So many pieces fell precisely into place, it’s not surprising that the Sounders’ very first season came to be known as Camelot. A huge opening night turnout, the immediate and steadfast bonding between enthusiastic new fans and deeply appreciative and earnest players.
It was beyond what anyone had hoped for, in terms of both wins and bottom line, but also in laying a firm foundation for everything that has been built in the 44 years since. Today, comes the story of a somewhat forgotten figure who, in retrospect, casts a much larger shadow than his diminutive frame or equally slight statistics might suggest.
As is too often the case, we duly recognize people too late, after they have passed. Unfortunately, that is the context of sharing these memories of an original Sounder who died thousands of miles away from Seattle on the Friday before Christmas.
Willie Penman is a name with which you should become familiar. When you next thrice bellow the name of a goal scorer, know that Wee Willie was the first to send a Sounders crowd to its feet, the first to feel the rush of sound and energy follow the ball into the back of the net. It’s as simple as this: Penman scored barely two minutes into the first Sounders home match. And the rest is history.
If your idea of a perfect winter holiday is to while away the hours watching live top-class soccer, you best not live near Seattle.
Among native Puget Sounders, perhaps only octogenarians can speak of such an experience in their lifetime. As we take a view to scores of frigid, rain-swept Premier League matches pressed into a cramped calendar, we can only surmise that long ago someone came to their senses and simply said, No more.
Who knows, someday MLS may conform to the FIFA time table. But a look back at the last century or so illustrates why playing through the winter is problematic in Cascadia and downright impossible in the majority of MLS markets. New Year’s Day 2018 forecasts 12 of those cities mired in sub-freezing temperatures. Montreal’s high is predicted to reach minus-6 degrees F.
But enough about MLS. This is more a story of the hardened souls (masochists, some might say) in Seattle’s long-ago past who truly played for the love of the game and the sense of community it fosters, and did so in some of the most trying of circumstances. This is a tale of how and why our forefathers once tread the less-than-firma terra during the short, bleak and, yes, festive days of winter.
It was a seminal moment in the shared experience of Seattle area soccer history. To the casual observer it would’ve appeared to be American boys run amok. To Walter Schmetzer, however, it was the inspiration that would launch a business of 43 years and probably thousands of stories.
Forty-some years before Brian Schmetzer delivered an MLS Cup to Puget Sound, his family’s name became synonymous with quality soccer goods dispensed on Lake City Way and, more recently, Aurora Avenue. Schmetzer’s Sporthaus helped outfit generations of players in a region gone mad over the game, until closing the doors for good earlier this month.
One of the first such stores in the Northwest, Schmetzer’s was the region’s longest-running soccer shop. It preceded premier academies and every women’s collegiate program in the state, and thrived while multiple professional clubs fell by the wayside.
At its essence, Sporthaus was a family business dedicated to delivering exceptional equipment and service to a demanding demographic. It was not always easy, and shrewd stewardship from two generations of Schmetzers proved to be the essential ingredient. While its closing after nearly 43 years may make some wistful, it leaves behind a mass of memories, beginning with Walter Schmetzer’s recollection of a summer day in 1974.
He commenced his career in Toronto, played for Canada’s Olympic and national teams, and has made the Great White North’s largest city his home. And yet on Saturday, despite never setting foot in CenturyLink Field, Jack Brand will bleed Rave Green.
“Some of my friends will curse me for that,” says Brand, “(but) my heart is with Seattle.”
It’s not so much the quantity of time Brand spent in Seattle in his earlier years. Rather, it is the quality of that tenure. He was part of something truly special, both in Sounders lore and the rebirth of the game with a semipro club comprised of local lads.
Brand, now 64, presides over his family’s business, based in nearby Mississauga. The Brand Felt Ltd. manufactures industrial felt for a multitude of industries, exporting worldwide. The German-born Brand, at 17, was sent abroad by his father, company founder Klaus Brand, to study in New York state. Although he had played for then-West Germany’s youth national team, his father forbade him from turning pro at the time.
Midway through Bull Durham, pitching protégé Nuke LaLoosh scrambles up the bus aisle, bellowing his newfound appreciation for learning. He’s in the midst of a winning streak and finds it addictive.
“I love winning,” he exclaims in the ear of mentor Crash Davis. “You know what I’m saying? It’s like better than losing.”
Moments later Crash begins a crash course lesson on baseball clichés, among them, “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. And sometimes it rains.”
