IN TRAINING WITH King PELE and the NEW YORK ` COSMOS
The boyhood Vision was unfolding
To be unable to feel one’s feet does not necessarily enhance one’s ability to play soccer. But being a soccer player, my job was to play soccer and not to complain about the weather.
No one really understood the dis-advantages/challenges that I faced. The bitter climate of mid-February to mid-March can be especially unbearable when one plays outdoors at a site that is at the mercy of the Wind /Mother Nature. Long Island is truly a brutally cold place during the winter’s months.
Complete dedication is the most important attribute of any good player. You must be willing to give everything to your club and also be able to take the disappointments that are bound to come along…Pele
Being determined to make the BIG TEAM, my attitude, concentration, confidence and skills were sharp. I had trained long and hard for this opportunity…with mind occasionally drifting back to my bare-footed days playing football on ‘Mars drive in Harbour View.
The COSMOS TRAINING REGIME
TRAINING… In the foot- steps of the KING
I had to make a most crucial decision in respect to my career ambition. I soon realized that I would not be able to continue my academic life at Lehman while trying to make a professional soccer team.
The COSMOS team started pre-season training in February. Training sessions were scheduled from Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and sometimes on Saturdays, at Hofstra University in Long Island.
The greatest challenge that I faced was one of travelling or TRANSPORTATION. I lived in Brooklyn, went to school in the Bronx, and now had to reach Long Island for training. The logistics proved quite difficult. The next great challenge was that of maintaining my student status to allow grants, bursaries and access to student loans at Lehman College. I had deferred accepting any form of athletic scholarships on leaving high school and so depended heavily on my privileges as a student. In order to maintain the status that guaranteed access to financial assistance, required carrying the minimum of 12 credits or roughly 4 three credit courses per semester.
The first challenge was somewhat resolved with the intervention of coach Solney. Getting to and from the training site was not the business of the COSMOS. Coach Solney convinced team mate and fellow draft selectee John Russo to assist me in getting to Hofstra. Russo agreed to meet me at the Lehman campus at between 8: 15 and 8:30 from where we would make a brisk 20 minutes’ drive from the Bronx across into Long Island and be changed and ready to train by 9:00.
Training with the COSMOS demanded that I catch the train from Sterling Street in Brooklyn no later than 6:45 to get to Lehman College by 8:15 – 8:25. With training from 9 – 4 p.m., I opted to meet the second great challenge by registering for Night Classes at Lehman. With an eye still on education I continued to major in the field of Psychology taking two psychology courses and two philosophy courses which amounted to the basic requirement of 12 credits. These were all reading courses and posed the challenge of time.
Classes began at 6:00 p m and went on till 10:00 p.m.
Getting onto a noisy underground train at 10:15 – 10:30 at night for that two hour long ride into Brooklyn was mind-boggling. I would reach Brooklyn a little before or after midnight and settled in my Tampa Court home oftentimes without taking a shower. Somehow the clock seemed to be moving faster than usual since I was up again at 600 to get ready for another set of travels and training.
Training twice a day was quite taxing. The professional approach to playing soccer demanded superior fitness and boundless energy. My body began to react to the strain of traveling, training and studying. After the first week, I realized that I would be unable to continue this dual-life. In analyzing the situation, I was greatly perplexed as I was only two semesters away from acquiring my Bachelor’s degree. I had always placed a premium of securing formal qualifications in education, but also realized that I was close to realizing my boyhood ‘Vision with the KING. Something had to give.
By the middle of the second week, I started to sleep in class at night and struggled to rise up each morning. My two training sessions per day also included weight training which most players engaged during lunch time. Getting stronger and more powerful was an essential part of the armory needed to play at the professional level. At the end of the second week, the die had been cast. I opted to ‘officially withdraw’ from classes at Lehman for the January semester to make a concentrated effort at my ambitions as a professional soccer player.
I felt at ease in the training camp as players such as Americans Bob Rigby, Bob smith and Captain Werner Roth were all very accommodating. With each NASL team required to carry 6 American players on the 16 man roster, my chances of making the BIG TEAM loomed large. My competition for a space in the squad could not be threatened by ‘foreign international’ players. One morning during the first week of training coach Furphy picked up my Coaching Manual, which I traveled with and would read during the break, scanned it quickly and asked if I had an interest in coaching. We had a brief conversation about his career and life at Sheffield United. I never expected Furphy would provide me with the opportunity to ‘taste’ big-team coaching.
