In the San Francisco branch of Macy's department store one recent Saturday, several salesmen recognized the Bay Area's newest sports star browsing through a rack of recorded video tapes. Not that you could easily miss Shep Messing, 28, goalkeeper of the Oakland Stompers of the North American Soccer League. From his high-heeled wooden clogs to his lime-green, shiny warmup suit, his clutch bag, his mass of dark curls, to the drooping Zapata mustache, he certainly looked like somebody—or something—the salespeople had seen before.
"Hey, Shep, baby," yelled one salesman, clapping his hands, "you gonna stomp L.A. Wednesday?"
"Give 'em 100% out there, Messing," advised another.
Messing smiled with a dazzling set of choppers. He was carrying a white Styrofoam coffee cup, a makeshift spittoon for his constant wad of Skoal snuff, a product he proudly and lucratively endorses. Messing walked over to the clerks. "Gents, on Wednesday I'm simply going to chew up L.A. Like this...."
July 9, 1978
Messing took a big, crisp bite out of the plastic cup, chewing it with horrid squeaking noises. His eyes twinkled. He took another bite. "And like this," he said.
As the salesmen observed all this in some wonder, one could reflect for a moment on the fact that Shep Messing is the first American to win a $100,000 contract in soccer—$50,000 in salary and a $50,000 bonus for signing. He has the best lifetime goals-against average (1.29) of active NASL keepers, and performed brilliantly last season as a member of the starship Cosmos, the NASL champions. This season he leads his own band of merry men in California, where the team is billed as "Shep Messing and the Oakland Stompers." No more does he take a backseat to the Pelès, Beckenbauers and Chinaglias. No more does he have to strive for the "Broadway Joe" image that in New York last year earned him only a "Subway Shep" reputation. Shep Messing has arrived—on his own, visibly and perhaps permanently—on the professional sports scene. And not far behind him, if you listen to Messing, will come the hordes of American soccer players who deserve to play the pro game in their own country, shoving aside the aging and infirm of England, the Continent and Latin America who still dominate the game here.
But Messing is more than a revolutionary symbol of the American soccer player. He's much like the league in which he plays—tirelessly self-promoting, young, brash, lucky, seismographically sensitive to the importance of style and the power of the media, and fighting for a niche in the crowded world of established American sport.
In the nearly deserted television department of Macy's, 50 demonstration sets suddenly cut to a familiar advertisement. Messing's voice was saying, "I love tobacco, but I don't smoke." And there he was, times 50, stopping shots on goal while stuffing a wad of Skoal in his cheek, just like Carlton Fisk and Walt Garrison. "Ah, my favorite ad," he said, studying his performance with the concentration that marks all of his passions, on the field and off.
Of his performance for the Macy's salesmen, Messing says, "People often take pro sports too seriously. Hell, sports aren't the oil crisis or the Mideast war. They're games, they're show business. When I hear somebody come up with that old '100%' bromide, I figure it's time that they learned the truth."
There are as many aspects to Messing as there were images of him on the TV screens behind him that day. There is the Messing who posed nude for a Viva magazine centerfold in 1974, saying, "I did more for the game by dropping my pants than the league did in five years of press releases." There is the Messing who is the fastest reaction goalie around. There is the Messing who challenged former New York Jet Defensive Back—and notorious wildman—Mike Battle to a glass-eating contest. There is Messing the author, whose autobiography. The Education of an American Soccer Player, has just come out. There is the Messing who works almost daily with youngsters on their game but, with proletarian disdain, refuses to appear at team benefit dinners. And there is the Messing who graduated from Harvard with a degree in social sciences.
After a Cosmos playoff game last season, when the Meadowlands locker room was crowded with Warner Brothers vice-presidents eager to rub shoulders with a famous athlete and Mick Jagger was deep in conversation with Pelè, Henry Kissinger shook hands with Messing. "I understand you went to Harvard. Did you attend any of my lectures?"
