Along with millions of Americans, an Englishman and I watched on TV the other morning as a team from Germany and a team from South Korea kicked around a ball in Russia.
Roger Simpson, now 84, was at the forefront of the soccer boom in northwest Ohio after moving to the area at age 17.
Small world, huh?
Like a proud dad, Roger Simpson smiled.
“Soccer’s pretty big here now, isn’t it?” he said.
I met the 84-year-old Simpson at his apartment in the Alexis Gardens retirement community, where the longtime former owner of Roger Simpson’s Barber Shop on Holland-Sylvania Road may or may not run a small side cutting gig in the laundry room — that is our secret — but definitely still loves the beautiful game.
If Charles Dickens is the man who invented Christmas, consider his countryman the man who invented soccer in northwest Ohio.
OK, that is not exactly true.
But Simpson is among the leading pioneers who brought futbol to our football land.
Long before orange slices and minivans populated every corner and youth soccer in America exploded into a multibillion dollar industry — long before tens of millions of Yanks would watch a World Cup absent shades of red, white, and blue — there was a man and a field.
And a pickup truck on that field ... during a game.
Let’s just say some not-in-my-town macho types were less welcoming than others.
But more on that in a minute.
The story begins in England, where Simpson was born in Bedford — a 40-minute train ride north of London — and bred on soccer. He came to the states as a 17-year-old to see his sister, Jeane, who married an American serviceman stationed in Bedford and followed him home to Tecumseh, Mich.
It was supposed to be a vacation, but next thing he knew, he had a job at his brother-in-law’s electrical business, enlisted on a visitor’s visa in the U.S. Army, and never left. He opened a barber shop in Toledo in 1961 and settled in Whitehouse with his wife, Carol, and four children, Brian, Ken, Matt, and Heather.
All the while, he got his fix on the pitch playing in an adult league in Toledo, where immigrants filled the teams.
This got his kids hooked too, and soon enough backyard games against the boys from the chicken farm next door led to a team. The Whitehouse Rangers debuted in 1971.
It was a motley crew, 18 or so elementary and middle school boys, and a makeshift operation.
Goalposts? They welded them in a neighbor’s barn. Uniforms? Carol and the team moms gathered scraps from a fabric store and sewed them on their ping-pong table. Shin guards? The kids stuffed newspapers into their socks.
Remember, for the average American at the time, soccer might as well have been played on Mars. While colleges had programs — Bowling Green, for instance, started theirs in 1963 — the first state prep tournament was years away and only a handful of youth teams dotted the region.
That’s how many preferred to keep it too. You should have heard what the football crowd thought of Simpson’s team.
“He was told not to start soccer in Whitehouse because it would hurt all the athletics at Anthony Wayne,” said George Kahle, a coach on one of the town’s early soccer teams. “They said soccer would take players from their sports teams. ... It was a foreign sport for pansies and it would never catch on here. He even had a parent drive his pickup onto a field during a game to protest soccer.”
But the motion was denied. The Rangers carried on, practicing along with the swarms of mosquitoes at the elementary school, finding games anywhere from Findlay to Detroit to Chicago, and having a blast the entire way.
Roger, always encouraging, only had one rule: Everyone plays at least a half, whether you were Joe Athlete or not. “Kids that failed at playing baseball, football, basketball, or track and field had a starting spot on a soccer team, a uniform, new friends, and teammates,” Kahle said.
“It was a game everybody just took a liking to,” Matt said.
And sure enough, the word spread. One team became a few more the next year, a few more became a dozen more, and before long, Roger was a regular traveling preacher. He and his players conducted clinics in Maumee and Perrysburg and anywhere else interested in launching a soccer program of their own. A decade in, the Whitehouse youth league counted some 1,200 boys and girls, and soccer everywhere was taking off.
This month, the village honored Roger for his role in “bringing soccer to Whitehouse and northwest Ohio.”
As we watched the World Cup together, he marveled at the big business the game has become, for better and worse, even at the youth level.
Back in the old days, kids in Whitehouse paid $3 per season and the Simpsons covered the rest of the costs through the hot dogs and sloppy joes Carol sold out of an old bread van on game days.
“It’s funny to see kids in today’s world, they’re carrying these bags with their names embroidered on it and everything,” Matt said. “They probably paid more for that bag than we paid for 10 seasons.”
For Roger and the thousands he mentored, it was the deal of a lifetime.
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