Memories of a short-lived soccer career, circa 1964
I was flipping through my high school’s quarterly alumni magazine when a photo caught my eye.
I quickly paged back to Page 33, and there it was – Shattuck School’s 1963-64 soccer team in resplendent black-and-white. In the first three rows were the stars, the starters, the coach and the coach’s favorite players. Somewhere deep in the fourth row, the jerseys ran out and a dorky, crew-cut kid stood there in a white T-shirt and an expression of some uncertainty.
That was me, at the pinnacle of my high-school athletic career. I was on a team and eventually earned a letter, one suitable for sewing on a sweater and strutting jock-like around Shattuck’s often-frigid Southern Minnesota campus.
Of course I never did this. My white “S,” you see, included the word “soccer” stitched in red at the bottom. Which 50 years ago meant “not really a sport.”
So I buried that letter deep in my boarding-school underwear drawer, took it home after I graduated and forgot about it. Which was pretty easy, as a highlight reel of my two-year soccer career would have included getting into four or five games and getting my foot on the ball maybe a half-dozen times.
Why on earth, I wondered, had this hoary yearbook photo been resurrected in our alumni magazine?
It turns out that Shattuck-St. Mary’s (the former military school first went civilian then merged with a nearby girls’ school, both about a decade after I graduated) has become a soccer superpower.
The school’s boys’ and girls’ teams have won championships by the dozen. Shattuck hosts national Adidas showcase tournaments, its soccer squads travel across the country to compete against elite schools and it annually places players in big-time, big-name college programs.
So the alumni magazine’s editor decided that a story on “how it all began” would be in order. He asked my junior-year chemistry teacher, Walter Hinchman – who also happened to be Shattuck’s first soccer coach – for his recollections. Hence “A Soccer History Lesson,” illustrated with our team photo.
Mr. Hinchman, now in his mid-70s and living on the East Coast, had actually played college soccer back east. In 1962 he asked Hockey Mealey, the school’s gruff, burly athletic director, if he could start a team. The young science teacher reckoned he could pick off a few “tail enders” from the vaunted football team, recruit a handful of international students who had played the game back home, and fill out the squad with newbies like me.
Soccer, keep in mind, was virtually unknown to Americans in the mid-1960s. Parents didn’t haul their kids to all-but-mandatory, dawn-’til-dusk soccer sessions at the local high school on Saturdays. We knew nothing of the World Cup, Mia Hamm was not yet born, Pele sounded like a rice dish, and if anybody uttered the worlds “bend it like Beckham,” you’d figure they were talking about a welder or a plumber.
That’s why I had a shot at making the team.
A year earlier, inspired by watching Gorgeous George and Killer Kowalski on our flickering black-and-white TV, I went out for wrestling at Shattuck. A wiry junior who didn’t weigh any more than I did threw me to the ground and pinned me within a minute. I quit the next day, realizing I was without sufficient strength or coordination for the sport.
But when Mr. Hinchman asked me to play soccer a year later, I agreed. Because using arms and hands was forbidden in soccer, I reckoned my coordination handicap was cut in half – and that I just might get a better grade in chemistry.
I became a soccer fullback, which had two advantages. First, it was a defensive position in which I couldn’t do a lot of damage. Second, friends back home might just assume I was a fullback on the football team and reckon I had miraculously become a jock. That absolutely nobody made that assumption, I now realize, should not have been a surprise.
Our team won a lot of games at Shattuck, thanks to Pete Wiggins. Pete had played soccer while growing up in Germany and could score almost at will. It was great fun to watch from the bench, and once in a while from our backfield, as he worked his magic.
It was also great fun playing for Mr. Hinchman, who made time to teach me and a few more of our less-talented varsity athletes how to kick and play defense. No, I was never good, but I became marginally competent, did not embarrass our team and, once or twice, boomed kicks beyond the centerline and within reach of Pete Wiggins.
Those really were the highlights of my sports career, and I passed chemistry as well.
Mr. Hinchman left Shattuck a year before I graduated, going on to teach science and coach soccer at a Connecticut prep school for the rest of his long career.
I never played soccer after I left high school, and quickly came to the realization that sports that required minimal coordination – running and, later, cycling – were more suited to my limited talents.
Likewise, I never took another chemistry course, and chose a career that required virtually no knowledge of science.
Mr. Hinchman had a role in both of these wise decisions, and also in making me a very unlikely “pioneer” in Shattuck-St. Mary’s remarkable soccer ascendency.