If ever they flip the premise to futbol (the reverse of Jimmy Fallon’s Fever Pitch), that particular cliché will require reworking. When it comes to the Simplest Game it’s a little more complicated. More like: “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. And sometimes you draw.”
The latter fact is all too topical at the moment in Sounderland. By match day in Utah versus RSL it will have been more than a month since the Sounders lost. Or won.
It’s been well over 30 years yet Peter Hattrup remembers rolling into a September 1983 practice.
Hattrup was a sophomore at Seattle Pacific University, and the Falcons were in Atlanta, wrapping up another extended early-season road trip. Having come directly from the airport to Georgia State’s training field, the players and coaches emptied out of their fleet of five shiny, black Lincoln Town Cars.
Trudging off the field following their own practice session, the Georgia State players were slack-jawed, to say the least.
“One guy said, ‘Damn, you guys travel in style. I thought it was the mafia pulling up,’” recalls Hattrup. “He asked how long we drove; I said we flew. Then he asked where we were staying; I said Peachtree Plaza. He said, ‘S***. You guys fly here and stay at the Plaza!?”
Indeed, for more than two decades SPU was easily the most traveled college soccer program on the planet. In an era when even the biggest D-1 powers were largely confined to the gas tank capacity of a school-issued van, the Falcons regularly crisscrossed the continent at 30,000 feet and drove the interstates in style.
This was no anomaly, no gimmick. Upon his hiring, coach Cliff McCrath was asked to create a national-class program in an area isolated geographically from soccer bastions. Furthermore, McCrath’s program was without a true home field for the first 29 seasons. To become the best requires rigorous tests. So, Seattle Pacific hit the road.
Up, Up and Away
An early season ritual, at first the road trip consisted of a handful of West Coast games. Soon enough, the Falcons took flight and eight dates became the norm, with destinations far, far away. Although 2,700 miles away, Miami was a frequent terminus.
Even in this contemporary age where air travel has become an afterthought, only two in-state programs are slated to step foot inside the Eastern time zone this autumn. Combined, the Washington and Eastern Washington women will play four times. By comparison, during between 1981-94, five times SPU played four or more ET games on a single trip, not to mention other locales.
Forty years on, it remains a remarkable match. Not only did it captivate American soccer’s growing audience of the day and provide a fairytale finish for a global legend, Soccer Bowl ’77 also cast the pathway, for better or worse, for a club and a country seeking to development a professional presence.
For those who witnessed the NASL final between the glamorous New York Cosmos and unfashionable (outside Cascadia) yet fearless Seattle Sounders, it left an indelible mark on the memory. Just a glimpse of the video or photos awakens the senses.
Of course, there was the epic backdrop: a gray, late summer Sunday afternoon, Portland’s Civic Stadium crammed full of 35,548 spectators, some sitting cross-legged on the artificial turf, just a few feet from the field’s boundaries.
There is the ‘Oh, no!’ moment of a partially deaf Sounders keeper being fleeced of the ball for the game’s opening goal. There is the rapid reply of Seattle to equalize, the relentless pressure and the sheer openness–rarely found in a final–that leads to dozens of chances (22 shots on target, two others by Seattle off the frame itself). And there is the chaotic scene at the final whistle, the crowd streaming onto the pitch and the shirtless Pelé running and hugging his teammates.
To understand one fan’s fixation on the 1977 Sounders, chat-up a Mariners diehard born in the playoff drive of ’95. Or the Sonics reversal of ’78 or Seahawks’ ascension of ’83.
There have always been fans, vociferous fans, surrounding the Sound. Especially early on, they became enamored with any team courageous enough to stitch ‘Seattle’ on their chest. They go to games, they make a lot of noise and develop their favorite performers.
Yet when the stakes are raised and a potential title comes into sight, suddenly the relationship elevates to an emotional level bordering on kinship. Fervor takes hold. And at that point, it’s no longer casual; it’s a lifetime commitment. And so it was in the summer of ’77, for me and the Sounders.
Forty Years in the Making
This coming Sunday evening, some fellow Boomers will wax nostalgic as a few choice idols from our youth stride between the lines once more on Occidental. Ten in all, among them Davey Butler, Dave Gillett, Adrian Webster and their coaches, Jimmy Gabriel and Bobby Howe. It’s now been 40 years to the month since they took the city by storm.
Much like the ’95 midseason M’s, by June of 1977 Gabriel’s lads looked mediocre. A 3-nil defeat at Portland sank them to 4-7.
At just about the time everyone was writing off that team’s postseason prospects, Gabriel pulled the trigger on a deadline trade, acquiring a nondescript journeyman while effectively sending a longtime fan favorite (Butler) to the bench. Often times, however, it’s the subtleties that can produce pure magic.