"Yeah, one or two," said Messing.
"And how did you find them?"
"I don't remember. I fell asleep."
Messing lives in a bayside apartment in suburban Alameda with his wife Arden. The rest of the Stompers are housed for the season at nearby Hayward College, but Messing's contract calls for the perquisites of stardom. The apartment is not as grand as the hotel suites in which Pelè resided last season, nor as sumptuous as Beckenbauer's New York hotel apartment, but it is not without splendor.
Over a¾-pound hamburger—Messing eschews all vegetables and lives mostly on ground round—he expanded one recent day on his favorite subject: the care and promotion of Shep Messing.
"I don't need soccer anymore," he said. "I love the game on field—it's crazy and lovely—but the whole pro sports mentality of hype and 'clean-cut image' is so antiquated as to be laughable. I'm not married to soccer, and when it stops being fun to play, I'll leave it.
"Right now soccer is a vehicle for me. It is for a lot of athletes but they're afraid to admit it.
"If I decide I want to live in Boston, which both Arden and I love, I will. And if I can play soccer there, fine. If not, there are other whole worlds to conquer."
Messing didn't begin to conquer the world of soccer until he was a senior at Wheatley High School in Roslyn, Long Island. His father Elias commuted to his successful Manhattan law practice (he now also handles Shep's contracts and endorsements and has sued the Cosmos once) and his mother Anne taught physical education at nearby Nassau Community College.
"There's the shore area of Roslyn where the big-time psychiatrists and garment magnates live in Tudor monstrosities," says Messing, "and there's the lower-middle-class section. We lived in between, in a social no-man's-land. There was Bach on the record player and the Yankees on the radio. My parents never made a big deal out of sports, though.
"My achievements in wrestling, the pole vault and soccer were thought to be nice, but they didn't put dinner on the table. I wasn't driven to excellence like Mark Spitz or Dorothy Hamill. I had a chance to be a normal, useless Long Island punk.
"I started playing soccer, like most kids then, because Wheatley had an 0-7 record in football and it wasn't cool to be a loser. Soccer in high school was not like the real game. It was just running and kicking and yelling like hell, with old, angry football coaches trying to make you hit opponents hard. We had no idea that the game had skills or finesse, or even much of a point. It was a romp."
Messing says the brand of soccer he played at NYU, where he was a prelaw student, was equally rudimentary. "It was just more international. I'd yell, 'Hey, papa,' when I wanted a player's attention, and Papadakis, Pappadoupolos and a few others would turn around."
After his sophomore year, he wanted to transfer to NYU's downtown campus to take education courses. According to Messing, the athletic director told him that if he did, he would miss soccer practice, and the conversation took a threatening turn. "It was the first time my athletic ability was used to blackmail me. I hated it and I quit."
That summer, invited to play for the U.S. team in the Maccabiah Games in Israel, Messing met a kindred spirit named Mickey Cohen, the starting goalie for the team. "He was just your average Jewish-American athlete at the time," Messing fondly recalls. "He believed in gay rights, civil rights, Yippies, Black Power, was an antiwar activist and an avowed crazy.
"He took a purifying trip in the desert before our game against Argentina and came back starved and dehydrated," Messing says. "Argentina had a great team, and after every goal, Cohen would yell scripture at them, things like 'Lord, How many are my foes?' and 'On the wicked, He will rain coals of fire and brimstone.' When it was all over, we had to haul him off to the hospital.
"The point is that athletes like Mickey and me are considered flakes in the sports world. But you have to remember that we were part of the antiwar, hippie generation. The athletes attracted to soccer back then were the crazies, the politically disaffected, the new wave that didn't want anything to do with the military-like aspects of football. Soccer won all the sick puppies. They're my people. They're the guys who are coming up now into the NASL. We consider a 230-pound fullback with a pro contract and a commission in the Marines to be the flake. We're the straight folks.
