By the time you read this I don’t know if Pele, 82, will be alive. But as I wrote, he was in Sao Paulo’s Albert Einstein Hospital, fading from colon cancer and blood disorders.
I was still wet behind the ears and years when I spoke a flagrant lie that assigned me to be with Pele as he traveled North America during his final competitive year.
It was March 1977. I was just a kid — 24, that’s 12 in newspaper years — who told a whopper.
Joe Marcus, who marginally covered soccer for The Post during the Cosmos’ earliest years on gritty, granular, glass-strewn, blood-stained Randalls Island to Yankee Stadium in 1975 when Pele signed out of retirement in Brazil, had died.
I was a clerk in sports, a gopher risen to 90 take-home bucks a week, that often included six days per week.
Ike Gellis, our tough, gruff Edward G. Robinson lookalike, act-alike sports editor — so help me, straight out of central casting — one morning asked a question aloud: Who knows anything about soccer?
The Cosmos were moving to Giants Stadium and he needed a replacement for Marcus.
I wasn’t heir apparent to the next beat, but I took a quick, blind shot: “I do!” All I knew about soccer was that I worked summers as a lifeguard for swim club manager Bill Leid, soccer and wrestling coach at Wagner College.
I’d committed fraud.
And so it was settled. As the Cosmos moved into Giants Stadium and with more immediate, sellout success than the North American Soccer League could sustain, I was The Post’s new soccer beat man, sans credentials or a clue.
And within days, I was shoulder-to-shoulder and pen-to-paper with the one man everyone on every continent knew about soccer, the world’s most renown and admired athlete, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known from Timbuktu to Totowa as Pele.
Oddly, Pele didn’t like his nickname, given him in school as he mangled the name Bilé for his favorite player, the goalkeeper on Brazil’s Vasco da Gama team. He said he was named after Thomas Edison and preferred “Edson” as it was both serious and dignified.
Hmm, Pele’s favorite as a kid was a player who prevented goals.
It was impossible to not like Pele. We in the local press corps didn’t bother him beyond soccer matters. He appreciated that, thus came to know us by our first names. The world media dogged him, schlepping cameras and sound crews to capture the married man’s latest love interest, real and imaginary.
Even Pele’s pint-sized, anvil-solid bodyguard, Pedro Garay, a Cuban who invaded his homeland to oust Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs, knew we could be trusted, that we were no threat to Pele in public or private.
Garay was another spectacular character in the Cosmos’ retinue. One night in Vancouver, B.C., just before a game against the Whitecaps, he demonstrated on captain Werner Roth how his handcuffs worked. Then couldn’t find the key. He’d left it in his hotel room.
What I knew about Pele almost immediately upon my entry was:
1. He and star self-stricken striker Giorgio Chinaglia both wanted — needed — the ball, the nearer to the opponents’ goal the better. And Chinaglia made it unconditionally clear that he’d use his muscle with Cosmos’ primary Warner Communications boss, father-figure and attention-hound Steve Ross, no matter what the powerful and famous music and soccer freak Warner co-chairs, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, wanted to the contrary.
This international house divided created the world’s most famous team from roughly 1976 to 1983. And there was dysfunction every day behind every door. That made not actually knowing much about soccer, at the time, fun and educational! And the poor coach, Gordon Bradley, was a good man daily squeezed in a vise.
It wrote itself. So I wrote it. I didn’t know any better.
2. I also knew, early on, what I could not write, unless I wanted to bring discredit to Steve Marshall, the Cosmos’ good-guy traveling secretary and massive — like 6-foot-5, 290 pounds — nose tackle and point man, as he pointed to wait “over there” a lot.
In 1976, BC — before cellphones — the Cosmos bussed back from a game against New England at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. The bus didn’t carry a restroom. So at night, with the team hollering for relief, Marshall had the driver pull over near a deserted field next to Route 84.
Fluid mission accomplished. The team re-entered the bus and off it went. Until Marshall discovered Pele was missing.
As the bus circled back to search for Pele, Marshall was gripped by the fear and sense of coming history that he had left the world’s most famous athlete to die or hitchhike, alone, in an abandoned field near Route 84 outside of Boston.
If I had hadn’t fully grasped the universal fame and appeal of Pele, that vanished before a game against the LA Aztecs in Los Angeles Coliseum.
Word spread that Elton John, a partial owner of the Aztecs, would be in the parking lot to greet Pele. I was on the team bus and as we grew nearer to the Coliseum, mobs began to circle.
So here was my plan: Stick close to Pele and Garay. What possible harm could come to them?
As we stepped off the bus — I was carrying a briefcase and portable Olivetti typewriter — the crowd surged. Suddenly, I had no control of my body or balance; my arms were pinned to my sides; if the crowd surged left, I went left, once nearly horizontal.
Absolutely helpless, I saw the headline: “Pele, 20 Others, Die In Stampede.” My name would make the agate print at the bottom of the story, then drop out in the second edition.
(Small wonder I become nauseous when ESPN geniuses support field and court-storming as good, clean, student-body fun and ritual.)
I spoke with Pele about it after the game, asking if he’d ever been forced to escape such a mob. Though a modest man, he smiled. Then he made a circle with his arms:
“Yes,” he said in English, “all over the world.”
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