Stanislaw Terlecki was thawing out over lunch after a recent morning practice with the Pittsburgh Spirit. The team practices at the Lake Vue Ice Palace, accent on the Ice, a facility more suited for hanging meat than working out for a Major Indoor Soccer League game. Terlecki, a star for years with the Polish national team and now the MISL's No. 2 scorer, warmed up when the conversation turned to Eastern-bloc politics. He had a Russian joke to tell.
Did you hear about Brezhnev calling all the top Soviet scientists together, Terlecki asked, and telling them how disappointed he was that the U.S. had beaten Russia to the moon? He proposed that the U.S.S.R. land a cosmonaut on the sun. One scientist had to tell Brezhnev that this was impossible because of the sun's great heat. His boyish face beaming. Terlecki looked around the table to make sure everyone was ready for the punchline: " 'No problem.' Brezhnev says, 'we will land at night.' " Terlecki roared, and the group spent another 15 minutes cracking Brezhnev jokes. By the time the check finally arrived, everyone had defrosted.
Terlecki admitted that telling such jokes will probably cause him trouble, but he's used to trouble. He outraged the Polish Soccer Federation by jumping teams in 1975 and, later, by arranging for a meeting of the national team with Pope John Paul II when the team was in Rome in 1980. He was the bread-and-butter man during student strikes in Lodz in 1981, using his connections to get food by the carload for university students. And twice he was suspended by the federation—the first time for six months, then for a year—for trying to form a players' union.
His year's suspension expired in December, but by that time he had abandoned Poland for Pittsburgh and a new career with the Spirit. The 26-year-old forward, who before the Spirit's first game of the season had never played a serious game of indoor soccer in his life, has scored 37 goals and 24 assists and trails only the New York Arrows' designated offense, Steve Zungul, in the league scoring race.
More important, he has given new spirit to the Spirit, which shut down all last season while the ownership tried to strengthen its financial position. The team was finally sold to The Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., principal lessors of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena and also owners of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. DeBartolo's son, Edward Jr.. is the owner of the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers. When DeBartolo Sr. acquired the Spirit, he hired a new front office. General Manager Chris Wright and Coach John Kowalski brought in 14 new players, most of them foreign. A list of the players' birthplaces reads like Phileas Fogg's itinerary, ranging from Budapest to S√£o Paulo, Pretoria to Latrobe, Pa.
Surprisingly, this agglomeration of strangers has achieved a 15-5 record. No one is more responsible than Terlecki, who introduced himself to Spirit fans back in November by having a hand in every Pittsburgh score—four goals and two assists—in a 6-5 home-opener defeat of Philadelphia. He has scored eight hat tricks, despite being double-teamed regularly, and the team has emerged as a threat to the Arrows, the only champion the 4-year-old league has known. (At week's end the Spirit was leading its division; New York was third.)
The 5'8", 155-pound Terlecki looks like an athletic mutant. He has the upper body of a swimmer welded to the legs of a sprinter, with flaring shoulders, a flat stomach, tapering torso and oversized quadriceps. Terlecki is fast, a deft dribbler and has a powerful shot, delivered with either foot from a short windup that baffles his team-mates. "His leg movement is maybe a quarter of mine," says Forward Paul Child. "It's like a metal leaf spring when you pull it back and let it go. 'Poing!' It's that quick."
Forward Graham Fyfe tagged Terlecki Stan the Fran—as in franchise. Stan the Fran met Stan the Man before a game with the Steamers in St. Louis. Musial, the president of the Steamers, requested the meeting and greeted Terlecki in Polish: "Mocny czlowiek [strong man]." Terlecki was delighted.
The Man. The Pope. Terlecki has made lots of connections. He used some of them to get visas for himself and his family to come to the U.S. "It was one of the best moments in my life," he said of the time when he had the exit visas safely in his possession. "I felt like you do after 10 beers...maybe 20 beers."
But life isn't always a 10-beer hum for Terlecki.