"I wonder where the next generation of athletic poets will go? Soccer is already too Establishment for them. Volleyball is probably it. Maybe after soccer I'll try to be America's first $100,000 volleyball player."
After a year of molding chopped liver into cupids for a Long Island caterer while attending Nassau Community College, Messing was accepted by Harvard, the first community-college transfer student ever admitted to that venerable institution. "I wowed them with my College Board scores," he says. "They didn't even know I played soccer." By his junior year Messing was playing soccer and courting Arden Rothenberg from nearby Emerson College, strolling with her through Cambridge. They were known as the "Duke and Duchess," because Messing habitually wore a wide-brimmed Borsolino hat, a three-piece velvet suit and a silk scarf, and twirled a silver-knobbed walking stick.
He had brought his New York attitude with him to Harvard. He received a note from the dean, advising him that he was not allowed to keep a pet in his room—strictly against the rules. "I had this little South American tree bear," Messing says. "I loved him. Since I couldn't keep him in the room, I put him in the hall." Messing has aggravated more than one soccer coach by obeying the letter instead of the spirit of the rules. But with Messing's goal-keeping, Harvard finished second in the Ivy League in 1971 and was third in the NCAA tournament.
When Messing was alternately selected for and suspended from the 1972 Olympic team by Coach Bob Guelker, who now coaches at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, he began to see the chasm between his considerable talents and his outrageous behavior. In El Salvador for an Olympic elimination game, he was caught in a raid on a bawdy house—"I thought it was a bar," he maintains. Guelker nearly threw him off the team. Later, in the final elimination in Jamaica, in a game about to be decided by a penalty kick against him, Messing ran at the startled El Salvador forward, waving his arms and screaming insults in pidgin Spanish. "Guelker was furious at the unsportsmanlike conduct," says Messing, "but the guy missed the shot and we went to the Olympics."
Messing's memories of Munich are of an off-field order. "I was woken up by a big German in a leather trench coat one afternoon. He said, 'Are you Jewish? Come with me.' It was the first time I'd ever felt my Jewishness so immediately. Of course the idea was to protect all the Jewish athletes in the Village while the Israeli team was being held hostage. After their murders, it was a sacrilege to let the Games continue. It was Avery Brundage's ego trip, another example of people taking sports way too seriously."
In 1973 Messing signed with the fledgling New York Cosmos for $2,300. "Here I was, a Harvard grad, making $76 a week. When people say I don't love the game, I remind them of that. The parking-lot attendants at Hofstra University, where we trained, made more than the players."
Three years before Pelè's arrival, the NASL was a frontier. The Cosmos players had off-season jobs as bricklayers and truck drivers and one of them may have been, according to Messing, a hijacker on the New Jersey waterfront. One Polish player's wife told Arden, "I've got to find a job before it gets cold."
Badly in need of money the next season, Messing responded to a phone call from Jim Bouton, then a sports-caster for a New York television station, who told him that a quick $1,000 was available for posing nude for Viva magazine. "I'd do it myself," said Bouton, "but my pitching arm's too ugly."
The centerfold haunted Messing for years. He was traded to the Boston Minutemen in 1975, and his road roommate, Wolfgang Suhnholz, would often answer their hotel-room phone only to hear passionate breathing. He would hand the receiver to Messing, saying, "It's for you, I believe."
"I once got a gift-wrapped girl in a Vancouver hotel," says Messing. "There she was outside the door wearing Saran Wrap, a big bow and nothing else, clutching a copy of the magazine."
Messing learned how to play goalkeeper from Germanborn Coach Hubert Vogelsinger of the now-defunct Minute-men. Until then, he had relied on his instinct and reaction time to make saves. But it was clearly not enough. Vogelsinger would yell, "You've got hands like Mickey Mice, you think you on cloud seven. Boy, you in kindergarten, ptfui!"
