An excerpt from the new novel by Michael Maddox
How the USMNT (might have) won the 1982 World Cup
“Too small,” Coach Messina answered, knowing full well that he would be questioned again. “Five-foot-nothin’, and what, about a hundred pounds – soaking wet?”
“But Tom, you can see this kid’s a player, can’t you?” Gary Rickman was adamant. The Maxwell boy was small, but he had displayed a level of skill the St. Louis coaches had never seen in a youth player. Actually five-four and one-hundred twenty pounds, dry, he was still among the least imposing sixteen-year-olds at this tryout.
“Sure Gary, we’ll sign him,” Messina replied, “and tomorrow Petey will dip him in marinara sauce and have him for lunch.” ‘Petey’ was Stoyan Petrov, the hard man of St. Louis Busch Soccer Club. “This discussion is over,” the head coach added.
Rickman conceded, but tucked Jimmy Maxwell’s evaluation form, with his home phone number, into his shirt pocket.
Petrov was raised in the part of St. Louis known as “The Hill”, surrounded mostly by Italians. His parents had immigrated to America from Bulgaria in 1952 with their two young daughters. With little in the way of marketable skills, Boris Petrov relied on his work ethic to impress potential employers. While others were trying to show off their past work experiences, Boris simply showed up before everyone else at the Brown Shoe Company and started doing pushups in front of the foreman’s office. By ten o’clock he was offered a job in the shipping department. “Work hard and you will survive,” he would tell young Stoyan, years later. “Work harder than everyone else - and you will succeed.” For Boris Petrov it was just that simple, and his only son took every word to heart.
Stoyan signed with St. Louis Busch at fourteen, based mainly on his athleticism. Big, strong, and fast, he was just what the staff was looking for and he was actually placed on the ‘YES’ list before they even saw him play. Hard-working, fast, strong as an ox, and fairly creative was written on his evaluation form.
Petey, as he was known, did everything with maximum effort. His daily regimen of five hundred push-ups and one thousand sit-ups made him an awesome physical specimen. He had fantastic size and speed which allowed him to hang with the first-teamers at fifteen. But what set him apart was his competitive spirit. Petey played the game, every game, to win.
By the time he was nineteen Petrov was starting at defensive mid-field for Busch, and had already earned a reputation as a dirty player. He was initially upset by the designation. Then, after St. Louis beat Pittsburgh Steel 4-0, in Pittsburgh, he saw an interview with their head coach on the nightly news:
Reporter: “Coach, tough one tonight. Can you sum up your thoughts?”
Coach: “Well, you know, we try to go to Jenkins in the middle, and Petrov shuts him down. So we push him up to forward and the SOB stays with him. Then I put the new kid, Stewart, in for Jenkins, and Petrov nearly kills him on his first touch…”
Reporter: “Ah… and no call?”
Coach: “No foul! Just the hardest tackle I’ve ever seen. Petrov…I….I really hate that guy.”
Reporter: “A lot of coaches complain about his play, some call it dirty.”
Coach: “You want the truth? We all wish we had a guy just like him. He’s not dirty. He just plays at an intensity level six notches above the rest. He’s amazing.”
Stoyan Petrov slept well that night.
Even with the skill set that sixteen-year-old Jimmy Maxwell possessed he could not be expected to compete with the likes of Petrov, or any of the other professionals at St. Louis Busch SC. He was four years younger than Petey; still a boy. And a small one at that. Gary Rickman knew this, but was sure this kid deserved a shot with a big club. The touch, the pin-point passing, the way he could dribble out of trouble, and the field awareness were all years ahead of his counterparts. “Shoot,” Rickman would tell his wife, later that evening, “this kid could be the best player I’ve ever seen.”
Considering who Gary Rickman had played with and against, that statement was quite remarkable. As a member of the Busch squad in the early seventies he had been teammates with Pat McBride and Al Trost, and had personally marked Boston’s Brandon Rafferty at least eight times (although it seemed like more). He had faced Johan Cruyff twice (once with Ajax and once with Barcelona), and had even marked Pelé in an exhibition match against Santos in 1973.
