Pele greets FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis at a World Cup symposium in Brazil in 1987. 

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

In some respects, the teachers at P.S. 95 in the Riverdale section of the Bronx were acting like the students that they taught, one November afternoon in 1987.

Incredibly, some of the teachers were downright giddy.

Then again, it wasn’t every day one of the great personalities of the world visits your school every day.

Pele had that type of an effect on people of all nations, ages and religions.

The Brazilian, who I thought was the greatest player to ever play the beautiful game, passed away on Thursday. He was 82.

That day Pele was not a soccer player, but a representative of The Just Say No Foundation – an anti-drug campaign in the 1980s.

“You are the future,” Pele told the children. “You have to help us because the future belongs to us. What’s going to happen to our sons, your daughters? Just say no. You are strong.”

Pele then brought up the case of singer Elvis Presley, who died from his drug dabbling in 1977, and basketball star Len Bias, who suffered the same fate while using cocaine years later.

He asked the students if they knew of the two dead men, and their answers were right on the money.

“I don’t have to say anything,” Pele said. “You look around you. We in soccer used to say, ‘Kick the drug habit.’

“If you realize all the big names in any kind of sport. They got involved in drugs and they’ve destroyed themselves. For what reasons are you going to take drugs?

“That the reason I came here to talk to you. I’ve travelled all over the world. I was all my life in sport. I was all my life in soccer. I never took drugs. I don’t need that. … Be intelligent. You are the base. If we don’t have a base …”

His voice then tailed off.

Pele then smiled. “Okay, what are you supposed to say?” he asked.

“No!” the class responded in unison.

That question-response was repeated several times as Pele made his point.

Nothing was too small for Pele to make an impact, including an elementary class in the Bronx.

I was fortunate to witness that scenario.

Here are a dozen other personal Pele memories on and off the field that will last a lifetime.

Pele’s first NASL goal (1975)

One day a 23-year-old reporter with just one year of professional writing experience is asking the greatest soccer player on the planet questions. The next day, he is watching Pele score his first NASL goal.

The day prior the Cosmos held a press conference for Pele at a downtown Rochester hotel. I got an opportunity to ask the greatest soccer player on earth a few questions.

“I have not come here to just make a championship,” he said through his confidante, Prof. Julio Mazzei. “I have three years to do that. The main reason is to help American soccer grow. If we win it this year, beautiful. If we don’t, we still have two years to go.”

The next night, on June 27, I saw some magic and history made in the first half before 14,562 spectators, a record crowd for the Rochester Lancers in Holleder Stadium in Rochester, N.Y.

Pele began the match as a midfielder but became more attack minded as the game wore on.

A long shot by Julio Correa hit the crossbar in the 31st minute as goalkeeper Ardo Perri leaped for the ball, which rebounded back to the field. Pele then headed it home and celebrated with his famous jumping punch.

“This is just normal in my progress,” he said. “In my first two games, I didn’t know my teammates. Tonight I felt more comfortable on the field. You could see it. I started to take my forward position as the game went on.”

Pele left the stadium for a flight to Washington, D.C., where he met President Ford the next day.

The Lancers just left in awe.

“He is simply impossible to stop,” Rochester head coach Ted Dumitru said. “Pele is still the greatest. He simply destroyed our team . . . He made us watch him play.”

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Pele’s locker at Santos stadium.

Lunch with the Black Pearl (1976)

A year later, I wound up having lunch with Pele, along with Giorgio Chinaglia, a couple members of the Cosmos and Lancers staffs and Times-Union reporter Gary Jacobson. Everything was off the record, so I can’t tell you who said what to whom about whatever.

I learned very quickly that Chinaglia was very opinionated and wound up interviewing him afterwards for a story in the D&C. Needless to say, he rocked the boat about the NASL and soccer.

“I can die now” (1977)

Pele’s last competitive match was at Soccer Bowl ’77, as the Cosmos secured a 2-1 triumph over the Seattle Sounders in Portland, Ore. on Aug. 28, 1977. Pele wasn’t a factor in the game, but the locker room scene was surreal.

Brazilian journalists (and perhaps I might have to use that word lightly) chanted his name, put the Black Pearl on their shoulders and paraded him around the Cosmos locker room.

When he spoke to journalists, Pele felt his mission in the USA had been accomplished. Youth soccer leagues, clubs and team had been established in every corner of the country since he arrived, starting a soccer boom.

“I can die now,” he told the media.

Of course, he didn’t.

Pele lived for so many years afterwards.

Visiting Pele’s house (1987)

While covering the Long Island Junior Soccer League Under-16 Select team during the Pele Cup during the summer of 1987, we – the teams and the entire entourage – got an opportunity to stop by the great one’s house in Santos.

If my memory is correct, he had a couple of cars in the driveway and two dogs.

Of course, I joked that when we showed up, he would come to the door in towel, smile and say, “Why didn’t you call? Please give me a minute.”

As it turned out, he wasn’t home, but Prof. Mazzei got us inside. It gave me, the media on the trip and the Under-16 teams participating in the tournament an opportunity of a life to see Pele’s home.

Later in the trip I did get an opportunity meet Pele at a symposium as to which country was better prepared to host the 1994 World Cup – the USA or Brazil.

The landslide consensus was the United States should host it (which, we all know, this country did, quite successfully, I must say). While I gave my opinions supporting the United States, I looked up and noticed reporters taking notes. It was scary. My Gold, they actually were listening to what I had to say.

Earlier, when I walked to my spot on the panel, Pele, a member of the seminar noticed me. He got up and shook my hand. He remembered me from past interviews — in front of all those people. That made my night.

You’re got to see that man in action with people. He was gracious, courteous and charismatic. He is a walking definition of patience (there’s that world again), signing autographs and talking to people.