"Hubert taught me set plays," says Messing, "the high balls and the crosses, the meat of the game. It was endless drilling. I normally don't do that. I usually tell coaches that there are only a certain number of saves in my body, and I can't use them up in practice. But for him, I worked hard."
In the intervening years Vogelsinger's English has improved, but his judgment of Messing has remained the same. Now coach of the San Diego Sockers, he says, "Shep is nearly a world-class keeper. We used to do a drill where I'd stand a few yards away, with him sitting on the ground; I'd drop the ball and try to kick it past him. By the time the ball left my hands, he was moving in exactly the direction the ball was going to go. It was uncanny. Such intelligence and speed I've rarely seen in a keeper.
"Some coaches say he's weak in the air on high balls and crosses, but that's foolish. He's one of the very best in the league now. What he had to learn—it's like tennis—is that to be great you have to hit a backhand routinely. The same with the standard saves—they've got to be second nature."
Says Cosmos Coach Eddie Firmani, with whom Messing has a bottomless lack of understanding, "Shep is a marvelous reaction goalie, but in front of the line, when he has to come out to pull something down, he's still shaky, and he can be in real trouble when he's coming out to cut down the angle on a forward."
Says Mirko Stojanovic, a former keeper with the Dallas Tornado, who set the league goals-against average record of .62 in 1971 and was Oakland's coach until the end of May, "Shep is very intelligent and brave. He's a gambler, but that's the nature of the position. When I was a young keeper on Red Star in Yugoslavia, I had a B.A. and was the least educated. The other three keepers had Ph.D.s. It's a position that attracts the intelligent because it offers the most challenges; you are back there directing the team and you're in charge. When a hard shot is coming at you, you're going to be a hero or a villain in a matter of seconds.
"Shep has to learn to lead the team more from the goal. At the Cosmos, Beckenbauer told him to be quiet, that he was in charge, and it was a bad habit. Here he's got to talk."
Messing views his position with a native's eye. "Americans make great goalies in soccer because they have the hand-eye coordination since childhood," he says. "If I throw a soccer ball at you, you'll use your hands to stop it by instinct, not your foot.
"Pelè saw that, too. He told me that the first of the world-class Americans he expected to see would be keepers. We simply don't have generations of experience and training at using our feet."
When Messing came to the Stompers this season, after an involved contract dispute with the Cosmos during which Firmani had vowed that Messing would never play for him again, it was to have been the greatest marriage of sports promotion in history—the union of Oakland General Manager Dick Berg, the league's best PR man with stunning successes at Dallas and San Jose behind him, and Shep Messing. Billboards bloomed around the Oakland area, depicting Messing and announcing the formation of the new team. There were press parties on yachts in the bay; the local investors were impressed; and the future was to be glowing for Messing and the Stompers. But when plans for opening-day festivities were announced, Berg wanted Messing to enter the Oakland Coliseum riding an elephant—"Stomp 'em" personified—and Messing said no. "You know I could have signed with Washington," he told Berg, "but I don't want the nickname 'Dip' and I don't do circus acts. No monkeys, sheep [for the 'ShepHerds'] or elephants."
Says Berg, "Shep is only interested in his own promotion. Every time we have a ticket-selling banquet or a shopping-center appearance set up for him, he threatens to put himself on the injured list. Chewing tobacco on network television doesn't put fans in the seats. Wait until we lose at home against Chicago with 2,000 attendance. Then you'll see him out there."
On opening day, the Stompers set an expansion-team record with better than 32,000 in the Coliseum. Messing played superbly against local rival San Jose, going down on his knees to plead with a referee on a penalty kick, and then stopping the shot of Ilija Mitic, 37, the league's alltime scoring champ, who had never failed to score on a penalty shot in the NASL. Messing gave him a crowd-pleasing rude gesture.
The game ended in a shoot-out, in which only one of San Jose's five one-on-one attempts got past him. It was Messing at his best.
