Nick was an idea man. We used to come up with one brilliant scheme after another. Most went the way of bursting bubbles or, more accurately, smoke rings. Sometimes, though, a small notion would grow. His black eyes would flash and just as if his head were a glass sphere, I could see gears turning.

One such small idea was this: If our children in a small northwest Indiana community could only engage the children of our cold war adversaries in a game now, they would not later grow up and kill each other. Building upon that premise, the gears set the wheels in motion. A year later we were in Dynamo Stadium in Moscow at the very height of the cold war with 16 teens in red, white and blue soccer uniforms ready to kick that ball toward the goal of peace.

That idea had a beginning, middle and an end that worked because we raised funds and made it happen. Other ideas were just put out there to be absorbed into the atmosphere where they could settle into some other think tank -- one with money to build models, apply for patents, and have the time to follow through.

Sometimes our ideas turned into scams. We'd laugh as we added twists and turns to make them viable solutions to our ever shortage of money. We could have conned anybody, anywhere, but we were architects who destroyed mental blueprints as soon as we knew we had an idea that would work, if we had a mind to make it so. My husband and Nick's wife would often witness the process, shrug and say: "Those two....."

It was fun, but on the serious side, we wished someone would hire us just to think up ideas. "All we need," he would pine, "is a little room in the basement of some corporate building. We could come up with ideas, slogans, campaigns and not need anything but a pad and pencil.

And so it is that now, when I do have a room of my own where I go for no other reason than to think, I think of Nick.

He came from Trieste at 18 when his father took his sons from war-torn Italy to a new life. Nick had begged that the destination be Brazil because of soccer being the national sport there, but the United States was the choice. Nick was immediately put into the U.S. Army where he learned English from Italian Americans in uniform.

When we met, he was married to a jovial American girl and they had two daughters. He was a neighbor in this community on Lake Michigan but he was not liked by the other 30-something men. At first, I thought they kept their distance because he was a handsome Italian, athletic and charming. No, that wasn't it. It was because Nick played soccer, not touch football with them.

He was an official soccer referee in Chicago weekends and before driving to Soldier's Field on Sunday mornings, he'd take the black and white leather ball and kick it around our local football field. Soon 10 to 20 kids would run along side him and he'd wink and kick a ball to them as he ran ahead for the return kick.

By the time these kids were 14 or so, they were ready to take a stand against their parents who at homeowners' meetings voted against using the field for soccer in favor of using it exclusively for football and baseball. Late one night, these kids joined Nick at the field, tore down the football goal posts and put up the soccer goals and nets. Nick had a line-making machine and a bag or two of lime and, by morning, it was complete.

At noon, two dozen kids were ready to engage in a shirts and skins match and -- give or take a year of grumbling dads, history was being made.

From that beginning, a generation grew and the dads of today watch football but leave it to those big guys while their own kids play soccer -- a game no one objects to -- a game of speed and endurance, a game where opponents may occasionally be knocked down but are offered a hand up with an apology.

Our little community in the dunes never did embrace Nick, just what he brought to them. Their kids were the ones we took to the then Soviet Union. Their kids were the first Americans ever to play soccer on Soviet soil. Their kids had the journey of a lifetime through the Iron Curtain where they found people just like them living, laughing, loving, and playing a game just for the sport of it.

Our neighborhood, turned into a National Park by Senator Everett Dirkson, bordered Gary, Indiana, a steel-making city famous worldwide. European immigrants settled and worked there. After the Hungarian uprising, very young immigrants were playing soccer in empty lots. But Nick didn't factor in soccer talent when we formed the team for our good will gesture to the Soviets.

Nick trained American kids. "It's got to be a big deal," he said ... or actually, he said "beeg dil" in his accent, "Everybody knows Americans don't play soccer," he said. "Eet vould not be a beeg dil to take Hungarians, Lithuanians and Greeks -- they play from time they are babies. No," he said emphatically, "we go wrapped in American Flag and vorld vil pay attention."

That was the idea, his idea, and when the Chicago Tribune pictured our team in play with the Soviets on that Sunday's front page, and Joe Garagiola reported our homecoming on The Today Show and when sportswriter Alex Yanis wrote about it in The New York Times, and then Sports Illustrated listed our one goal as being the first ever by an American, we knew it was a big deal and a good idea around the world -- just never at home.

Funny thing about us Americans. We like things to be done our way. And today, it's our way for children to play soccer in every school in America. We wouldn't have it any other way. We're happy with that idea. It's a good idea. Why didn't we ever tell him so?

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