As you read this, I don’t know if 82-year-old Pelé will be alive. But as I was writing, he was in Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo, passing away from colon cancer and blood disorders.
I was still wet behind my ears and years when I uttered a blatant lie that assigned me to be with Pelé as he toured North America in his final year of competition.
It was March 1977. I was just a kid – 24, that’s 12 in newspaper years – who said a dirty word.
Joe Marcus, who lightly covered football for The Post during the Cosmos’ early years on the gritty, gritty, glass-strewn, blood-stained Randalls Island until Yankee Stadium in 1975 when Pelé left retirement in Brazil, had died.
I was a sports clerk, a gopher raised to $90 a week, which often included six days a week.
Ike Gellis, our tough, gruff lookalike Edward G. Robinson sports editor likewise acting — so help me out, straight out of casting central — one morning asked a question aloud: Who knows anything about football?
The Cosmos were moving to Giants Stadium and they needed a replacement for Marcus.
I wasn’t the heir apparent to the next beat, but I took a quick, blind hit: “Yes!” All I knew about football was that I worked summers as a lifeguard for swimming club manager Bill Leid, a football and wrestling coach at Wagner College.
I had committed a fraud.
And so it was settled. As the Cosmos moved into Giants Stadium and with more immediate, sold-out success than the North American Football League could sustain, I was the Post’s new football batsman, with no credentials or clues.
And within days I was neck and neck and pen on paper with the one man everyone on every continent knew from football, the world’s most renowned and admired athlete, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known from Timbuktu to Totowa as Pelé.
Curiously, Pelé didn’t like his nickname, given to him at school when he mutilated the name Bilé for his favorite player, Brazilian team goalkeeper Vasco da Gama. He said he went by the name Thomas Edison and preferred “Edson” because he was both serious and dignified.
Hmm, Pelé’s favorite as a child was a player who stop Goals.
It was impossible not to like Pelé. We in the local press didn’t bother him beyond football matters. He enjoyed it, so came to know us by our first names. Media around the world followed suit, calling in cameras and sound crews to capture the married man’s latest love interest, real and imagined.
Even Pelé’s bodyguard, pint-sized and strong as an anvil, Pedro Garay, a Cuban who invaded his native land to hunt Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs, knew we could be trusted. , that we were not a threat to Pelé in public or in private.
Garay was another spectacular character in the Cosmos sequel. One night in Vancouver, British Columbia, just before a game against the Whitecaps, he demonstrated to captain Werner Roth how his handcuffs worked. Then couldn’t find the key. He had left it in his hotel room.
What I knew of Pelé almost immediately upon entering was:
1. He and star striker Giorgio Chinaglia both wanted – needed – the ball, the closer to the opposition goal the better. And Chinaglia has made it clear he will flex his muscles with Cosmos’ chief Warner Communications boss, father figure and center of attention Steve Ross, no matter the powerful and famous music and football co-chairmen Ahmet and Nesuhi. . Ertegun, wanted the opposite.
This divided international house created the most famous team in the world from around 1976 to 1983. And there were malfunctions every day behind every door. It made not knowing much about football at the time fun and educative! And poor coach Gordon Bradley was a daily good man in a vice.
He wrote himself. So I wrote it down. I didn’t know any better.
2. I also knew, early on, what I couldn’t write, unless I wanted to discredit Steve Marshall, the good Cosmos traveling secretary and massive – like 6-foot-5, 290-pound – tackle from nose and point man, as he pointed out waiting “out there” a lot.
In 1976 in British Columbia – before cellphones – the Cosmos bussed back from a game against New England at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. The bus did not carry a toilet. So at night, as the crew cried out for help, Marshall asked the driver to pull over near a deserted field off Route 84.
Smooth mission accomplished. The team got back on the bus and he left. Until Marshall discovers that Pelé was missing.
As the bus returned in search of Pele, Marshall was gripped by fear and a sense of the unfolding story that he had left the world’s most famous athlete to die or hitchhike, alone. , in an abandoned field near Route 84 outside of Boston.
If I hadn’t fully grasped Pele’s universal fame and appeal, it disappeared before a game against the LA Aztecs at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Word spread that Elton John, a part owner of the Aztecs, would be in the parking lot to greet Pelé. I was on the team bus and as we got closer to the Colosseum, crowds started milling around.
So here’s my plan: stay close to Pelé and Garay. What harm could befall them?
As we got off the bus – I was carrying a briefcase and an Olivetti portable typewriter – the crowd surged. Suddenly, I had no control over my body or my balance; my arms were pinned at my sides; if the crowd surged left, I went left, once almost horizontal.
Absolutely helpless, I saw the title: “Pele, 20 Others, Die In Stampede.” My name would be printed on the agate at the bottom of the story, then dropped in the second edition.
(It’s no wonder I get nauseous when the geniuses at ESPN support the field and assault yard as a good, clean fun and ritual for the student body.)
I spoke with Pelé about it after the match, asking him if he had ever been forced to escape such a crowd. Although modest, he smiled. Then he made a circle with his arms:
“Yes,” he said in English, “everywhere in the world.”