I am living proof that perseverance in soccer pays dividends. I like the definition of perseverance that connotes “activity maintained in spite of difficulties, steadfast and long-continued application.” That is the story of my long soccer career, particularly my pursuit of the Olympic Team. Maybe others can learn from my tale.
The Early Years
My twin brother, Jim, and I joined Lighthouse Boys Club junior team at age ten after years of playing street soccer in my early years. Before that we spent all our time honing our skills, going one-on-one in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, using a ball from my Father’s club, the Kensington Blue Bells, occasionally going to a nearby dilapidated cemetery when the streets got too crowded, and honing our dribbling and passing skills. That team won two national junior championships. Then it was on to Northeast High School, winning city titles with a 96 game winning streak. I also joined the Blue Bells attaining several city titles and playing against touring teams such as Nuremburg FC and Manchester United.
At 18, I made the Temple University team, captaining the squad as a freshman, and winning two national titles while making the College All-American Team three years from 1951-1955. These were wonderful achievements, but my aspiration to make the US Olympic Team eclipsed them all. This is the story of that difficult path, and how my perseverance paid off.
My First Olympic Tryouts: 1952
As an 18 year old freshman at Temple, I participated in the US Soccer’s Olympic Tryouts for the 1952 Olympic Team to go to Helsinki. I made the final round in St. Louis, where I shared the field with John and Eddie Souza, renowned professional players of the time, in a two-game series. Both played forward and I played midfield (or “halfback” as it was then known).
After the final game, Joe Barriskill, General Secretary for the US Soccer Football Association, came to me after the game and said, “Nice going, Kid, you are an alternate for the Helsinki Team. Come back in four years and you are in.”
My first real disappointment in soccer, but being young, I knew I had future chances to make the US Team. That dream kept me going and encouraged me to remain in the game. I just turned around and looked for my next opportunity to keep playing because I loved to play.
End of the Temple Years: The Pros and the Olympics Beckon: 1955
After graduating from Temple University in 1955, I joined the Uhrik Truckers in the old American Soccer League, sharing the field with greats like Walter Bahr and Benny McLaughlin, both Hall of Famers and leading players of their day. Playing professionally was important to me in my quest for the U.S. Olympic Team because it kept me sharp. But fate was to play its role again in my career.
With the US Olympic tryouts looming in the fall, 1955, I felt confident in making the team. But in a game against the Ludlow Lusitano Team from Massachusetts in October, a Ludlow player slid into my left leg, causing a break in my fibula. Six weeks of rehabilitation at a Leagcy faith based treatment center doomed my hopes for the tryouts for the 1956 US Olympic Team going to Australia. Barriskill advised me to just put on a sock over the cast, walk on the tryout field for two minutes, and they would put me on the team for the Olympics the next summer in Australia. I could not, in good conscience, follow his advice, resigning myself to sitting out another Olympics. I was told that adversity builds character—I had my share of it. After healing, I just turned around and looked for the next opportunity because I enjoyed the teamwork and camaraderie and I loved to play.
The U.S. Army Years: 1956-1959
The U.S. Army called in October 1956. My number was up. Recruiting Sergeant Real advised me to join for three years, instead of the normal two years and in return, he promised me I would play soccer wherever the U.S. Army sent me. I signed up for the three years and I played soccer everywhere I went. What a recruiter!
I started at Ft. Devens near Boston, and played a half-season with the Ludlow Team. Though I was not Portuguese like most of the team members, a spectator once told me, “Oliver, you play like a Portuguese, have some wine!” Both John and Eddie Souza played on that team—a real honor!
From there, I was sent to the U.S. Army Language School in Monterey, California for a year in October 1956. The recruiter told me if I learned Romanian, I would be sent to Germany where I could keep playing. I called Matt Boxer in San Francisco to see if I could join his San Francisco Mercury Team in the San Francisco First Division. Though San Francisco is 125 miles from Monterey, he offered to pay the bus fare and $25 a game, a lot of money in soccer at that time. I enjoyed playing with the Mercury, even making the San Francisco All-Star Team that played against touring Glasgow Celtic in Kezar Stadium before 10,000 spectators in the spring of 1957.