No Ord-inary Tommy
Soon enough, their new everyman striker, Tommy Ord, became a local lord, sensationally achieving the club’s first hat trick to open his account. And Butler, who’d been mired in a two-month scoring drought, would spring to life as a supersub, scoring four times.
Contemporary Sounders fans recognize the formula. Remember late in 2016, the signing of Nico Lodeiro, the reemergence of Nelson Valdez and going from doormat to destroyer? Well, kids, that was the ’77 Sounders.
In winning seven straight to open August, the Sounders were transformed from unwatchable to irresistible, from also-ran to giant killer. In running the table over three weeks, Seattle first rose above .500, then clinched a playoff berth before proceeding to knock-out three higher seeds, all due to improbable road victories.
I listened to the radio call of the last of those away wins, 3-1 over Georgie Best and LA, while winding my way up the 101 to Port Townsend and a soccer camp run by ex-Sounder Roy Sinclair and Geoff Wall. Three days later, stricken by Sounders fever, I did something very un-Frank-like.
Along with three friends (and a willing ballerina from the dance camp next door) I went AWOL from camp. The reason: Seattle was hosting the Aztecs for a place in the NASL final that evening, and I felt compelled to be there. Heck, we all did. Even the ballerina.
It was worth it. We each converged on the Kingdome box office to buy singles for that night’s semifinal. Already 56,000 seats had been sold. Fortunately, I found space in the north end, where Jocky Scott headed home the only goal.
When Jocky scored, when that primal roar of the crowd was trapped within a concrete tomb, it was literally deafening, at least for the moment.
It’s a vivid memory: Scott hugging Ord in the corner. Strangers hugging strangers in the stands. Later, a lap of honor before the enraptured fans, Webster wearing a huge floral horse collar, a la Seattle Slew, that spring’s Triple Crown winner. It’s an experience that’s seared into your being.
This Sunday, I’m that 17-year-old all-in fan all over again. Although I’m now on a first-name basis with those protagonists of my teens, my admiration has only grown. I get to shadow them as they make the rounds from Fuel to the NINETY to the Golden Scarf ceremony, all the while renewing acquaintances with other fans of a certain age.
It wasn’t just a seminal summer for me, but for them as well. In the wake of that season, Doug Thiel published the first Sounders book, All the Best. Webster’s now written a book about that side. He and Butler have returned to the city after decades away to see firsthand what they hath wrought, those many years ago, a soccer community like none other in North America.
August of ’77 was a time to behold, no matter what the eventual outcome against the Cosmos. It was a tale of unfinished business, a task finally completed by the Rave 39 years later.
Times such as the ’77 Soccer Bowl run should be preserved, shared and, yes, celebrated with coming generations. Nine, 19 and 29 years from now, let’s make a pact to meet here again, to share a story or two from one special late summer and fall of 2016, stories of resilience and reawakening, to once again applaud the likes of Schmetz and Frei, Nico and Nelson, and to celebrate when you truly became a Sounder for life.
I became a Sounder ’til I die in August of ’77. How about you?
NOTE: 1977 Sounders will make a series of pregame appearances August 20. It begins at 3pm at Fuel Sports. From 5-5:40pm you can catch them at The NINETY and from 6-6:30pm at Soccer Celebration in the Northwest Marshaling Area of CenturyLink Field. Finally, they will participate in the Golden Scarf ceremony at approximately 6:50pm.
If they were writing a book entitled The Team Most Unlikely To, the Sounders would already be well into chapter four.
On the heels of the improbable second half and 2016 playoff run to an MLS Cup, in the first 18 matches this season Seattle has staged a three-goal comeback in the last 15 minutes versus New England and, earlier this week, come from a man down and a goal down at Portland to earn a dramatic draw at the expense of two points to their most despised rival.
The first two acts are unprecedented. Seattle had never won a top flight championship, let alone after such a disastrous start. The Revs also proved to be a foil for Sounders history.
The first time the Craggs household received a call asking for Whitey, his mother replied, “There’s nobody here by that name,” and immediately hung up the phone.
What Gladys Craggs didn’t know was that her fair-haired young son had acquired a nickname from his peers, one that would stick for the rest of his 70-some years on this earth, all the while becoming a moniker in Puget Sound soccer that was every bit as recognizable as any player.
From then on, noted George Craggs, “if they asked for Whitey, it was soccer. If they asked for George, it was something else.”