“I’m not giving up on this one, Rita,” he told her after dinner. “You should see this kid play.” Gary knew she would appreciate Jimmy Maxwell’s style, perhaps more than he did. She had an eye for the subtle nuances of the game; like the way some players could feel pressure before it arrived, or play the second- (or third-) option pass as others were catching up to the first. Those little things brought her great joy, and she missed them dearly. The “style” employed by Busch Soccer Club was too direct, too fast, too physical for her taste, and she hadn’t been to a match in years. With her health declining so rapidly, Gary had wished for something to cheer her up.
“He nutmegged two defenders in a row, one with each foot, with a third guy on his back – all inside the penalty box!” He offered to help her see what she had missed. “Stayed on his feet the whole time with these monsters trying to mug him, then lays of a little back-heel pass to the trailing midfielder. Who, of course, shot high over the crossbar,” he added, with a laugh. Her eyes lit up when she heard Gary describe the play.
“Of course, Messina signed all three defenders, and the shot-misser, right?” she asked, only half-joking.
“No, silly,” he replied. “Only two of the defenders,” he hesitated for effect, “and the shot-misser.” All they could do was laugh.
The drive home from St. Louis was long enough without the dark cloud of disappointment hanging over it. Three hours in the car with his older brother would normally be loads of fun, but this trip hadn’t ended so well for Jimmy. Dale tried to console him but was, in this case, seriously ill-equipped. When the radio signal from KSHE-95 faded near Festus, reality set in: he had failed. To make matters worse, his favorite REO Speedwagon song was just starting when the static took over.
They had planned to stop in Poplar Bluff to see Coach Franklin before heading home. Ken Franklin managed the Mules of the Midwest Conference, in the Third Division, and had coached Jimmy Maxwell since he was twelve. Ken would say that all he did was “let ‘em play”, but his coaching method was solid, and a few of his charges had gone to play professionally. He knew Jimmy would join them someday.
The boys arrived at the Franklin home just after seven, hungry and tired of driving. As they crawled out of the cab of Dale’s Ford F-150, Ken met them in the front yard and could immediately tell how the weekend had gone. It took all the strength he could muster, but Jimmy walked right up to his coach and gave him confirmation.
“I didn’t make it,” he said. It was tough to look him in the eye, but he managed.
“How’d you play? Did you leave it all out there?” was the response. Coach Franklin believed in the power of hard work. His charges were constantly reminded that often in life the difference between winning and losing is the tiniest bit of effort, and you never want to regret not trying hard enough. Skill levels and athletic ability would set some apart, but effort was something anyone could excel at.
“Yeah, I think so,” Maxwell replied. His big brother was behind him, nodding in agreement. “It was weird, coach. They only picked the biggest guys. Some were so bad you would have cut them from the Mules!”
“Jimbo, I was afraid this might happen. You see, some coaches only see what’s right in front of their eyes,” Franklin offered his explanation, “and many of them are with the bigger clubs. They can’t afford to take a chance on a kid who isn’t already physically ready to play with the professionals.”
“Do you remember Joey Baxter?” he asked the boys. Neither did. “He played for me on the first team about nine years ago, left back. We went up to Kansas City for a match against the Spurs, back when the Winston Cup was still called the U.S. Open Cup. Anyway, Joey had a pretty good game even though we lost 3-1, and the KC coach wanted to talk to him after the match. I remember Joey’s response when that coach offered him a shot at a tryout. He said, “No sir, I can’t see playing for somebody who thinks I’m the best player on this team.”
“He knew what that coach saw, and it wasn’t his skill. Baxter was about six-two, one-ninety, and had been working really hard to improve his game. But he knew he was nowhere near most of the other guys,” Franklin explained, “That took guts.”
“What’s he doing now?” Jimmy asked.
“Last I heard he was in graduate school up at Mizzou - mechanical engineering, I think. He was a sharp kid.” Coach Franklin continued, “Moral of the story is this: Soccer wasn’t his future, and he knew it. You, on the other hand, were born to play this crazy game, and you shouldn’t let this setback get you down. I’d bet good money I’ll see you wearing the ten shirt for the national team some day.”
“Thanks, Coach,” Jimmy said. “We need to get going,” Dale chimed in.
“Glad you stopped by, boys, and say “Hi” to your folks for me,” Franklin replied. His wife handed them some sandwiches, hoping to provide some solace in her own way. Bologna and cheese never tasted so good.