In the fall, 1957, the U.S. Army sent me to Germany, to postwar base in a town called Bad Aibling in Bavaria. Bad Aibling had a senior soccer team, playing throughout Southern Germany. They allowed me a tryout, despite being an “Ami” (slang for American), and I convinced them I could play “their sport.” I played with the local Bad Aibling team for two and a half years, learning German, making life-long friends, and thoroughly enjoying my tour in Bavaria.
In the fall, 1958, I was thrilled when the U.S. Army informed me that its “CISM” soccer team, the U.S. Armed Forces team competing against countries throughout Europe, wanted me to play with them. CISM stands for “Conseil International du Sport Militaire” — or “International Military Sports Council” — and was founded in 1948 to foster international relations off the battlefield. We played against Italy, Belgium, and Portugal, among others, visiting these countries to play soccer before large crowds. Great experience!
Meanwhile, as captain of the U.S. CISM team, I continued my third quest for the Olympic Team. The CISM team was sent to New Jersey’s Fort Dix for tryouts in New York City. So, in the summer of 1959, I geared up for my third try for the U.S. Olympic Squad. The 1960 Olympic games were set for Japan the following summer.
Misfortune struck again! At Fort Dix, just before the tryouts, I was called into the doctor’s office and informed that I had contracted mononucleosis. Playing soccer at that point could put my life in great jeopardy. As the doctor explained, “Oliver, if you get kicked in the groin on the field, you’ll die.” That was enough. I was sent back to Germany on the next flight, my dream of making the U.S. Olympic again squashed, causing me to ask again, “Why Me?”
I returned to Bad Aibling, played out the season with the Bad Aibling team, and finished my tour in the Army. I returned to the U.S. and Philadelphia in September 1959. Then I looked around for my next opportunity in soccer because I loved to play.
Back in the States: Playing Pro Soccer Again in 1959
I rejoined the Philadelphia Uhriks in the fall, 1959, enjoying being reunited with Walter Bahr and other Uhrik teammates. Not long after rejoining the team, I was recruited for the CIA, and moved to Washington, DC. When the Uhriks sold me to the Baltimore Pompeii team, also in the American Soccer League, it was for $350 and “all the crabs I could eat.” I enjoyed being back in pro soccer in America, and for several years, had wonderful experiences with the Baltimore team, carrying memories of those times to this day.
The Baltimore Team folded in 1962, so I joined the Washington, DC-based Central Valet in the old National Soccer League. I received $400 for signing with Central Valet and $15 per game—good pay for those times.
By the time fall, 1962 rolled around, announcements for tryouts for the U.S. Olympic Team were posted and I was selected for the tryouts. First in Baltimore, then in New York City, and then on to St. Louis in late December 1962—I moved through the tryouts with ease, despite being almost 30 years old with years of soccer experiences and memories to my credit.
We played on a Friday night in St. Louis. I had a good game at left halfback, and Joe Barriskill came to me after the game and said, “Nice going, Lenny, you’re on the team to go to Brazil next summer.” Well, that was a shock! After four times trying out, I had finally made the U.S. Olympic Team despite all the years of travail. All I could think of, with Barriskill’s comment, was my new wife, Eleanor, at home in Washington, DC, my quest for my Master’s Degree at the University of Maryland, and actually fulfilling my dream of making the U.S. Olympic Team.
I played with the U.S. Olympic team in Brazil in the summer, 1963, feeling great pride in being on the field, hearing our National Anthem, and wearing “USA” on my chest. I knew how far I had come over the years and wore it with great pride. We also played in the Regional Eliminations in Mexico in 1964 though we did not ultimately go to Japan.
In 1996, I received a further honor from U.S. Soccer, by being named to the U.S. Soccer National Soccer Hall of Fame as a “Player.” I feel great honor in having my photo hang with the Walter Bahrs of the day.
I love this game. I have never left soccer. I started coaching kids in the mid-1970s and I received my USSF A License in 1989. I have taught coaching courses and trained over 5,000 coaches from 91 countries in our game, trying to pass on to them my sense of our great game, and how wonderful it is to be part of a sport that just keeps growing in our country.
That’s why the term, “perseverance,” comes to mind as I look back over these years. Never give up on your dreams. In reality, I just loved the game. By continuing to seek any opportunity to play and just staying in our game of soccer, I achieved my goals. But the true rewards are the events and people I met along the way.
So, my soccer friends, stay with your dreams. Persevere. Never give up! Enjoy the journey in “the world’s sport.”