WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, December 15, 2006) -- By anyone's standards, Lamar Hunt, who died yesterday at the age of 74 after a very long fight with prostrate cancer, was a very rich guy. But he never, publicly or privately, acted like a rich guy. He seemed to have no noticeable ego. He was just an everyman, and when it came to soccer, he was just a fan, in fact a super-fan.
Over the years I would run into Mr. Hunt quite often, sometimes in some pretty strange places.
In Seoul, South Korea, inter-city buses are what trains are in Europe -- the major mode of city to city transportation. The city's bus station was right next to the Marriott Hotel where the United States team and much of the media was staying during the 2002 World Cup. One morning I jumped onto an early bus heading to, if I remember correctly, Jeonju, where Spain was to play Paraguay that day. As I walked down the aisle looking for a seat there was a familiar face waving a good morning. Lamar Hunt.
During the ride he explained he was trying to accomplish a super-fan feat, attend a match at every venue in both South Korea and Japan. It was something he had done in both 1994 and 1998. But he was doing it just like any other fan, taking the bus and buying a ticket where he could. It was driving U.S. Soccer Federation officials crazy. They kept trying to give him VIP tickets to sit in the private boxes and go to the plush pre-match parties, etc., but he kept turning them down. He was just there to see the matches, see the stadiums and to wander around to soak in the atmosphere.
Then there was the time a group of us was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica, about to go to breakfast on a day when the U.S. was playing Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier. In walked Mr. Hunt, who immediately came over clearly surprised to see familiar faces in a distant place. It turned out he did not know the U.S. was playing that night, but was in the country to visit an investment a friend got him into -- a massive banana plantation -- and his eyes lit up like a small boy's at Christmas when he heard the Americans playing. He instantly changed his plans and that night went with the small U.S. press contingent because we had the only available seats in a sea of hostile home-team fans.
If it was not for Lamar Hunt, there might not be a Major League Soccer today. In 1967, he became one of the founding owners in what would become the North American Soccer League. He estimated that he lost more than $20 million before the Dallas Tornado folded in 1981. Still, he was one of the first ones there when Alan Rothenberg called after the 1994 World Cup to say another try at starting a professional soccer league was happening.
At one time, he and his family were owner-operators of three teams -- Columbus, Kansas City and Dallas -- before selling the Kansas City team last August. He was the first to build a soccer-specific stadium (in Columbus).
Hunt, was a National Football League pioneer who came up with the Super Bowl name. It was his passion for playoffs, and for geographically-based rivalries, that resulted in the divisional set up and playoff scheme that MLS has used since its inception.
His passion for soccer went back to well before the NASL. He laughingly recalled he met his future wife, Norma, at a Shamrock Rovers game in Dublin, Ireland, in 1962. In 1966, he watched the World Cup in England and then attended nine of the next 11 World Cups missing only Argentina in 1978 and regretfully Germany this year because of his health.
His relationship with MLS commissioner Don Garber goes back more than two decades when Garber was on the staff of the NFL dealing with the formation of NFL Europe and Hunt was in charge of the owners' committee overseeing the effort. It was Hunt who talked Garber into leaving the NFL for MLS.
"He dreamed 30 years ago that America someday would be a soccer nation," Garber said. "And I think he lived to see that dream come true. He just loved the game. I never felt like soccer played a back seat to the NFL with Lamar."
Hunt, who saw the U.S. Open Cup named in his honor, was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1982 as a "builder" of the game. In 1999, he was awarded the first National Soccer Medal of Honor, reserved for those individuals who have significantly changed the landscape of soccer in the United States.
Garber has said repeatedly since the news of Hunt's passing spread that his most indelible memory of Hunt occurred last month at the MLS Cup at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. He did not have a team in the game, but he felt he should be there because his family was hosting the event. So he left his hospital bed to watch Houston defeat New England. But ever true to his ways, he did not sit in the owners box, but rather he sat in the stands, wrapped in a blanket.
I've seen a number of remembrances of Lamar Hunt, but one of the most charming comes from Jeff Wuerth, the former Columbus Crew media relations director who told the Columbus Dispatch of his first meeting with the team owner.
Mr. Hunt standing next to a soda machine in the team's old office when Wuerth approached. "He says, 'This is all I've got,' and he pulls out a wad of hundreds," Wuerth recalled with a laugh. "So I gave him a dollar. Later that day, he tracks me down and gives me my dollar back. That's the type of person he was."
His wife Norma said of him, "He wanted people to love the sports like he did. He loved sports so much, he was so passionate about them and he wanted others to share the joy."
Garber put it another way: "He was simply a good man."
That he was and the soccer world will miss him.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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