In its struggle to gain access to the mainstream of American life, soccer, that colossus of international sport, has pinned its hopes on a variety of devices: massive infusions of money (a failure), network television (discontinued), widespread junior programs (very successful), even six-to-a-side played indoors (still a gimmick). Now the game has come up with something else: a genuine, homegrown, 100% American superstar (maybe). Furthermore, this bright hope carries a name that hitherto has been widely identified with two of the country's most pervasive institutions, football and Texas. The name is Kyle Rote. Or, more precisely, William Kyle Rote Jr.
Kyle Sr., once a Texas high school football star, is remembered as an All-America tailback at Southern Methodist and then as an All-Pro running back and flanker with the New York Giants. Through his freshman year of college Kyle Jr. followed in his daddy's cleat marks. At Highland Park High School in Dallas—which earlier had given the game Bobby Layne and Doak Walker—he captained the basketball and baseball teams and starred at quarterback and safety in football. By graduation he had 50 college scholarship offers and he chose Oklahoma State. "I was determined to go the football route," he says. "All the way to the pros."
Then young Kyle's seemingly resolute plans took a surprising turn. After one year he gave up his scholarship and left the fervent football atmosphere in Stillwater to become a paying student at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. There his sport was soccer, which he fit into a crowded extracurricular schedule that included just about everything but football. As a result, instead of preparing to begin his second year as a professional athlete somewhere in the spotlight of the National Football League, Kyle Jr. has emerged today as a high-scoring center forward for the Dallas Tornado in the North American Soccer League. He is no Pel� but his value is considerable, for it is through Rote and others like him that U.S. pro soccer is straining for recognition. He is becoming soccer's Great American Hope.
Rote remains only a hope, albeit a promising one, because no one has yet discovered a way to produce an instant soccer star. Learning to read the ebbs and flows of the game is something that takes years of experience. Along with the fact that they are less proficient in the individual skills of ball control, lack of game experience hinders American-born players in their attempts to beat out the NASL's array of foreign talent for places in starting lineups. Aside from St. Louis and Philadelphia, where the NASL teams have emphasized the homegrown product, hardly more than a dozen of the league's 44 native Americans are regulars. They include Rote and the Miami Toros' Mike Seerey, twice college soccer's outstanding player while at St. Louis University. Forward Gene Geimer, a former teammate of Seerey's at St. Louis U., is up among the NASL's leading scorers this season with seven goals and four assists for the St. Louis Stars. The New York Cosmos have Forward Joe Fink, an NYU graduate who debuted in the fifth game this year and promptly punched in three goals. The Philadelphia Atoms have Bob Rigby, an East Stroudsburg (Pa.) College graduate, the No. 1 draft choice this year and the league's leading goalie. Others include Al Trost and Buzz Demling of St. Louis, Len Renery of the Cosmos and Bobby Smith, an outstanding defender with Philadelphia. As far as potential stars from the American delegation are concerned, that's about it, soccer fans.
"It is not a good situation," says David Sadler, a world-class player who is on loan to Miami from England's Manchester United. "It's no good just bringing in chaps like me. To make this thing succeed, you've got to have Americans that fans and future players can identify with."
His father's reputation, his own rugged, Texas-style good looks, his intelligence, his church interests and his dedication to presenting a good image to youth, all make the 22-year-old Rote come on like Mr. Clean. Which is fine, because soccer in the U.S. is not yet secure enough to get promotional mileage out of its swingers. Rote, therefore, seems an ideal choice to lead a new wave of American soccer heroes, if such a wave is ever going to build.
Kyle Rote Jr., the soccer player, came to his sport relatively late in life. His successful preoccupation with more typical U.S. games kept him athletically active until he was 16. That year, 1967, he and other members of the Highland Park football team tried soccer as a summer conditioner. One afternoon they learned what the game really was about. Their teacher was Ron Griffith, an Englishman from Blackpool who had come to the U.S. as a sports correspondent for a Scottish newspaper and was in Dallas to cover Dundee United, the Dallas entry in the old United Soccer Federation. Driving by the high school, Griffith was astounded to see a group of Texas teen-agers playing soccer in the midsummer heat. They were doing it all wrong, of course. He stopped the car, rushed over and in 45 minutes of Lancashire dialect tried to cover the fine points of the game. Griffith has been enmeshed in the Dallas youth soccer program ever since.
"At first we were kind of offended by this guy with a funny accent who was butting in," Rote recalls, "but we soon saw by what he taught us that we could really improve. He explained that we should kick the ball off the side of the foot instead of the toe. He told us how to make the two-handed throw in from the side and even showed us the overhead scissors kick. We found out the game could be something more than a conditioner."
The following summer Griffith organized a tour of Britain for 28 young soccer enthusiasts, and Rote's interest deepened. He also played in a summer league in Texas before entering Oklahoma State. One year at Stillwater was enough for him to question if he enjoyed big-time football.
"My dad had as much to do with my thinking on this as anything," says Rote. "He had always needed an escape from football. We had a cottage out on Long Island where he used to go to write music and poetry and to paint. He drilled into me the importance of having a vocation outside of football, because football might not last long. After a year in an athletic dormitory enjoying the rich life—plenty of spending money, steak every night, that sort of thing—I realized I probably didn't have the self-discipline to live that way and still get any kind of an education."