On March 29, George “Whitey” Craggs died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 87.
Whitey Craggs should also be considered a pioneer of soccer in Seattle. His tenure as one of the area’s premier refs is filled with stories of players whom he refereed but also gave guidance to as young men, including myself. Refereeing is not always easy, but he made it seem easy at times and wasn’t afraid to scold you if you misbehaved. A true legend of Washington state soccer.
He had officiated thousands and thousands of games, mentored hundreds of referees and interacted with countless players, coaches and fans during his lifelong devotion to the game. And yet, if Whitey had one regret, he had a hundred.
“I spent too much time going down to Woodland Park or wherever,” he shared in 2016. “I used to referee games seven days a week. Obviously, you’re away from home a lot, which I shouldn’t have been. I should’ve been home.”
Craggs clearly missed Pearl, his wife of 61 years. She passed away 16 months prior to that interview. He lost a daughter, Patti, in 2008. He is survived by daughter Georgia and sons Ed and Donny.
The Seattle area soccer community is vast in size but remains connected and close. Word soon spread of Whitey’s passing. Yes, he was one of the state’s few National Soccer Hall of Fame inductees, but he was more so known for his humor and humility in officiating all sorts of matches, from youth and adult leagues, to college and professional leagues over an estimated 40 years.
If asked to give a word description of Whitey it would be unique! He was definitely one of a kind. Unique in his humor, unique in how he saw the world, unique in how he refereed. He opened the referee door for so many of us.
Craggs might have lived in the shadow of another hall of famer, but he blazed a trail all his own. Edmund Craggs, his father, was among the builders of the soccer landscape that developed in post-World War II Seattle. Eddie coached and organized youth and senior leagues. When his vaunted Buchan Bakers team was winning state titles, it was with minimal contributions from little (5-foot-5) Whitey. Seeking more playing time, the son separated from the father and joined rivals Germania.
By that juncture, yet another hall of fame personality, Barney Kempton, had convinced Whitey to become a volunteer referee in the growing Catholic Youth Organization league. As Whitey recalls, “I said OK. I think you Catholics need a Protestant to keep you honest.”
That was the mid-Fifties. Craggs had landed in the Fremont neighborhood in spring of 1947, moving from Montreal. Initially the father and son sought out hockey opportunities, but settled on soccer, which was a going concern.
He once stopped a game at Green Lake so both teams could help put out a house fire; 30 guys in their kits throwing water on a house, with Whitey in the middle, directing traffic. The fire department finally showed up, and we all went back to our game. Funny guy!
By 1961 Whitey became a certified national referee, and a few years later he was assigned an exhibition game between Brazil’s Bonsucesso and the Vancouver Royals and at West Seattle Stadium. The Royals were coached by Hungarian and Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas. Afterward, Craggs was curious how he had done. A friend asked Puskas in Hungarian, What did you think of the referee? “He didn’t say I was any good,” said Craggs, “but he said ‘We’ve had worse.’”
My fondest memories were him refereeing our high school games. It was like going to a comedy show. He made Seattle soccer a better place. Still scratch my head at some of his calls though.
Partly because he started officiating games played by peers and former teammates and partly by nature, Whitey developed a habit of conversing with players throughout a match. There was some smack spoken, but it was give and take. And while he was often accused of sight impairment by fans, his hearing was just fine.
When he worked Sounders games in a sold-out Memorial Stadium in the mid-Seventies, he would exchange barbs with spectators. On more than a few occasions, fans would yell, “You’re missing a good game, ref!” Whitey’s standard reply was rapid and witty: “I know, but they sent me here instead.”
He was often chided for his positioning as a referee; he only occasionally strayed far from the center circle. When reminded that the players had run past him, he quipped: “They’ll be back in a minute.”
Within the past couple years, the long-retired Whitey answered the phone. A woman from a local Sunday league was desperate to get coverage for matches. “I said I don’t run any more. She said, ‘Just stand in the center circle, like you always did.’”
What a personality he was. So memorable and influential in so many lives, for generations.
Rachel Berg Belfield
Rather than focus on the catcalls, Whitey marveled in how many friends he made in the game. He was wistful for the days when there was a greater togetherness between officials and players, when a firm word of caution was favored over the drama of issuing a yellow card.
As word of Whitey’s death circulated in the past few days, tributes and stories were shared online. Players who learned the lesson of not taking it all –the game, as well as life– so seriously. Stick to your calls, no matter what others think. Use humor to diffuse anger. The terms ‘legend’ and ‘unique’ are repeated.