Stanislaw Terlecki was thawing out over lunch after a recent morning practice with the Pittsburgh Spirit. The team practices at the Lake Vue Ice Palace, accent on the Ice, a facility more suited for hanging meat than working out for a Major Indoor Soccer League game. Terlecki, a star for years with the Polish national team and now the MISL's No. 2 scorer, warmed up when the conversation turned to Eastern-bloc politics. He had a Russian joke to tell.
Did you hear about Brezhnev calling all the top Soviet scientists together, Terlecki asked, and telling them how disappointed he was that the U.S. had beaten Russia to the moon? He proposed that the U.S.S.R. land a cosmonaut on the sun. One scientist had to tell Brezhnev that this was impossible because of the sun's great heat. His boyish face beaming. Terlecki looked around the table to make sure everyone was ready for the punchline: " 'No problem.' Brezhnev says, 'we will land at night.' " Terlecki roared, and the group spent another 15 minutes cracking Brezhnev jokes. By the time the check finally arrived, everyone had defrosted.
Terlecki admitted that telling such jokes will probably cause him trouble, but he's used to trouble. He outraged the Polish Soccer Federation by jumping teams in 1975 and, later, by arranging for a meeting of the national team with Pope John Paul II when the team was in Rome in 1980. He was the bread-and-butter man during student strikes in Lodz in 1981, using his connections to get food by the carload for university students. And twice he was suspended by the federation—the first time for six months, then for a year—for trying to form a players' union.
His year's suspension expired in December, but by that time he had abandoned Poland for Pittsburgh and a new career with the Spirit. The 26-year-old forward, who before the Spirit's first game of the season had never played a serious game of indoor soccer in his life, has scored 37 goals and 24 assists and trails only the New York Arrows' designated offense, Steve Zungul, in the league scoring race.
More important, he has given new spirit to the Spirit, which shut down all last season while the ownership tried to strengthen its financial position. The team was finally sold to The Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., principal lessors of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena and also owners of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. DeBartolo's son, Edward Jr.. is the owner of the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers. When DeBartolo Sr. acquired the Spirit, he hired a new front office. General Manager Chris Wright and Coach John Kowalski brought in 14 new players, most of them foreign. A list of the players' birthplaces reads like Phileas Fogg's itinerary, ranging from Budapest to S�o Paulo, Pretoria to Latrobe, Pa.
Surprisingly, this agglomeration of strangers has achieved a 15-5 record. No one is more responsible than Terlecki, who introduced himself to Spirit fans back in November by having a hand in every Pittsburgh score—four goals and two assists—in a 6-5 home-opener defeat of Philadelphia. He has scored eight hat tricks, despite being double-teamed regularly, and the team has emerged as a threat to the Arrows, the only champion the 4-year-old league has known. (At week's end the Spirit was leading its division; New York was third.)
The 5'8", 155-pound Terlecki looks like an athletic mutant. He has the upper body of a swimmer welded to the legs of a sprinter, with flaring shoulders, a flat stomach, tapering torso and oversized quadriceps. Terlecki is fast, a deft dribbler and has a powerful shot, delivered with either foot from a short windup that baffles his team-mates. "His leg movement is maybe a quarter of mine," says Forward Paul Child. "It's like a metal leaf spring when you pull it back and let it go. 'Poing!' It's that quick."
Forward Graham Fyfe tagged Terlecki Stan the Fran—as in franchise. Stan the Fran met Stan the Man before a game with the Steamers in St. Louis. Musial, the president of the Steamers, requested the meeting and greeted Terlecki in Polish: "Mocny czlowiek [strong man]." Terlecki was delighted.
The Man. The Pope. Terlecki has made lots of connections. He used some of them to get visas for himself and his family to come to the U.S. "It was one of the best moments in my life," he said of the time when he had the exit visas safely in his possession. "I felt like you do after 10 beers...maybe 20 beers."
But life isn't always a 10-beer hum for Terlecki.