St. Benedict’s Prep  trophy case with Tab Ramos’ 1990 World Cup jersey. Photo: Courtesy of St. Benedict’s Prep School.
St. Benedict’s Prep trophy case with Tab Ramos’ 1990 World Cup jersey. Photo: Courtesy of St. Benedict’s Prep School.

Tab Ramos is back at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and after the first two group play matches he has safely guided the United States to the knock-out phase.

While most USMNT supporters will be most interested in how far Ramos can take his squad in this tournament, another lesser-known journey he took in November 1982 should be part of American soccer folklore. Known as “the helicopter story,” it could be argued that the remarkable journey helped launch a high school soccer dynasty.

In the fall of 1982, Ramos was a junior at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, and the soccer team was searching for its first state title. The school’s headmaster, the Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, wanted his star for the beginning of the state playoffs but when Ramos missed the first available flight from Acapulco, his worst fears were realized. The priest called the school’s benefactor and the two hatched a plan to get Ramos home.

“Everything is set,” Bob Brennan told Ramos, then 16. “I have a private jet in Houston right now. It’s going to land in Acapulco and pick you up and then take you to Dallas. When you get to Dallas a ticket will be there for a flight to La Guardia. When you land in New York I will have a helicopter waiting for you so you should be able to get to your game.”

In the middle of the night Ramos sat alone in a darkened terminal until he eventually heard footsteps. A man walked up to him and said, “Mr. Ramos, your plane is here.” Brennan’s corporate jet touched down in Dallas at 8 a.m. and the co-pilot immediately escorted Ramos to the American Airlines flight bound for New York.

Hours later, as the plane descended toward La Guardia Airport, he heard his name called out over the public address system: “Mr. Ramos, your helicopter is waiting for you outside on the tarmac.”

Ninety minutes before St. Benedict’s began the 1982 state playoffs, Ramos strapped himself into Brennan’s helicopter, and the 16-mile flight from La Guardia to Newark mesmerized the schoolboy star.

“The helicopter was all glass and we flew right over Manhattan,” Ramos said. “It was the most beautiful sight. The city was right at your feet.”

Back at Benedict’s, Ramos’s schoolmates thought they would have to play without him because the multileg odyssey was kept a secret just in case Ramos did not make it back in time.

But before the school-wide pep rally ended, the master of ceremonies caught a glimpse of the prodigal son of St. Benedict, and introduced him by mimicking the famous opening lines from “Saturday Night Live” — “ … and now, live from Acapulco, it’s Tabare Ramos!”

The 300 students at the pep rally erupted in applause and then sang the school’s fight song. Some students commandeered 50-gallon metal drums and pounded on them throughout the game.

Ramos scored five goals, including a free kick for his 100th career goal, and assisted on four others in a comprehensive 10-0 victory. Perhaps the 100th goal was the game’s punch line. “My 100th goal was the funniest I’ve ever scored,” Ramos told a reporter after the game. “I took the shot and my shoe fell off and flew over the goal.”

Ramos led Benedict’s to its first state tournament later that month, and the school has since won more than 25 state titles and 9 national titles.

Although he will not return to New Jersey in such dramatic fashion, U.S. soccer fans will get to watch Ramos’s team take its present-day journey at this year’s U-20 World Cup.

A version of this article appeared in the New York Times Goal Blog in 2013.

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