By the time you read this, I don’t know if Pele, 82, will be alive. But as I wrote, he was in the Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo, recovering from colon cancer and blood disorders.
I was still wet behind my ears years ago when I spoke a blatant lie that made me be with Pele as he traveled to North America during his final competitive year.
It was March of 1977. I was just a kid—24, which is 12 in newspaper years—I told a massive person.
Joe Marcus, who covered football marginally for The Post during the Cosmos’ early years on Randalls Island’s gritty, gritty, glassy, blood-stained home to Yankee Stadium in 1975 as Pele came out of retirement in Brazil, died.
I was a sports writer, and gophers went up to $90 a week, and that was mostly six days a week.
Ike Gillis, our ruthless Edward G. Robinson doppelgänger, acting-like sports editor–so help me, straight through central acting–asked one morning out loud the question: Who knows anything about football?
The Cosmos were moving to Giants Stadium and needed a replacement for Marcus.
I wasn’t an obvious heir to the next tune, but I took a quick, blind shot: “I do!” All I knew about football was that I worked summers as lifeguard for swim club director Bill Laid, and coach of football and wrestling at Wagner College.
You have committed fraud.
And so it was settled. With the Cosmos moving to Giants Stadium, and with more immediate sale success than Major League Soccer in North America could sustain, I was the new football player at The Post, with no credentials or evidence.
And within days I was dealing with one man that everyone on every continent knows about football, the most famous and admired athlete in the world, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known from Timbuktu to Totoua as Pele.
Strangely enough, Pele did not like his nickname, which was given to him at school because he distorted Pele’s name for his favorite player, the goalkeeper of the Brazilian team Vasco da Gama. He said he was named after Thomas Edison and preferred “Edison” because she was earnest and generous.
Well, Pele’s favorite as a kid was the player who blocked Objectives.
It was impossible not to love Pele. We in the local press did not bother him beyond football matters. He appreciated that, and so he recognized us by our first names. The world’s media caught up with him, cutting to cameras and sound crews to capture the married man’s latest love interests, real and imaginary.
Even Pele’s pint-sized bodyguard Pedro Garay, a Cuban who invaded his homeland to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, knew we could be trusted, and that we were no threat to Pele in public or private.
Garay was another great character in Cosmos’ retinue. One night in Vancouver, British Columbia, just before facing the Whitecaps, he showed captain Werner Roth how his handcuffs worked. Then the key cannot be found. He left it in his hotel room.
What I knew about Pele as soon as I got in was:
1. Both the star and striker Giorgio Chinaglia – wanted – wanted the ball, and the closer the ball was to the opponent’s goal, the better. And Chinaglia has made it unconditionally clear that he will use his muscles with Cosmos primary Warner Communications chief, father figure, and attention-seeker Steve Ross, no matter how powerful and famous Warner Music and Football co-presidents Ahmet and Nesoy Ertegun want the opposite.
This split international home created the most famous team in the world from 1976 to 1983. There was dysfunction every day behind every door. This made not knowing much about football, at the time, amusing And the Educational! And the poor trainer, Gordon Bradley, was a good guy who wore a vise every day.
She wrote herself. So I wrote that. I didn’t know any better.
2. I also knew, early on, what I couldn’t write, unless I wanted to bring the distortion to Steve Marshall, the kind-hearted travel secretary at Cosmos and a big–like 6-foot-5, 290-pound-nose-and-man tackle, as he pointed out to wait “there.” Much.
In 1976, BC—before cell phones—the Cosmos were bussed back from a game against New England at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. The bus did not have a toilet. So at night, while the team was jogging for a rest, Marshall pulled the driver over near an abandoned field next to Route 84.
Smooth job done. The team got back on the bus and got off. Until Marshall found out that Pele was missing.
When the bus returned to look for Pele, Marshall had the fear and sense of coming history that he had left the world’s most famous athlete to die or trek alone in a deserted field near Route 84 outside of Boston.
If I hadn’t fully grasped Pele’s global fame and charisma, it would have faded before a game against the Los Angeles Aztecs at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Word got out that Elton John, part-owner of the Aztecs, would be in the parking lot to greet Pele. I was on the team bus and as we got close to the grandstand the mob started circling.
So my plan was: stick with Pele and Garay. What harm can be done to them?
As we got off the bus—I was carrying a briefcase and an Olivetti portable typewriter—the crowd erupted. Suddenly, I had no control over my body or my poise. my arms were pinned at my sides; If the crowd rushes to the left, I head to the left, once almost horizontal.
Completely helpless, I saw the headline: “Pele, 20 more, die in stampede.” My name would make an agate print at the bottom of the story, then fall out in the second print.
(No wonder I get sick when ESPN geniuses endorse the field and court storming as good, clean, fun for the student body and ritual.)
I talked to Pele about it after the game, asking him if he was forced to run from such a mob. Although he was a humble man, he smiled. Then he made a circle with his arms:
“Yes,” he said in English, “all over the world.”