Howard's development as a soccer power is the first evidence of its drive to attain big-time athletic recognition. Known for years as a producer of distinguished black leadership, the university has not enjoyed commensurate success on the playing field. "Academically we have always been outstanding," explains Howard's earnest, courtly sports-information director, Ric Roberts. "Now we want to go major in athletics. Soccer at Howard represents a crusade to open up the NCAA university division to a black school."
What Howard faced in the St. Louis Billikens was the product of a grass-roots soccer movement that has been growing thicker and stronger each year. Catholic schools in St. Louis sponsor a soccer program that begins in kindergarten. All told—in the church leagues, recreational programs and the school system—25,000 youngsters from high school age down play soccer for several months each year. Typical of these is the Billikens' high-scoring All-America forward, Mike Seerey, whose father is Pat Seerey, the former Cleveland Indian outfielder. Mike plays nothing but soccer from August to June. "I started when I was five or six," he says. "It's my game."
Harry Keough, St. Louis U.'s gregarious coach, ranges no farther than the city limits on his recruiting trips. With the exception of a Brazilian who showed up for practice one afternoon, the entire Billiken roster comes from St. Louis. Stressing physical fitness and the sort of precise ball-control game that only skillful, experienced players can handle, Keough's teams have won 62 games, lost five, tied four. They have also won three NCAA titles in his five years there.
To get a shot at St. Louis, Howard first had to beat favored Harvard in the semifinals. Also plentifully staffed with foreign talent, the Crimson are backed up on defense by Shep Messing, an American-born goalie who plays his position with the reckless violence of an NFL linebacker. He also plays goal for the U.S. team now trying to qualify for the Munich Olympics.
Harvard favors the same wide-open game Howard employs. When well executed, punt-and-chase soccer can be a spectating treat, like a high-scoring football game. When badly done it is about as thrilling as a game of catch. Unfortunately, Harvard and Howard put on an inept and scoreless exhibition for most of their game. Finally, with just over 10 minutes left, the Bisons scored, thus sparing the Orange Bowl crowd of 4,044 the ultimate in ennui—an overtime match between two sloppy teams.
"Both of them looked so bad," said St. Louis' Keough after the game, "that my No. 1 problem may be getting my boys up for the finals."
In truth, a No. 1 problem came quicker than that in the form of San Francisco University, the fourth semifinalist. The Dons played the Billikens to a standoff in the nightcap of the Orange Bowl doubleheader, until churning St. Louis won in the last quarter 3-2.
The finale went all but unnoticed on a crowded Miami social and political calendar that included the Brandt-Nixon summit meeting, John Lindsay's declaration of his presidential candidacy and the promotional hullabaloo preceding two other Orange Bowl games, Nebraska-Alabama and Miami-Baltimore. Even the President's phone call congratulating Dolphin Coach Don Shula on beating Kansas City went almost unnoticed.
While only 5,800 spectators showed up for the soccer finals, the game itself was deftly played and sufficiently gripping to satisfy even sophisticated European soccer buffs. Howard started without its high scorer, Keith Acqui, who had suddenly collapsed with a high fever and swollen glands and was ordered to bed. Partly for this reason, Howard decided to rely on a more controlled defensive game. It probably helped, for gone was the erratic quality of the game against the Crimson.
St. Louis stuck to its well-coordinated attack, spreading its forward line from sideline to sideline to open up the Howard defense for a series of short, accurate passes. The Billikens scored first, Seerey dribbling around Goalie Tettah and flicking the ball home from right in front of the net at 4:24 into the game. Howard matched this score three minutes later when St. Louis Goalie Steck dived for a loose ball during a melee in front of his own net and failed to come up with it. Henderson, lying flat on his back, suddenly found the ball at his feet and an open goal before him. He simply swept the ball in with his right leg. But St. Louis went ahead once again less than three minutes later on a goal by Forward Dennis Hadican. This caused an unexpected reaction. The ailing Acqui leaped up from the Howard bench, stripped off his navy-blue warm-up suit and rushed—fever and all—onto the field.