I am here to protect this tiny blessed sphere which men call Earth.
—THE SILVER SURFER, SENTINEL OF THE SPACEWAYS
Making it all the way through this story without a goof-up would be one of the great triumphs of modern printing. The subject of this piece is Julie Veee. That's Veee with three—count 'em, three—e's. You guys on the copy desk got that? Just follow along the way it's written here. Veee figures that only two e's in his last name would be ordinary and that three are extraordinary enough. This, as you may have gathered, is no ordinary man: If Veee has a whoopee season in outdoor soccer like the one he just had indoors, he may add yet a fourth and fifth e. As it is now, the throng of fans happily screaming his name sound as if those extra e's are already in place.
This is no slick, predictable-looking hero. Veee is 6'1", 175 pounds or so, and totally tousled from top to bottom. Looking at him one would think that his team, the San Diego Sockers, sent someone around every morning to rumple him. At 32, his face has settled into its maturity—solid cheekbones, generous mouth and a fine, sturdy nose, sort of beaked, yet broad and thick at the base. It's a typical Hungarian face, Veee insists, richly suited to evincing any number of moods.
They're mostly good at the moment. That figures, because Veee is fast becoming one of the country's best-known soccer players. For the most part he attained this status over the winter when he blew everybody away and fired the Sockers to a 16-8 record and the NASL indoor title. Assuredly no slouch outdoors, Veee turns into a demon when the game is played inside. With the smaller field and six men instead of 11 to a side, the action indoors is far faster, and Veee is expert at playing the ball off the walls, the stands, his elbows, his earlobes and, occasionally, a kidney or two. When the inside action concluded a few weeks ago, Veee was named MVP of both the regular season and the championship series, and he had broken all the NASL indoor scoring marks, with 51 goals and 38 assists for 140 points in 17 regular-season games. He had scored in 35 straight games over two years and averaged 2.6 goals and 7.1 points an outing during the streak. Indeed, he has never played an indoor game without getting at least one goal. It seems fairly safe to say that even the Silver Surfer couldn't have done it better.
Well, it takes a bit of explaining before one can fully comprehend this business about the Sentinel of the Spaceways, though anybody who was reading Marvel Comics back around 1968 will understand. Shooooom! The Surfer appears all shining, as if he has been chrome-plated and hand-buffed, and he utters truly wonderful stuff like, "Never am I alone—never unarmed—so long as I possess my board." (Those are the Surfer's italics, not ours.) Well, in the case of Veee, substitute "soccer ball" for "surfboard."
To go back to the beginning, Veee was born in Budapest in 1950, on the shantytown, or Pest, side of the city. In those days he was called Gyula Visnyei (pronounced JOO-la Vish-NEE-yai). Dad was a lathe operator and played a little soccer and drank a little beer on the side, like most dads in the neighborhood. The kids came by soccer naturally, playing the game in the street outside the tavern while waiting for their fathers to come out. "We were very, very poor," says Veee, "but then, so was everybody. After the Russians came in 1956, it got really bad. I didn't eat an orange until I was 17 and never a banana. But now, here in this country, you see them both in abandon...in"—he searches for the word—"in abandonment?"
Veee's wife, Yvette, corrects him without even glancing up from the newspaper she is reading. "Abundance," she says.
"Abundance!" he barks triumphantly. "Bananas in ABUNDANCE!"
Veee talks just like that, in the wonderfully explosive, staccato language of one who taught himself to read and speak English by studying comic books. Sometimes, when he's deep in puzzled thought, his expressive face all screwed up, one half expects to see words appear printed inside a balloon over his head. As it is, he speaks in a Hungarian-accented comic-bookese, saying many words in all caps. Not BLAM! or POW! necessarily, but "danger" always comes out DANGER! or he will say, telling of the old days, "Well, we were in SOME FIX!"
But poverty or not—and most likely because of it—Veee became a kid soccer star. He was born with the natural balance of a cat and the sinfully slick hip and thigh movements of a belly dancer. In addition, gifted young athletes enjoyed special status in Hungary. With the entire country subsisting on an enforced soup and bread diet, the jocks' perks came in the form of kaloria. "That means we got calorie money," Veee says. "The government gave selected kids the equivalent of four dollars a month and a special permit which allowed them to buy extra calories for their diet so that they could grow stronger and play better soccer. 'Hey, hey, look, look, I got my kaloria money,' I'd yell to all my pals. And I'd buy them chocolate, and I'd buy sweets for my family. And then, as I played better, I was awarded a no-show job. I had been working as a...you call them locksmiths."
"Machinist," his wife says.
"MACHINIST!" Veee says. "And at 12 years old, I was playing for Vasas [pronounced VA-shoss], a labor team." At 14, he was finished with school. "My grades were so bad," he says, "that I couldn't possibly qualify for gymnasium, what you call high school. And, besides, soccer was my whole life. You see, I can't paint and I can't draw and I can't write and I don't speak well. But in soccer, I can achieve a CERTAIN MAGIC! It's like no other feeling. It's like, ummm, a DOWNHILL ski race; it's an inside CRESCENDO!"
