Paul Gardner (right) and FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis (left) at Brazilian World Cup media symposium in 1987. (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)

By Michael Lewis

BigAppleSoccer.com Editor

For a young soccer writer making his living in Rochester, N.Y in the mid-1970’s – in the land before time as we know it — BTI (before the internet) — it was difficult to find a soccer book, any good soccer book, that would explain the game to me beyond the usual X’s and O’s.

I had just begun covering the Rochester Lancers in the original North American Soccer League and I needed to learn more about the beautiful game as fast as possible.

Then I heard of this book that was supposed to be the holy grail of soccer.

I could not find the book in a Rochester bookstore during a time that finding any volume about the sport in any bookstore would have been considered an accomplishment.

As luck would have had it, I finally found the book at Penn Books in Penn Station in Manhattan in 1976. I couldn’t put The Simplest Game down.

What a revelation and an eye-opener for me to soccer. It was a refreshing oasis in the desert. If I wasn’t hooked on the sport before I read Paul Gardner’s marvelous book, I certainly would be afterwards.

No, this piece is not a book review of a book that was published way back in 1976, a book that still stands the test of time today, some 47 years later. This piece is about Mr. Gardner.

I finally got an opportunity to meet this author. But in the maelstrom of New York/New Jersey sportswriters covering the team at the time and with yourself truly ensconced in upstate New York, I rarely had an opportunity to talk to Paul.

Then, as luck would have had it, we sat at adjacent tables at the 1978 Soccer Bowl banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. Paul would say a sarcastic remark about something and then I would say a denigrating comment about something else. The banter went back and forth.

Surprisingly, I agreed with many of Paul’s remarks and observations, if my memory serves me correctly.

To many in the U.S. Soccer community and internationally, Paul is known as a curmudgeon and a great writer (most of it for Soccer America and World Soccer and for a while, a New York-New Jersey publication called Soccer Week), asking questions that no one wants to bring up or doesn’t know how to ask — in the most blunt and unapologetic ways.

For me, Paul Gardner has been more than that. He has been a friend and even a mentor, even though he might not have realized the latter.

Regardless of where we have been around the world stumbling into each other — it has taken us to such diverse venues as the Metropolitan Oval in Queens, the Dallas Cup in Dallas, the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad & Tobago, Roma, Yokohama, Zurich, Toronto and France, among other places and cities.

The topic of conversations usually would be about soccer, but we have touched on other aspects of life, including baseball, our dogs (my Shannon and Jennie) and cats (his beloved Winnie), among other vital subjects of the universe.

On Saturday night, some of Paul’s close friends will gather at a Manhattan restaurant to celebrate his 93rd birthday. His actual birthday is Monday, May 15. I feel honored to be invited.

Yes, I know what Saturday night is – the first game of the Hudson River Derby between the Red Bulls and New York City FC at Red Bull Arena.

I won’t be at RBA.

Instead, I will be celebrating the life of one of my longest media friends in professional soccer.

As I discovered long ago, it won’t be the end of the world that I will miss the match. I learn4ed that there is always another game right around the corner to cover.

Birthdays of good friends are rarer. They happen only once a year.