The next morning I was most pleasantly surprised when coach Furphy asked me, DON D to ”warm up” the COSMOS team. Yes, Furphy ASKED ME to warm up the BIG TEAM. It soon became evident that I was drafted by the COSMOS organization to fill a vacant position on the left side of the defense and for my leadership skills. My mental attitude was not comfortable playing on the left side of the field. In retrospect, my subtle resistance to embrace the position that the club drafted me to play was the behavior of a ‘rookie’.
When it was finally announced that the King would be joining the camp, there was a nervous frenzy that gripped the entire Hofstra University campus. I suddenly became aware that my childhood ‘Vision of the King’ was about to become a reality. I pinched myself to make sure that these events were not part of a dream.
Monday March 14 1976…ACTUALIZED VISION of THE KING
A year and a week to the date of my “eye accident”, I reached the HIGHEST point in my football life. When it was officially announced that PELE would join the team the next morning, the excitement made it difficult to sleep that night. I could hardly wait for the morning. PELE’s arrival at the training ground was filled with fanfare and excitement. Numerous journalists, television crews from all around the world gathered to welcome the KING. And like a true superstar, PELE emerged from a long black limousine that slowly made its way onto the ground. As the door of the limo opened, there was a rush of bodies as photographers and press men jostled to get close up to the KING. Wearing dark glasses and a hat pulled near to his eyebrows, the greatest soccer player emerged smiling and energized, quickly made a brief statement and hurried inside the building where all players gathered to welcome the KING.
PELE’s late arrival to the COSMOS training camp made me stand out at Hofstra like a ‘sore thumb’…being the ONLY BLACK PLAYER in the squad. There were several funny incidents involving persons, oftentimes students and young visitors to the camp thinking that I was the KING and asked for signed autographs. This proved to be quite amusing particularly to the English men who joked that I should ‘go steal a car for them in Harlem’. Serious joke!!
My first meeting with the KING was warm and embracing. He realized the youthfulness in me and asked of my nationality. When I told him Jamaican… I was HUGGED AND there was great expansive smile that radiated through the changing room. In his broken English, he quickly mentioned that he had been to Jamaica and loved the place. I felt at ease and fulfilled. This was Don D talking with the legendary PELE…live and direct from the locker room of the New York COSMOS. There was much hand shaking and hugging.
As was usual, every COSMOS training session had its share of reporters but this day was special. It seems as if the whole world was watching this ‘ball magician’ prepare for a second season in the North American Soccer League. Because of the extreme cold weather of that day, the players requested of the KING that he ask the coach for an indoor training session. No one else it seemed had the ‘power’ to make such a request.
Furphy was a hard-nosed English man who the COSMOS brought over from Sheffield United. He brought along roughly 5 or 6 English players that included striker Tommy Ord, defender Keith Eddy, Mike Dillon and Irishman Terry Garbett. Furphy was running a very tight ship and would not have granted the players’ wish to train indoors were it not coming from the ‘greatest’. Coach Furphy had no choice. Prior to this request, we faced the biting winds and bitter cold of Hofstra which made the Peruvian midfield maestro wear his tam to training in an effort to keep off what he called “el vento”.
After a rigorous 45 minute warm-up, the squad engaged in some small sided games (five-a –side). I drew PELE as my team-mate. We managed to win two consecutive games until we were defeated. It only got more interesting as our second series of small sided games would involve two versus two. My partner was Englishman Keith Eddy and like a movie, my opponents were another Englishman Tommy Ord playing with none other than the KING PELE himself.
The match began at a furious pace with PELE and Ord resorting to rapid one-touch playing that involved quick short sprinting that allowed them to use the maximum area that was allowed. Eddy and I spent the first two minutes simply trying to figure out the rhythm of their thinking to coordinate our movements to make an interception in order to gain possession of the ball.
We were successful at slowing down the pace of their play and eventually forced them to abandon their combination play and rely more on their individual abilities. At the moment, I was forced to play 1 vs. 1 against the ‘greatest player in the world’ in front of a most distinguished and knowledgeable audience. Winning possession of the ball ‘[from] the King without ‘really tackling’ was viewed as ‘impressive’. Our ‘close competitive encounter’ lasted a few “minutes”…but for Don D it was the ‘longest’ few minutes of my lifetime and proved to be the fulfillment of a ‘childhood dream’.
It was KING PELE, the greatest attacking player vs. a great Jamaican defender Don D.
Playing with the KING was more than half of the thrill of being at the COSMOS.