And that is what led to the Great Escape and the Silver Surfer, all those extra calories be damned.
Veee was 18 when, in February 1968, he went on the tournament circuit to Italy as a member of the Hungarian junior national team. It gets beautifully complicated from here on: Veee has an uncle in Long Beach, Calif., one Tony Visnyei, and Visnyei's wife has a cousin named Carl Burkenwald, who at the time was a student knocking around Europe with a beard, a knapsack and a bugle. Is that comic book enough? Well, Burkenwald had seen Veee in action on Italian television, and when he met Veee in Viareggio—the two communicated entirely by sign language and vigorous nods and smiles—Burkenwald proposed that his cousin-in-law defect to the U.S., where soccer was starting to boom.
"It wasn't that I was feeling oppressed or unhappy, it was the sense of ADVENTURE AND DANGER!" says Veee. "So I went back to the locker room and I put on almost all of my civilian clothes, pulling on layer after layer. Then I tugged on my team warmup suit over it all. I started to waddle past the coach at the door, walking like a penguin, and he said to me, 'Where you go, kid?' I told him that I'm going out to buy a FEW GUM! See, the idea was that, somewhere outside, I'd hand off my clothes to Carl for the escape. But the coach wouldn't let me out of the room."
So much for Viareggio. The Hungarian team's next tournament game was scheduled to take place in a suburb near Pisa. Burkenwald then explained this terrific plan: When you hear me blow the bugle, he said to Veee, it means that everything is all set for you. We'll meet outside the stadium. Burkenwald conveyed the getaway scheme in sign language, and his expression clearly said: You understand all this?
"We suited up and went out to play," says Veee. "And it was a tough, grinding game. Then, suddenly, from somewhere up in the stands, amid those thousands of people, there it came. TA TA! The bugle! The BUGLE: Ta ta! The damn thing blew all during the game, which we tied 0-0. If we'd won, it would've meant that we'd have gone on to the finals, and I might not have walked out on that. But as it now was, we were going to be ordered back to Hungary. So I pulled on my red warmups and headed out of the stadium for the team bus. On the way I met Carl and we took off. The Italian bus driver came running after me. But, you know, he didn't run too hard."
The Hungarians were furious, of course. But only until they determined that Veee hadn't made off with all of the club's under-the-table appearance money, which had been paid in cash and stashed back at the team's hotel. Veee had also left behind his passport.
It was a nifty escape, but the problem was that FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, automatically prohibits a defecting athlete from playing on a new team for one year. So Veee knocked around Italy for a time: Uncle Tony had sent him $50; the International Rescue Committee was paying him $4 a week; and he got a job washing wine glasses at an elegant San Marino hotel. He lived on bananas (in abundance) and Coca-Cola and American movies. He's believed to be the only person in the world ever to see Once Upon a Time in the West seven straight evenings without throwing up. "You think I talk funny," he says now. "You should hear Charles Bronson dubbed into Italian."
At last, on May 29, 1969, Veee came to the U.S.—a bit too late, unhappily, because the infant U.S. soccer boom was just going bust. The NASL had contracted from 17 to five teams. Veee ended up with a $150-a-week job at Todd Shipyard in Long Beach and an introduction to a local German soccer club, the Hollywood Stars. "They gave me $250 to sign," he says, "and the first game I played, we won 10-1, with me scoring five goals. It was pure Mickey Mouse. So they gave me another $500, and I played seven more games."
But the rest of his story—almost right up to this winter—is best written quickly, because it tells of a jumbled career that missed by just this much. Indeed, the life and times of Julie Veee are a saga of just- missed opportunities and near-collisions with fame—and of entanglements with various teams brought about by his carefree attitude toward contracts and by his simple, trusting nature. He went back to Europe a couple of times and, by the time he signed with San Diego in 1978, had played for eight teams in three countries: the Stars and the Los Angeles Hungarians, whose $300 check bounced; Stade Rennais of France; Liersé and Standard Liege of Belgium; the L.A. Aztecs and the San Jose Earthquakes of the NASL; and the New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League. It was while he was with the Aztecs, in 1975, that his professional name became Julie Veee, courtesy of L.A. General Manager John Chaffetz. Easy to spell, easy to yell. But in all cases, it's safe to report, he missed getting rich.
Ah, but Veee figures he did become, at last, a man of the world, which is just about as good, as far as he can tell. One of his early jobs, in 1970, was clearing brush at a place called the Spahn Ranch, near Los Angeles. "How was I to know," says Veee, "that it had been the headquarters of the Charles Manson family? They KILLED people. So one day I was working away when this real weirdy came riding up on a horse. He was half naked and all dirty and sweaty, and his eyes—his EYES!—were gone mad. And he spoke to me, all menacing: 'What are you doing here?' he asked me. So I didn't know just what to say, and so I said to him, 'Oh, I'm a Hungarian.' And he thought about that for a long moment, just staring at me. Finally, he sort of shrugged and turned and rode away."