Fourteen months ago he was brought to an enormous Warsaw hall to face a Polish Soccer Federation tribunal that wanted to know about a letter he and 16 other members of the national team had signed declaring their intent to form a players' union. Terlecki entered the hall ready for what he calls a bit of "Polish theater."
Armed only with a microphone and a wit as quick and nimble as his size-6½ feet, he began by blowing into the mike two or three times. "One, two, three, four, five, six," he patiently counted in Polish. "Is everybody here?"
Terlecki would be one of just four players not to disavow the letter, much of which he had written. He recalls that part of the questioning went like this:
Q—What time did you leave the hotel?
Q—Are you sure it was eight o'clock? Are you sure it wasn't 8:02?
A—No. Maybe it was even 8:03. I don't know this time exactly, because I have one of your Russian watches.
Laughter muffled the calls for order.
"For me, the most important thing is to be free," Terlecki says today. "I decided to be a teacher 10 years ago. In Poland, I must be a teacher forever. Here I can be a soccer player one year, a singer the next year. I can write in a newspaper another year, or maybe one year I am worker in factory.
"Reagan was an actor before he was President," Terlecki added. "In Poland, it is unbelievable."
Terlecki lives in The Mews, a condominium complex in the Pittsburgh suburb of North Hills, with his wife, Ewa, and their two sons, Tomasz, 6, and Maciej, 4. Life in the Terlecki house seems to revolve around the TV, where Ewa and the boys watch Scooby Doo, Tom and Jerry and The Addams Family, keeping themselves entertained and trying to learn a little English.
Stan and Ewa haven't heard from their families since martial law was declared in Poland on Dec. 13. Stan is particularly concerned on two accounts: His parents are both university professors and members of the intelligentsia, and his father recently suffered his second heart attack. Yet it is Ewa who is insistent about returning to Poland.
"I have a better situation here," Terlecki said, "but not my wife. Every day she repeats to me that she wants to go back to Poland." Ewa is flat-out homesick and misses her family. Terlecki shrugs. "Maybe after the Third War," he says.
Ewa was nervous about her husband's talking with a magazine writer. But trying to stop Terlecki from talking is a lot like trying to stop him from scoring.
"Many points of communism say everybody must be the same," Terlecki says. "Smart, gifted men work hard and only get small money, the same as a guy who didn't work so hard. In my mind, I am really good. I should get more than another guy who is not so good as I am."
Terlecki first came to the U.S. last June, with black-and-white glossies of himself in hand. He tried unsuccessfully to get a tryout with the Cosmos. Eventually, a friend told him about another team in the New York area, the Arrows, who played indoor soccer and were having summer workouts on Long Island. Terlecki practiced with them for two weeks before going to Belgium to work out with a soccer team there for the summer. When he returned to the U.S. with his family in October, however, it wasn't to play second fiddle to Zungul of the Arrows, but as the mainspring of the revived Spirit. Coach Kowalski had sought him out.
That Terlecki is the star is to his taste; he has always been a striver. He earned a degree in history from the University of Lodz and thus became the first national team member to have graduated from a university in anything but physical education. On road trips, while his teammates read Polish sports magazines. Terlecki read TIME and Newsweek. "They said my nose was growing up," Terlecki says, lifting his nose into the air with his thumb and forefinger in the universal gesture of snobbery.
Still, he has close friends on the team and plans to meet them at the World Cup this summer in Spain, which he will attend as a spectator. After that, he says he will play outdoors for a team in the U.S. or Western Europe.
And he will augment his knowledge of a new love, American football, having found it an even more exciting game to watch than soccer, and he has been practicing placekicking with an eye to a possible tryout with the Steelers. "Maybe my children will play football," he says. To that end, he has given each of his sons a football helmet.
And it was a football game that brought Terlecki's most affecting moment in the U.S. "Before the Super Bowl, everyone is really feeling tremendous in the United States," he said. "I am watching on TV, and everybody in the stadium, thousands and thousands of people, was standing to ask for peace for Poland. That was unbelievable."