woman with long blonde hair came down from the bus stairs and came over to me and grabbed my hand and pulled me up into the bus where Pele’ hugged me and gave me this silver medallion keychain.”
The back of the Pele medallion
On the front of the medallion was Pele’s given name, Edson Arantes do Nascimento and a side profile of his face. On the back was an outline of Brazil and Pele’s No. 10 jersey.
“I came down the bus stairs with lots of people surrounding me and was scared that they would take it away and so I broke through the crowd and ran as fast as I could home,” he said. ”
“I don’t know if he handed 10,000 of them out, I don’t know if he had 50 or this was the only one but it was just incredible. It was a highlight of my life.
“I really felt like I was the luckiest kid in the world for sure!”
As it turns out, Grillo’s art teacher was going to teach his class to do plastic moldings to help preserve important items. He did it with the medallion.
“I tried years ago as a kid to try and break it out and put a black magic marker in it,” he said. “I wasn’t being that careful with it and my mother was afraid that I would sell it for a popsicle or something. Time went by and I thought I lost it only to be reminded on my 28th Birthday that it was wrapped up and given back to me because I was much more responsible.
“I had a ton of emotions flying through me when I [got] that back. I was forever grateful for what my mom did. I still have it 45 years later and knowing that Pele’ could leave us at any time. My memory from that time is so powerful that my emotions want to cry and say thank you at the same time!”
But wait – there’s more to the story.
After the Cosmos defeated the Lancers in a playoff game at Holleder in August of that year, Grillo walked home after the game. He didn’t work that match but was a paying spectator.
As he walked home afterwards, the Cosmos team bus stopped at a light.
“I swear to God like the window of the back of the bus, opened,” Grillo said. “It was Pele, and he threw out his shin guard. He wrote on it, “Good luck. Pele.’ He threw that out. I’m like, Oh my God. I was like holy crap. I wore that I wore that shin guard like an irresponsible kid. I screwed that all up because the pen marking came off. That’s why I think my mother took the medallion and hid it from me for 25 years.”
But no one could hide the memories of those two special matches in 1977.
“Pele moved me to continue to play soccer throughout my years,” Grillo said.
Indeed, he did.
Grillo wound up playing professionally with the Buffalo Stallions in the Major Indoor Soccer League. In the fall of this year, Grillo was inducted into the Section 5 Soccer Hall of Fame for his exploits for Marshall and Bishop Kearney High Schools.
Just as important, he has some incredible memories of Pele.