Soccer's first US-born superstar takes a long view on its popularity

THOSE who view the current World Cup tournament as a fast-forward way to popularize soccer in the United States may not like what Kyle Rote Jr. says.

``We in soccer have to be very patient,'' says Rote, who in the 1970s was the first US-born professional star of the sport. ``The ultimate judgment of whether soccer can make it in the American culture won't be known probably for another 20 or 30 years.''

Time is required to produce parents and grandparents who not only grasp how soccer is played, but who can impart some of soccer's lore to their offspring.

That said, Rote is quick to point out that the US soccer-playing community hasn't let much grass grow under its feet since his retirement in 1981. He knows that from his continuing involvement with the sport - as the father of three soccer-playing children, as an instructor at 15 or 20 soccer clinics each year, and as a general ambassador for the sport.

Rote sees tremendous grass-roots soccer participation in the US. He finds, however, that it is sometimes lost on Americans, who often fixate on what's happening at the big-league level.

``We can make a mistake in allowing the formula of soccer success to be defined as having a high-profile, nationally televised league like the National Basketball Association or the National Football League,'' he says. ``Soccer is successful. It's like softball. We don't have a pro softball league, but softball is a great sport. Soccer may just be one of those sports you enjoy playing more than you enjoy watching.''

Rote considered himself a soccer missionary in the '70s, when he played in the old North American Soccer League (NASL). Today he says he likes to think of himself as part of the ``landing party to help get soccer into the mainstream culture.''

His introduction to the sport is a study in athletic transformation. Rote was born with a football pedigree: His father, Kyle Rote, was a college All-American at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and later played for the NFL's New York Giants in the 1950s. Tobin Rote, an uncle, played for the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions.

Young Kyle had NFL aspirations as an all-state high school football player in Texas. His changeover to soccer began when he saw a World Cup telecast from England in 1966.

``I saw these people running around for 90 minutes,'' he says, ``and I said, `I don't know anything about this sport, but I want that endurance.' ''

At first, he began playing soccer to enhance his fitness for football. Within a year or two he was selected to play on a Southwestern US all-star team that toured England for two months.

That really opened his eyes. ``Here you had a culture that didn't know who the Dallas Cowboys were, yet they were filling up their soccer stadiums week after week.''

Rote's decision to become a total soccer convert momentarily angered many in football-mad Texas. ``Most newspapers wanted to reinstate the McCarthy hearings to see where the Communist tendencies entered my family,'' he recalls of his outcast status.

All was forgiven when Rote went on to soccer stardom at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. There he attracted the attention of the Dallas Tornados, who made him the top pick in the NASL's 1973 draft.

In his rookie season, he won the league scoring title and Rookie of the Year honors. Later he helped the US national team to a stunning upset of Poland.

These achievements, plus his marquee football name, led to an opportunity that has probably benefited American soccer more than it knows: He was invited to the second annual made-for-TV Superstars competition, a ``decathlon'' designed to crown the best athlete from various sports.

Rote came away with the 1974 Superstars title, competing against such sports luminaries as Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, and Julius Erving. He won twice more - in 1976 and 1977 - before the rules forced his retirement.

``That may have been the best contribution I made to soccer,'' he says of the three Superstars titles, ``not scoring goals, but proving that soccer players were great athletes.''

Rote played in the NASL until 1980, when he became the general manager of a Major Indoor Soccer League team. Now he heads a sports agency called Athletic Resource Management in Memphis. Somehow he manages to find time to give about 60 or 70 motivational talks to businesses each year and serve on the national board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Asked why soccer has become such a strong children's sport in the US, Rote replies, ``That's simple: Everyone can be a quarterback, a point guard, a pitcher.'' In other words, everyone can be in on the action and contribute.

``You don't necessarily have to be highly skillful with the ball; I wasn't,'' Rote says. ``There's a place in soccer for whatever a child's abilities are - even if it's just being able to run for a long time. In baseball, if a youngster strikes out, he has no physical outlet for his frustration. In soccer, you always have this physical outlet. You can run and contribute and never touch the ball.''

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