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Pele with Soccer Week

The man with the newspaper (1987)

While I was covering the Under-20 World Cup in Chile in October 1987, I ran into Pele. Had some small talk with him and gave him a paper which I was an editor – Soccer Week.

Almost without hesitation Pele asked if I wanted to take a picture with the publication.

One thing I have learned in life is that you never, ever, turn down a request from a legend.

I didn’t and got a unique photo from Pele.

Hey, Edson (1989)

After meeting with some fans during a function in New York City, I needed a quote from Pele to help me round out a story I was writing about his son Edson, for Soccer Week. At the time, Edson was a goalkeeper for the B.W. Gottschee.

To grab his attention in an elevator, I called Pele, Edson, his given name.

He turned his head, smiled and then answered the question.

I don’t know how many people have called him by his given name, but it sure worked for me.

RIP, PELE: Brazilian great passes away - Front Row Soccer

Pele at the 1992 NSCAA convention

The most patient man on Earth (1992)

Pele was honored as at Honorary All-America at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in Pittsburgh in 1992. At the luncheon feting all the honorees, he gave a little speech.

Then he posed with every honoree and got a a flash in his eyes several hundred times.

Don’t know how many humans, especially one with such stature, would have the patience to do something like that.

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Another lunch (1993)

Yes, I can say I have had the privilege of having lunch with Pele a few times.

This time, however, wasn’t as private as my lunch in 1976. As part of a MasterCard promotion at a steakhouse in New York City, several journalists enjoyed lunch with the living legend.

Most, if not all of the journalists, had steak. Pele had this giant salad.

He put us all to shame.

But he gave us plenty of stories and how he got his nickname.

Earlier that year, he gave the always controversial Diego Maradona some advice.

“Diego, please listen to me,” Pele said he told the Argentine. “God gives us two ears and one mouth. You have to try to hear more and talk less.”

Pele also told us how he got his name. He was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento and was named after Thomas Edison. As a seven-year-old, his friends teasingly called him Pele, at the time a rather meaningless nickname. As it turned out, a river, volcano, a Greek mythical character – Pelle – also have sported the name).

“I was terribly mad with the kids,” Pele said. “I thought it was an ugly name. I fought in school [over the name] and I was suspended for two days. My father told me, ‘Don’t worry. In a few days, they’ll forget.’ they didn’t forget.”

A tale of two extremes (1993)

One thing I have learned about soccer at just about every level: Expect the unexpected.

Especially with the Black Pearl.

Consider this Pearl of wisdom from FIFA at the 1994 World Cup draw in Las Vegas in December 1993.

On Dec. 17, Pele was honored as the only unanimous selection of an all-time World Cup team in Vegas.

Two days later, he was persona non grata at soccer’s biggest event of the year at the draw itself.

Of course, that didn’t make any sense for a sport that needed as much publicity it could get at a time in a country in which the sport hadn’t embraced quite yet.

Banning the most popular player in the world and the only recognizable name to the casual sports fan was a popular relations blunder of the highest order. Blame it on the hubris of FIFA President Dr. Joao Havelange.

Havelange’s son-in-law, Brazilian Soccer Federation President Ricardo Teixeira had sued Pele for defamation of character. Pele charged that a television group with which he was affiliated outbid a rival by $1 million for the right to Brazilian matches but was not awarded the contract because his group failed to pay a bribe to Teixeira.

Pele handled himself with the class and dignity that has distinguished the super on and off the field.

“I want everyone to know that I have nothing against Joao Havelange and FIFA,” he said. “His my idol since 1958. He encouraged me< sent a lot of messages to me. That is what I want everyone to understand.

“I don’t think this is a FIFA issue period. I think this is a personal message from Havelange. This doesn’t change anything, this is a personal thing period. I was invited and dis-invited.”

The draw certainly have used Pele, who has a way of turning a potentially embarrassing situation into laughter. Remember the qualifying draw in New York in 1991, when Pele and his namesake from Ghana, Abedi Pele, appeared on stage together. At the time, Pele was involved in a paternity suit and reminded the audience that Abedi was not his son.

Some foreword thinking (1994)

It’s not every day that you get your first book published and the man who writes the foreword to it is the greatest soccer player in the world.

With the help of his confidante, the late Prof. Julio Mazzei, Pele said wrote about the beautiful game as he kicked off the first of my four World Cup books.

“While there have been a number of books written about the World Cup in other countries, what makes this special is that it has been authored by a native-born American.

In a way, Michael’s passion for the game is a product of my presence with the New York Cosmos in the North American soccer league. As it turns out, he was an eyewitness to my first NASL goal in 1975 and to my last competitive game at Soccer Bowl ’77 in Portland. Ironically, I have gotten to know Michael better since I retired in 1977, as he has covered some of the events and tournaments with which I have been associated. Moreover, he has been there through the thick and thin, especially during the so-called lean years of the 1980s.”

“I hope you find the book as enjoyable and informative as I have and hope you enjoy USA ’94.”

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Pele, me and Andrew Shue.

Just another day in Central Park (1994)

Only days prior to the kickoff of USA 94, I covered an event in Central Par for Soccer Magazine that included Pele and actor Andrew, who was a heart throb due to his starring role on Melrose Place.

I was writing a feature about Shue as the two had a nice little talk as well.

Some high praise from a soccer god (2007)

It’s not every day you are singled out by the greatest in front of your contemporaries and colleagues, but it happened to me.

Prior to the home opener of the New Jersey Ironmen, Pele held a press conference.

When I got an opportunity to ask him a question, Pele stated how often he had seen me at soccer events, like a defender covering wherever he was all over the world.

I was proud and more than a bit embarrassed at the same time. But it was quite an honor to be mentioned like that by the greatest soccer player to walk and run on this planet.