The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Northern California is a small social organization with the goal of raising funds to support local Jewish athletes in financial need. One of their methods is the awards banquet where esteemed members of the Jewish athletic community are selected for recognition, “the Golden Bagel,” and takes place on a Sunday morning. This year’s was on November 3rd, at the auspicious Crown Room, atop the Fairmont Hotel. One of the inductees was my high school soccer coach and mentor, Ernie Feibusch. One morning in September at our weekly pickup game he surprised me by asking if I would be one of the two people to speak on his behalf. Which is how I found myself at the hotel that Sunday morning, called on to make a few comments. Afterwards a few people came up to me and complimented me on it. So I thought I’d share it here. This is more or less how it went.
The format of the event required crafting a prompt in the form of a question, and then responding to it. Somehow that seems different from giving a speech to the organizers. Mine was:
“One of the attributes often attributed to Ernie’s success is his consistent focus on one club (Vikings) and one school team (Lowell). How did this shape his reputation, and are there still coaches who do the same today?”
This question reminds me of the words of one of Hollywood’s great actors, a contemporary of Ernie’s, Robert Mitchum. He was interviewed by Barbara Walters who asked him: “You’ve been married 42 years. What makes your marriage work?”
Robert Mitchum: “Lack of imagination, I suppose.”
To understand this, and Ernie, we have to recall the term, “The Greatest Generation.” These were children raised through hunger and want during the Great
Depression. Then, those who survived served in the World War II. I believe that those two experiences indelibly shaped these men and women in ways that he rest of will never fully comprehend. Anything after that back home was, relatively speaking, pretty good. The questions from their childhood, “Am I starving? Am I deathly ill? Am I freezing in the winter?” No? Not bad. Then they went in to the service and the questions were, “Am I facing live fire? Is the enemy trying to shoot my plane out of the sky? Do I have the blood of a dead comrade on me?” No? Life must be pretty good then.
After the war, these souls — as brave as they could be, and as fortunate as we can call them, (lucky to return, unlucky to have seen the things they saw) — came back to us in the 50s and attempted to re-enter society and find a niche.
Ernie has been honored before, including the US Soccer Hall of Fame. Any recognition at the level of a “Hall of Fame” as that one or the Golden Bagel that we are gathered here for today, must be predicated on sustained performance over time. Ernie, like several well-known coaches in the Bay Area, I think of Berkeley High’s Gene Nakamura and my late father-in-law too but their numbers are legend, they settled in and combined playing careers that eventually matured into coaching roles. And perhaps because of the terrible hardships they endured, they happily remained in one place, working year after year, loyally and steadily.
Like the others. Ernie worked on one idea, his was to grow the game of soccer in the United States. And like the great man said, “think globally act locally”, his focused actions were on cultivating soccer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his epicenter was the Sunset District. He went to elementary school at 19th and Irving; the apple did not fall far. After playing in the 50s he began to coach at Lowell, where he worked. The closest club was the San Francisco Vikings. He grew where he had planted himself. After coaching into the next century he retired and focused on the Vikings Board.
And grow the game did. If your marker is international success, the United States Men’s National Team qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy by the skin of its teeth, the first time since 1950. In ’94 we were the hosts with an automatic entry. But we have qualified for every World Cup since then on our merits, achieving rankings as high as 6th in the world during this run.
But it was not ever so. The sport was not popular when I was young. I can remember lining up to watch the World Cup in 1974 on closed circuit TV at the Cow Palace. In 2012, the final was shown free on big screens set up at the Civic Center. That is a mark of the huge growth the game as seen during Ernie’s time.
But success brings consequences and ramifications. Money has crept into the youth game. With money comes those who seek to profit. Don’t get me wrong, I believe people deserve compensation for their efforts and expertise. I see nothing wrong with paying a person for a service they provide. But what set Ernie apart from many today is that when he coached us he didn’t have one eye on his checking account. He wasn’t amassing a portfolio of press clippings. He wasn’t coaching us to do something better later. We were never a rung on Ernie’s ladder. He coached us because he loved the game and he loved coaching us.
As a generational leader, many, many of Ernie’s pupils have gone on coach the next generation of players. You are looking at three of them here today. Michael Keohane and Toby Rappolt here possess the highest coaching badge in the nation, the US Soccer “A” license. This is how Ernie’s legacy cascades into today. Henry Adams wrote,
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
An example: I went to Cal and played there. I saw a flyer saying you could volunteer in a Berkeley school and get a credit. I went to Washington Elementary on Milvia across the street from Berkeley High. I helped with reading, math, whatever Mrs Skantze needed. But at recess I got a giant red Four-Square ball and I taught the kids soccer. One thing led to another and we ended up forming a co-ed U10 team to play in the local league, complete with uniforms donated by my Cal coach, Bob DiGrazia. The best player on that team was a kid named Aaron Heifetz. He went on to join the local club, the Berkeley Mavericks, and from there played at Berkeley High and kicked for the football team. He is now the Press Officer for the US Women’s National Team and he was on the sidelines of the 1999 World Cup Championships where Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey after scoring the decisive penalty. Last month I was beyond proud, and pleased when Aaron left me two comp tickets for the game the USWNT played at Candlestick park. As I sat there watching the game, seeing Aaron busy on the sidelines, I remembered that he found soccer when I made a team, and I was a coach because of Ernie.
One club. One school. Decades of devotion, service, and commitment. I think the Jews have a word for this and it’s: a mensch. Here’s to you, coach.