As they made the short trip home to Fisk, Jimmy realized he felt better, and was trying to picture himself on the US National Team. Wearing number ten, of course. His life was about to change in ways he had never imagined.
The Maxwell’s phone rang that evening at 9:20. No one ever jumped up to answer, since they had to wait for the familiar “ring…..riiiiiiiiiiiing” that signaled a call to their house and not the Kershaw’s, with whom they shared a party line. Ma Bell had not made much progress in Southeastern Missouri. Jimmy was in the kitchen devouring a large bowl of Cap’n Crunch, and reading a Spiderman comic book, when his mother entered and handed him the telephone handset. The twenty-foot cord came in handy, especially when the older boys took calls from girls. Privacy was hard to come by in a five-room farmhouse with one phone.
Jimmy didn’t ask his mom who was on the other end, in order to avoid potential embarrassment. Any time a girl called he had to endure the teasing from Dale and Bob so it was easier to keep a low profile. He assumed it was Sara Sabulsky, the latest in a string of cute upper-classmen who had taken an interest in him. The feeling was somewhat mutual. She was athletic and attractive, but nearly four inches taller than him. He was still not entirely comfortable with the whole process, but it was being thrust upon him. Jimmy braced himself, and answered the phone.
“Hello,” he said in a muffled voice, trying to seem uninterested. He was still tired from the tryout and the long drive, so he didn’t have to fake it much.
“Jimmy Maxwell?” asked the obviously male voice.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, “who’s this?” He sat up in his chair.
“My name is Gary Rickman, I was at the tryout this weekend,” the caller answered. “I am one of the assistant coaches for St. Louis Busch.”
Jimmy thought he must have left something at the field, his new cleats maybe. Oh, no.
Rickman continued, “This may sound strange, but I called to find out two things: First, how tall are your parents? And second, are you serious about being a professional soccer player?”
“Uh…hold on,” Maxwell replied. With his hand over the phone, the boy then called into the living room, “Mom, how tall are you and Dad?” He waited for the response, then answered, “Mom’s five-eight, Dad’s five-eleven.”
“Good,” Rickman was relieved. Before he could call his friend Ramon about a small sixteen-year-old prospect, he needed to be prepared.
“And YES, SIR!” Maxwell blurted out, upon realizing he had not answered the second question.
“Sorry, but what is this all about?” he asked.
“I have a good friend who does some scouting for a different club,” the coach replied. “Before I called him, I needed to know those two things. He will ask me about your size, and now I can tell him not to worry. Any older brothers?” he asked.
“I get it,” Jimmy caught on quickly. “Tell him Dale is nineteen and six-foot-two, and Bob is seventeen and about six-foot-even. They were short when they were my age, too.”
“But I’m a LOT better than they were,” he added since both were listening in.
“Great,” Rickman laughed with Jimmy. “I’ll see what I can do and call you back. It’s sometimes hard to track Ramon down, so don’t worry if it takes a few days. I will let you know either way.”
“Can you tell me who he scouts for?” he had to ask.
Jimmy Maxwell had just turned four years old when he got his first soccer ball. If the weather had been more cooperative, he probably would have gotten a bicycle (with training wheels) or maybe an electric train set. In the summer of 1964, drought had nearly decimated their watermelon crop and the income from the summer wheat barely covered their living expenses. Jimmy and his younger siblings were fine with whatever they received, but the older boys felt cheated with this year’s diminished presents. Younger brother Jerry would have been satisfied with the box Dale’s new socks were packaged in. Three-month-old Phyllis didn’t care about Christmas yet.
Jimmy learned soccer from watching his brothers play at the field on Route 60 in Fisk, about twelve miles from Poplar Bluff. Since Dale and Bob were among the younger boys at the Saturday pickup games, it was accepted that Jimmy wouldn’t play, but could come along to watch. Like most boys, his attention span was similar to that of a puppy, so watching quickly became tiresome. Their pitch was mostly grass, due to the efforts of the Davis boys who lived nearby, but it was surrounded by a sand and crabgrass mixture that was annoyingly bumpy and slow. This was Jimmy Maxwell’s playground.
