- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The thread company mills are no longer there, and the wave of Scottish and Irish immigration has long since subsided. Behind it, however, came a flood of Italians, Portuguese and His-panics, who kept interest in the game alive. In Kearny (pop. 35,785), it's not uncommon for as many as 5,000 fans to turn out for an important high school soccer match.
One of those second-wave immigrants was Vinnie Meola, who arrived in New York on June 21, 1958, his 19th birthday. He had come from Avellino, near Naples, where he had played as a reserve fullback for the city's second-division team. But, he is quick to point out, "in Italy in those days, my friend, they did not pay soccer players the kind of money that they do now."
His future wife, Maria, had left Avellino a month ahead of Vinnie. They met again in New York and were married in 1964. Vinnie now runs a barbershop in East Rutherford, N.J., and Maria works for a printing company. Last year they had planned a trip to Italy to mark their 25th wedding anniversary. Then, says Maria, "Tony said to me, 'Hey, Mama, please wait a little longer.' And wasn't he right?"
Maria glances at the living room shelves ablaze with her son's trophies. "It's been a long road," she adds. "A lot of dirty jerseys to wash, a lot of meatballs to cook, a lot of spaghetti. Not just for Tony but for his friend Sal Rosamilla as well. They've known each other since they were six. They're six days apart in age. It was always, you know, 'Let me borrow your shirt, let me borrow your gloves.' "
From the beginning, Meola was on the fast track. "That coolness, that extra maturity, Tony's always had it, always played with kids three or four years his senior," says Millar. "And that wonderful all-around ability. We had two great goalies on our team. Tony would play the first half, Sal the second. But one season we were hurting up front, no punch in the attack. Just like the U.S. team last year. So I asked Tony to play as a forward. He was disgusted, he hated to have to run hard, but he went up front and played his heart out. He got 28 goals that season, and he was named best striker in the state."
Even now, Meola's attacking instinct often takes over. "In Port of Spain, just before the end," he recalls, "I saw Bruce Murray [a U.S. forward] one-on-one up in the Trinidad box and I thought, 'Maybe Bruce can suck it up for one last goal,' so I boomed the ball up to him. I reckon if that had been in the first 10 minutes we'd have had a breakaway goal. But our guys had been running 80 minutes in the heat already." Punting 80-yard bombs is a tactic Meola uses once or twice in every game, which should come as no surprise to those who saw him kick 45-yard field goals for his junior high football team.
Clearly, soccer is not the only game at which Meola excels. In addition to making the all-state soccer team twice (as a goalie in 1985 and a forward in '86), he was an all-state baseball player. Says Maria, "I used to bring Tony his lunches down at the field. He'd play soccer in the morning, eat his lunch, then hop over the fence, change uniforms and play baseball."
"When Tony was a senior, there was tremendous interest in him by the [Major League] Scouting Bureau," says Joe Rubbone, his high school baseball coach. "But a lot of people realized that they'd be wasting a draft choice [because of his interest in soccer], so they didn't pick him. He was the best outfielder I've ever seen on the high school level. Given the obligatory luck, he could surely have made it to the majors."
To Meola, it wasn't that big a decision. "I was a prospective third-round pick [in the '87 June draft], and during the draft I was playing soccer in Chile with the under-20 team," he says. "I didn't plan on sitting in the minor leagues for six or seven years, but people still ask me, 'How could you do it?' "
Meola received a soccer scholarship to Virginia, but he also played outfield and third base for the Cavaliers. Last summer, however, he decided to dedicate himself completely to soccer. Soccer has always had a special place in Meola's heart, all the more because he grew up three miles from Giants Stadium, where Pelé and the New York Cosmos reigned over the now defunct North American Soccer League. "The big thing was when, once every year, the Cosmos hosted Kearny Day," Meola recalls. "They'd split us up into three different age groups, and we'd start playing matches around noon. The Cosmos game wouldn't go on until maybe 7:30 p.m., but the whole bottom tier would fill up just for us. It was magical."