At US Soccer's Kicking Edge
Briton John Smith, who spent 10 years in pro football, has stayed on to boost his first love
MILFORD, MASS. — TO find a person more immersed in soccer in the United States than John Smith might be impossible.
As an ambassador for Boston's successful bid to host part of the World Cup tournament in 1994, he revolves in the same orbit as the game's movers and shakers. As the father of four, he's involved in coaching a like number of boys' and girls' youth-league teams in the 16-and-under age groups.
And as an entrepreneur, he's constantly on the go, giving coaching clinics, running soccer camps, and operating the John Smith No. 1 Sports Center in Milford, Mass., a large "bubble" structure 30 miles west of Boston. The center offers everything from miniature golf to video arcade games, but first and foremost it is an indoor soccer facility.
"I've got 220 teams a week playing in here all winter, including 50 adult teams," he says in his office, awaiting the center's late-afternoon and evening rush.
The indoor season is just ending, but the bubble eliminates any down time for aficionados in this soccer-rich area. "Sometimes the parents have their children drop out of soccer for a while, because they say the kid is burned out," Smith says. "But it's the parents who are burned out; you cannot burn a kid out; it's impossible."
He speaks from his own experience as a youth in England. Given his druthers, he would have played "five games a week and 365 days a year."
Like most talented English players, Smith says he was approached with offers to turn professional in his mid-teens. He turned them down because he wanted to get a college degree and teach.
Eventually he graduated with honors from King Alfred's College in Winchester, England, but it was his experience developing soccer programs at two Massachusetts summer camps in the early 1970s that ultimately led to his current prominence in the American soccer community. A momentous phone call
While at one of the camps, an interested observer asked him to try kicking a football. Word of his ability spread, and after returning to England a letter arrived from the New York Jets, asking him if he'd be interested in place-kicking work in the National Football League, which had opened its doors to soccer-style booters.
In his thanks-but-no-thanks reply, he wrote, "I don't really know what football is, I've never seen a game, and I don't know what a kicker does."
That wasn't the end, and in 1973 a player agent phoned him "at a little village in the Cotswolds," saying there was a plane ticket to Boston waiting for him in London to attend a tryout with the New England Patriots. The timing and generosity of the invitation appealed to Smith, and he decided to accept "a four-day holiday on the Yanks."
The trip marked the beginning of a 10-year NFL career, one in which he was the league's top scorer in 1979 and '80.
As a center forward in soccer, Smith loved being in the thick of the action. In the NFL, he says, "I was hanging around for three hours, waiting on the sideline, jogging in and kicking the ball, and jogging back out again. That was the hardest part to adjust to."
His 1982 "snowplow kick," a field goal that gave the Patriots a 3-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins, ranks among the most bizarre plays in league history. Working to uncover the field markings during a bad New England storm, a plow operator veered off course just enough to clear a spot for Smith's kick. "The guy turned out to be a prisoner on work release. He became an instant celebrity," Smith says.
Smith's fame in local sports circles, of course, far transcended this incident, as he became "known as 'the soccer player,the soccer-style kicker,the guy who talks funny from England.' "
The reputation, he says, allowed him to use the NFL as a springboard to launch his soccer enterprises.
His World Cup involvement began two years ago when officials of Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium, home of the Patriots, called to ask him about the stadium's chances of becoming a '94 World Cup site. Smith said a larger field and natural grass were required, changes the stadium agreed to. Boston-area World Cup
Twenty-seven US cities bid to take part in the month-long, quadrennial championship. A long shot at the beginning of the pro-cess, the Boston contingent secured one of the nine host assignments. "We came from 27th to ninth," says Smith, who is optimistic that Boston might be awarded more than the currently allotted four games.
To educate people about the World Cup, Smith has worked vigorously in public (45 radio appearances last year) and in private, talking to key business and political figures.
In a related activity, he chairs a committee that unifies the New England soccer community. The strength of his area, he says, is in youth participation. Massachusetts trailed only northern California and New Jersey in registered youth players last year, with 87,000. The total could reach 100,000 this year.
This makes the Boston area an attractive soccer market and probably helped it get two World Cup tuneup games this year: Ireland vs. Italy (June 4) and Ireland vs. Portugal (June 7).
Despite significant numbers of youth soccer players in the US, the sport has not yet translated into a successful spectator attraction here, based on the demise of several professional leagues.
"The problem before was that parents hadn't played the game," Smith says. "They didn't understand the fact you you could have a 1-0 game and it could be exciting, just like a 0-0 baseball game - a pitcher's duel - could be exciting."
Dad and mom might take the kids to a game, but it was a one-shot deal.
Now, Smith says, a generation of American youth soccer players are closing the loop. He sees them all the time at his sports center.
"They've come through youth programs and college, and now they're coming in here and they've got little guys - 5, 6, 7 years old. They understand soccer, want to see the game themselves, and will be more supportive."