Messing tends a soccer goal much the way that the Boston Bruins' Gerry Cheevers does a hockey net—with a heart-stopping creativity and high-rolling èlan. Not for Messing the calculated crispness of the great English Keeper Gordon Banks or Dallas' Ken Cooper. His is the fall-on-the-live-grenade style, weaving and bobbing out of his net toward an oncoming forward. He is also a trickster who will sometimes flash an Ali-like grin to unnerve a rushing forward.
Messing has some less subtle tricks, too, as Pelè, who was partly responsible for Messing's return to the Cosmos in 1976, will testify. "I thought he wanted me on the new Cosmos because of some great save I'd made," Messing says. "But after practice one day, he told me that in a game against me in Boston, we'd both been running after a loose ball near the goal and I pulled him by the shorts so I could get the ball first, which I did. Pelè thought that was great and wanted me to play with him. What a comedown!"
Because of his feisty attitude toward the Oakland management, Messing was chosen team captain. "I'm not a natural leader," he says. "The part of the job I like best is taking our complaints to the coach and management. Most athletes have very fragile egos. Here are these great big, finely muscled guys frightened of coaches. They want to please their coaches and live in fear that they won't. There's not much job security.
"I've had snakes as pets since I was a kid—in fact I wanted to be a herpetologist—so I know how to handle owners."
Messing's style as team leader smacks of his salad days in the league. He arrives late for practice, team meetings—sometimes even hiding in a room next door until he can be sure that he is really late—and behaves irreverently whenever possible.
Berg wound up a recent player-management meeting by announcing, "There will be no more nonsense tolerated. You people are professionals and you must act like it." He ticked off the usual litany of breaking curfew, being late for practice and missing meetings. At that point, in walked Messing—"And that includes you, Mr. Messing!"
Messing drew himself up and shouted, "Mr. Berg, you sell the tickets. We'll play the game. And if that doesn't work out, we'll all take a walk."
Several newly arrived foreign players were flipping crazily through their English phrase books, trying to discover what all the shouting was about. But Berg smiled, perhaps figuring that nothing could draw his team closer than having a common enemy, namely him.
Under Messing's captaincy, the Stompers have a relaxed, slightly crazy character. When German import Charlie Mrosko got off the plane in New York, he spoke his only words of English: "I vant Studio 54!"
And Lee Atack, a defender from the University of San Francisco, says, "I cut my hair and shaved my beard and didn't even have a beer when I got here. But after one night out with Shep in San Francisco, I just let everything grow! I knew I was in the right place."
American Defender Archie Roboostoff, sporting shoulder-length yellow hair and a General Custer mustache, says, "I don't know why it should be, with national exposure, media attention and all, but he really cares about us. He doesn't have to; you just feel that the guy's in your corner all the time."
In a game against Los Angeles in May, one could see the Messing-Stompers style in action. It was a cold evening in the Coliseum; the Corkpoppers—the dancing girls—were shivering, and Messing in goal was pacing to keep warm. The Stompers took an early 1-0 lead and held it until the final eight minutes, when Alan Kelly of the Aztecs sent a screamer past Messing.
Messing got up and walked to the edge of the net. He spotted a reporter he knew and said, "That damn defense. They weren't thinking. Now we have to go into a shoot-out. Those dummies will all be late to the postgame party. To hell with the game, play it for the party!"
A few moments later, the bearded, floppy-haired Atack was hanging on to the near post waiting for an L.A. corner kick. He looked over at a photographer and said, "Get my good side, lad, I'm marvelous from the left profile."
"Hey, Lee," yelled dour Defender Alec Lindsay, "get in the game, lad, forget the other stuff."
"This is the game!" screamed Atack. He rose to chest-trap the corner kick and in a second was sprinting down the field, carrying the ball full blast toward the Aztec goal.
Messing turned and said, "He's one of my people; he's a real sick puppy and he's good. Damn good. He'll be on my all-star crazies team."