Along about the same time, Veee was courting Yvette Stern, now the mom of daughters Jennifer, 10, and Katrina, 4. "I wanted so desperately to speak the language," he says. "So I would buy copies of National Geographic and underline the words I couldn't understand and then show them to Yvette and get her to explain them to me." He pauses for dramatic effect.
"You know what the hardest words are in the English language?" he says.
Yvette sighs and then looks up at the ceiling.
"Jagged peaks," Veee says. "JAGGED PEAKS! Vat means that, jagged peaks? I ask Yvette and she explains and explains, but I absolutely cannot understand it. So finally she draws the picture. And now I love it: what a nice, nice sound—JAGGED PEAKS!"
But that's formal English. The real gut stuff of the language, as everybody knows, comes from the comics. And Veee is an avid collector, a genuine connoisseur. Ah, Conan the Barbarian and the Fantastic Four with Galacticus and Doctor Doom. And, of course, the Silver Surfer, Sentinel of the Spaceways! For Veee, it was love at first sight: Good old Silver Surfer has that sort of soccer-player look about him, something in the way he rides his board through the skies. Veee has all 18 issues of Silver Surfer that Marvel Comics ever produced, starting with Vol. 1, No. 1 in August 1968. Collectors now estimate the value of a copy in mint condition—and Veee's are all in terrific shape—at $70. And you want to talk about terrific use of the English language, well, just listen to this introduction in that first issue.
High o'er the roof of the world he soars...free and unfettered as the roaring wind itself! Behold the sky-born spanner of a trillion galaxies...the restless, streaking stranger from the farthest reach of space...this glistening, gleaming seeker of truth, whom man shall call, forevermore—The Silver Surfer!
And there's more. Veee has lined his suburban San Diego home with more than 1,000 books of all kinds—and built a special hideaway over his garage for hundreds more comic books and vintage magazines, from Black Mask and Doc Savage to LIFE and TIME. In his den, one wall is lined with perhaps 350 movie-star biographies, everything from the sublime (Good Night, Sweet Prince, Gene Fowler's superb life of John Barrymore) to the ridiculous (Linda: My Own Story, by Linda Christian). Signed first editions by authors from Ezra Pound to John Updike are everywhere, and Veee doggedly reads them all. He has only $4,500 left to pay on an installment-plan purchase of an $11,000 collection of signed limited editions of contemporary novels and anthologies—and no place to put them, unless he goes up another story on the house. What precious wall space now remains is taken up by Yvette's collection of Walt Disney original animation celluloids—called cels—and autographed glossies of movie stars, old and new.
With all of this, plus soccer, these days are what Veee would call SOME LIFE! He's now the darling of San Diego and is, at last, attaining a measure of national celebrity. Veee also is playing out a $70,000, two-year, no-cut contract that expires Nov. 15. To Robert W. Bell, the ferociously dapper and dimpled president of the Sockers, "Veee is in a class by himself on the club. He makes that extra, tricky pass when he probably shouldn't, that's true, but it's because he loves the game so much that he sometimes hates to shoot. But he's so genuinely enthusiastic and obviously having such fun that the town has adopted him."
Bell expects to sign Veee to a long-term deal, perhaps play him outdoors for another season and then use him exclusively indoors. Indeed, there's serious talk of the NASL's surrendering to the inevitable and moving entirely inside, possibly to one 50- or 60-game season instead of the 32-outdoor and 18-indoor schedule it has now.
Perfect for Veee. He's the Sockers' second-leading outdoor scorer, with 85 points, but he achieved that total over four regular seasons. Outdoors he runs around a lot as an attacking midfielder, dazzling everybody with brilliant footwork while the crowd screams, "Shoot, for God's sake, shoot!"—to no avail. Last season the two top scorers in the league, Giorgio Chinaglia of the Cosmos and Karl-Heinz Granitza of Chicago, finished with 74 and 55 points, respectively. Julie Veee had 18.
But that's precisely it, of course. The country's best indoor player prefers to play outdoors, he doesn't particularly want to shoot, and at times he's a burden to San Diego Coach Ron Newman. Talking to Newman can be a bit distracting. He's a retread from England, and he always sounds as if he's doing a Michael Caine imitation. "Julie Veee has all of the moves," says Newman. "He dribbles better than anybody, and he's got an explosive power that's his best strength. But the problem is, he'd much rather fake the goalie two or three times and then shoot it between his legs instead of taking the original easy, open shot. Sometimes he frustrates me. I can't coach him; I have to coax him."
Deep inside, Veee understands both Newman and Bell. "I'm very emotional; the skin is very thin," he says. "A boo from the stands just kills me. Sometimes I know maybe I hold the ball too long, but it's that MAGIC—that move of the feet and the eye that makes it all happen. It's my life. I could better explain the meaning of life to you in Hungarian, because there just aren't the right words in English. But...."
"Yes, there are," says Yvette.
And Veee blinks. "Hmmm?"
"What does life consist of?" she says.
And finally he gets it. His expressive Hungarian face suddenly glows with pleasure. "Of course!" Veee says. "JAGGED PEAKS!"