The weather eased in the afternoon and allowed for our second full session to be held outdoors. Here for the first time I saw the mastery and deft skills of a man whose technique were impeccable. One cannot really explain this but when there are only two Black Man training in a group of 25 white players, often there is a ‘magnetic affinity’ that pulls them together. Training in pairs was/is the norm …hence my first outdoor session made PELE my natural training partner. This was surreal…doing push -ups, abdominals…like two little boys- we wrestled and played. Playing in the outdoors, PELE demonstrated the ‘subtleness of dribbling’, the art of passing and explosiveness in sprinting and kicking. The English players were forced to ‘applaud’ the KING in training for executing a perfect ‘bicycle kick’ taken off a corner kick.
With the media descending on the team, the news of the upcoming NASL season hit the sports pages and suddenly soccer became topical in the newspapers and on television. I was approached by the New York Times writer who asked what I thought of my chances of making the BIG TEAM. I told him that I was still here after three weeks so it seemed possible that I could take him up on his offer. He agreed to do a piece on me after I was officially signed to a contract. The pace of the camp intensified as players seem to find that extra desire to be a part of the final 16. PELE’s adviser, Professor Julius Mazzei was brought in to upgrade the fitness of the team. In the fitness tests administered to all players, American goalkeeper Bob Rigby proved to be the ‘strongest’ player on the team with American full back Bob Smith proving to have the best level of stamina. ,I was able to establish myself as the fastest runner over 40 meters and achieved the highest vertical leap.
To answer the critics in the media who voiced the opinion that the New York COSMOS were an ‘elitist’ club that overlooked ‘local’ talent for the overseas professional, the COSMOS advertised for a One Day Open Trial for any and all aspiring professional players in and around the tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The turnout was incredible. There were players from all the various leagues that played soccer, some of whom I had played against in the ethnic-based leagues that dominated the region.
The turnout numbered roughly 40 players. The COSMOS planned to use this game to have a better look at their draft choices and the fringe foreign players. Many of the top players, including the KING, would only play for a few minutes. . Among the many players who turned up for this ‘trial’ were two from Mexico, one from India, and my longtime friend and fierce rival Tony Romeo. Romeo’s presence at the trials was a “bit of a surprise” as I was of the opinion that he had lost interest in the game and music had become the way.
With regular right full back Bob Smith out injured, after nearly four weeks of training I was raring to go and was gifted the opportunity to impress at right back with all and sundry in attendance. I relished the moment to claim a ‘space’ in the team. This was my moment to show what type of talent I really possessed. The irony of the situation was that with all his speed and guile and ability to play on either wing, Romeo chose to line up on the left wing. In short, he chose to play against Don D. I considered it arrogance and a poor sense of judgment to line up against me to impress the COSMOS management.
Can you imagine Romeo trying to make the COSMOS at my expense? My ‘friend’ was trying to make me look bad so he can look good. There was just NO WAY! I would not give Romeo even an ‘inch of space’ to play. This was not Lehman College, the German American league, nor the Haitian league. The speed, power and aggression of professional soccer could not be replicated in the ethnic leagues that dominated the local soccer landscape.
With PELE and Mifflin in midfield pulling the strings, the ‘trialists’ never had a chance and were behind by 2 goals in less than 10 minutes. While the KING played for twenty minutes, I was allowed to playing the full ninety minutes. I was simply too quick, too strong, too fit, and too powerful for any of the ‘trialist’ to make any impression. We over- ran the collection of players who all basically played as individuals. They had no chance against a professional team with superior fitness, techniques, tactics and team work.
I observed that the non-American players who were also classified as ‘foreign’ players (local-based) had to compete against “imported foreign’ players from Europe and South America who possessed international playing experience. The NASL program of ‘Americanization’ of the League guaranteed six American players a space on each team. In short, in order to become eligible for a ‘chance’ to play professional soccer in America, non-American players were forced to ‘surrender’ their natural citizenship to become a citizen of the United States. Such was the politics of the time.
I represented the NEW YORK COSMOS, a collection or Galaxy of Stars. The final score read 5 – 0. With strong and persistent over lapping play, I made two perfect crosses that ended up as goals. Big striker Tony Donlic was the beneficiary.
At the end of this game I literally sealed up my place in the squad.
Team pictures taken earlier in the final week of the training camp that would end on Friday…for travel to the warmth of California on Sunday. ..To begin final stages of preparation for the kick-off of the 1976 NASL season.