Says Vogelsinger, "You have to understand Shep. He's a calculated eccentric with a big mouth. But I told him long ago, if you've got a big mouth, you've simply got to be great. A big-mouth loser is a bum anywhere."
"Shep is a perfectionist," Vogelsinger once told Arden. "He can't stand to look bad in front of people. That's his secret of success."
Oakland minority owner Bill Graham, the rock-music impresario, says, "Shep is the Bob Dylan, the John Lennon of soccer. A whole new generation of sports fan is out there waiting for a hero that reflects their values. These are the anti-Establishment people, the antiwar and civil-rights generation. Ken Stabler can't give it to them but Shep can. They believe him, they identify with him. He's the first radical-hip sports hero."
Former Cosmos teammate and friend, Defender Bobby Smith, thinks Messing is more complicated than that. "There are several versions of Shep," he says. "Sometimes he doesn't know which is the right one. Heck, maybe they all are true. Is there a real Shep Messing at the core of all the hype and the postures? Yes, and it's just a mirror of the outside."
This season, Messing ranks fifth out of 10 in the American Conference in goalkeeping with a 1.41 average, and his goaltending supremacy may be slipping away from him. The Stompers are currently 9-9 and in third place in the Western Division, hardly a Cosmos-like contender.
So Messing's prediction that his next engagement will be as a $100,000-a-year volleyball player may be coming true. The age of the crazies may be over in soccer. He may fondly recall the old days in Boston, when players always parked behind the owner's Rolls-Royce so he couldn't get away after games until they were paid, and where the Rolls was often full of hot-dog buns, because the owner operated the food stands as well and pleaded with players to buy their pre-game meals from him. But these are new times.
Although Shep gets a goodly sum from the U.S. Tobacco Company to promote snuff—and for which, not incidentally, his brother-in-law works in marketing—and although he has that $100,000 contract, his days as one of the league's premier drawing cards may be numbered.
"Look, it's only a game," Messing says on his own behalf. "I've got a championship ring, I'm 28 and the world's out there waiting. Whatever I've taken from soccer I think I've given back. I still argue with the commissioner, but it's been a healthy dialogue. Why should an American league have a Welsh leader? Why is the British Mafia controlling the sport here? Maybe I've done too good a job. The American kids like Gary Etherington and Ricky Davis coming up now may blow me out of the goal. But, hey, watch out for old Shep. The season's only half over, and when I whip this team up and get them ready for 42nd Street, watch out."
But behind the facade there is something ominous and brooding in Messing, storm clouds at the edge of his view of himself. Perhaps so much confidence and contrariness is exhausting. Out there on the barricades of the ego a soldier of fortune can get tired and long for home. After the Los Angeles game, nursing a rum and Coke in Ernie's restaurant in San Francisco, Messing talked about one of his dreams like an old campaigner from San Juan Hill, but the dream was a flashy one.
"If it weren't for Arden," he says, "I'd be just a bum in some cheap bar with a pool table and nickel drafts. I'm not very good at controlling myself. I've no self-regulation. I need her balance.
"Arden and I want to buy a town house in Manhattan," he continues. "The West Coast is all right, except it has no character, no style. It's too laid back, you know; hell, all the waiters and the brain surgeons are driving around in Mercedes 450 SLs saying, 'Have a nice day.' I want to get back East where people can read books without moving their lips, where everybody's got a smart mouth and a plan. Where life has a texture. Then, I don't know, maybe law school finally...."
The owner of the restaurant arrives at the table, smoothly shaking hands, welcoming Messing to San Francisco's finest restaurant, assuring him that he's proud to have such a great athlete, etc., etc.
And Messing once again becomes the Great Shep, the big-timer, "Hey, well thanks a lot," he drawls, draping his arm over the man's shoulder. "You know I've been looking for a really good watering hole in town, and I think you've got it right here, but you know, you need spittoons...." And he shoves a wad of snuff into his big smile.