In the San Francisco branch of Macy's department store one recent Saturday, several salesmen recognized the Bay Area's newest sports star browsing through a rack of recorded video tapes. Not that you could easily miss Shep Messing, 28, goalkeeper of the Oakland Stompers of the North American Soccer League. From his high-heeled wooden clogs to his lime-green, shiny warmup suit, his clutch bag, his mass of dark curls, to the drooping Zapata mustache, he certainly looked like somebody—or something—the salespeople had seen before.
"Hey, Shep, baby," yelled one salesman, clapping his hands, "you gonna stomp L.A. Wednesday?"
"Give 'em 100% out there, Messing," advised another.
Messing smiled with a dazzling set of choppers. He was carrying a white Styrofoam coffee cup, a makeshift spittoon for his constant wad of Skoal snuff, a product he proudly and lucratively endorses. Messing walked over to the clerks. "Gents, on Wednesday I'm simply going to chew up L.A. Like this...."
Messing took a big, crisp bite out of the plastic cup, chewing it with horrid squeaking noises. His eyes twinkled. He took another bite. "And like this," he said.
As the salesmen observed all this in some wonder, one could reflect for a moment on the fact that Shep Messing is the first American to win a $100,000 contract in soccer—$50,000 in salary and a $50,000 bonus for signing. He has the best lifetime goals-against average (1.29) of active NASL keepers, and performed brilliantly last season as a member of the starship Cosmos, the NASL champions. This season he leads his own band of merry men in California, where the team is billed as " Shep Messing and the Oakland Stompers." No more does he take a backseat to the Pel�s, Beckenbauers and Chinaglias. No more does he have to strive for the "Broadway Joe" image that in New York last year earned him only a "Subway Shep" reputation. Shep Messing has arrived—on his own, visibly and perhaps permanently—on the professional sports scene. And not far behind him, if you listen to Messing, will come the hordes of American soccer players who deserve to play the pro game in their own country, shoving aside the aging and infirm of England, the Continent and Latin America who still dominate the game here.
But Messing is more than a revolutionary symbol of the American soccer player. He's much like the league in which he plays—tirelessly self-promoting, young, brash, lucky, seismographically sensitive to the importance of style and the power of the media, and fighting for a niche in the crowded world of established American sport.
In the nearly deserted television department of Macy's, 50 demonstration sets suddenly cut to a familiar advertisement. Messing's voice was saying, "I love tobacco, but I don't smoke." And there he was, times 50, stopping shots on goal while stuffing a wad of Skoal in his cheek, just like Carlton Fisk and Walt Garrison. "Ah, my favorite ad," he said, studying his performance with the concentration that marks all of his passions, on the field and off.
Of his performance for the Macy's salesmen, Messing says, "People often take pro sports too seriously. Hell, sports aren't the oil crisis or the Mideast war. They're games, they're show business. When I hear somebody come up with that old '100%' bromide, I figure it's time that they learned the truth."
There are as many aspects to Messing as there were images of him on the TV screens behind him that day. There is the Messing who posed nude for a Viva magazine centerfold in 1974, saying, "I did more for the game by dropping my pants than the league did in five years of press releases." There is the Messing who is the fastest reaction goalie around. There is the Messing who challenged former New York Jet Defensive Back—and notorious wildman—Mike Battle to a glass-eating contest. There is Messing the author, whose autobiography. The Education of an American Soccer Player, has just come out. There is the Messing who works almost daily with youngsters on their game but, with proletarian disdain, refuses to appear at team benefit dinners. And there is the Messing who graduated from Harvard with a degree in social sciences.