Too bumpy to dribble on, the sandy soil ringing the field provided a bevy of problems for the older boys, but it was all Jimmy knew. He thought nothing of having to scoop the ball into the air and balance it on a thigh while looking for an imaginary teammate to make that far-post run. By the time he was nine, Jimmy could run the length of the pitch without letting the ball touch the ground. If you could call it running, that is. His curse as a youngster was his growth cycle – he would fill out to sometimes ‘pudgy’ proportions, then shoot up three or four inches in height. As a child, Jimmy Maxwell never was comfortable in his own body. His teenage years were even worse - the same changes, amplified.
He would be nearly twelve before he was allowed to get into a game with his older brothers, and by then Jimmy was able to make his ball do pretty much whatever he wanted. Still too young to be much help with farm chores, he had hours of free time to play in the yard with his ball every day. An old walnut tree next to the house provided excellent target practice, since even the slightest error would cause a rebound that had to be chased. One-v-one games with Jerry, two years his junior, gave him the opportunity to play with his left foot to “make it fair”. That didn’t last long, since Jerry was a sore loser, and Jimmy never let him win. Playing with the older boys allowed his talent to shine.
Bob and Dale were exceptional players in their own right, and constantly challenged their little brother to try new moves, or juggle with a new body part. They were unknowingly creating the best player in the country, but it would be years before all the work would pay off. By pushing him to improve, they thought they were just doing what big brothers did.
Allowed to tag along everywhere, Jimmy became sort of a mascot for the older boys. They would marvel at the little kid’s ability to juggle for what seemed like hours on end. One of Bob’s friends even got him a gig entertaining the crowd at halftime of the Poplar Bluff Mules’ home games. Most times, he could keep his ball up for the entire twenty-minute period. Not bad for a ten-year-old. Club management put a stop to his show when the supporters began to boo the home team when they would come out and stop him.
When he was finally allowed to play with the older boys, Jimmy was placed up top, away from the grinder that was the midfield. His brothers sought to protect him from the physical contact by giving him freedom to find open spaces. What they could not have predicted was the nature of their little brother, seven years younger than the oldest boy on the field and at least two years younger than anyone else, when he had the ball at his feet on a grassy field, thirty yards from goal.
Twelve-year-old Jimmy Maxwell received a bouncy pass from one of his teammates, softly settled the ball, turned and took it directly at the eighteen-year-old defender who was the closest opponent between him and the goal. The older boy was a little surprised, but dropped anyway expecting a pass. Jimmy kept coming, and the defender felt he had to go for the tackle before they got too close to his goal. The younger boy side-stepped his mark with the ease of a seasoned striker and laid a square pass to his teammate, who promptly slotted the ball into the goal.
Ken Franklin had a list of “Undeniable Truths of Soccer”. Things like: ‘The more defenders you have, the more likely you will be scored upon’, ‘Playing for the tie will guarantee the loss’, ‘Nothing bad happens when you are moving’, etc. When he started coaching fourteen-year-old Jimmy Maxwell, he added this one: ‘Creativity comes from being aggressive’. The two of them would discuss this while watching Monday Night Soccer at the Franklin house. The coach believed most players that were deemed “creative” were better at performing tricks than getting results. He often said true creativity had more to do with forcing your will on the game. One other player understood.
The Boston Patriots’ new attacking midfielder, Brandon Rafferty, embodied Franklin’s newest ‘Truth’. Everyone in the park knew he was going to attack his rival, beat him, and, when a defender stepped up to help, dish the ball to an open striker. He broke the mold of the holding central midfielder who played deep and sprayed long passes to his forwards. Twenty-five-year-old Rafferty led the American Premier League in assists his second season, and helped Boston climb out of the bottom half of the table, where they had been since the inception of the new league two years before. Jimmy dreamed of playing with the likes of Brandon Rafferty some day. Rafferty was a real Number Ten.
“Who, my friend Ramon?” Gary Rickman asked. He was reluctant to tell the kid, for fear of getting his hopes up. He knew he couldn’t guarantee anything.
“Yes, sir, I guess. Who does he scout for?” Jimmy persisted.
“Real Madrid.” Rickman waited for a response, but got none. “I’ll call you later,” he added, and hung up.
The boy put his cereal bowl in the sink, grabbed his soccer ball, and sneaked out through the back door. The juggles started that night with “Uno….dos….tres” and ended, a little over an hour later, with “dos thousand, ocho hundred, diez”. He would need to work on his Spanish.
All Text & Images Copyright 2010 by Michael Maddox. Published by Figure 18 Publishing.