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
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
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
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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