While I don’t spend much time dwelling on past accomplishments, occasionally it is fun to look back and share some memories with people you’ve known for a while. I did that on Saturday night with a few remnants of the Jacksonville Tea Men.
The Tea Men were in the North American Soccer League (NASL), a transplanted team from New England. They hung around for a few years in that league and in other smaller leagues as well. The Tea Men’s name came from New England with the team, not only a regional moniker, but also relating to the team’s ownership, the Lipton Tea company. When the Tea Men moved to Jacksonville, I was working in Charleston, S.C. and saw a score come over the wire, “Jacksonville Tea Men 2, Tulsa Drillers 1.” “Look at that,” I laughed in the middle of the Channel 2 newsroom, “they moved the team and kept that stupid name.” Little did I know I’d be the play-by-play voice of that team with the stupid name only six weeks later.
When I took the job at Channel 4 in Jacksonville, the station was televising the games and installed me to do the games right away. I made friends with a lot of people on and around the team. I was probably closer in age to most of the players, but traveled with the coaching and training staff, so I got to know them fairly well. We ate and drank together often, with the standing rule that if the bar bill wasn’t bigger than the food bill, we’ hadn’t done our job. And usually we succeeded.
Noel Cantwell was the Head Coach, a world class soccer and cricket player who was a big personality and a big man. He taught me how all bets were won on the first tee one morning in San Diego when he took my money with a laugh with a bogus handicap over 18 holes at Coronado. Noel is currently serving as a scout for the English National Team. Dennis Viollet was the assistant, known as the Michael Jordan of English soccer, he held many records for Manchester United and still does. Viollet survived the Man U plane crash and was a legend. “You can’t score if you don’t shoot lads,” was his oft-spoken advice to the team.
I once stood in goal during the indoor season and let him fire penalty kicks at me. The velocity and force of the shots knocked me into the goal a couple of times. Dennis died a few years ago of complications of a brain tumor. A very nice man, who stayed in town, coached locally for a while and is still missed by all who knew him.
This finally brings me back to last Saturday night. I shared the broadcast booth with Arthur Smith, who was listed as the player personnel director of the Tea Men when they came here. He was a long time friend of both Noel and Dennis, knew players from all over Europe and the UK and fit in perfectly with this whole group. Arthur and I hit it off famously and as broadcast partners, we spent a lot of time traveling together. I learned most of what I know about the game from Arthur, most of it coming in the years since the Tea Men folded. We’ve stayed friends and socialize often.
He’s had his share of serious health problems but always has a positive outlook and a strength that’s inspiring. So when we heard that a couple of the former players were going to be in town at the same time, we decided to make some calls and see how many guys we could get together. (Jolly) Jack Carmichael, a defenseman on the Tea Men was going to be visiting from England, and coincidentally, Alan Green, a star striker from the team was also going to be coming to the States. Alan had been my closest friend among the players, and we had stayed in touch until he moved back to England a few years ago.
When I walked into the restaurant (Leo’s in Lakewood) I saw Arthur, Alan, and Jack at the table along with former players Nino Zec, Dusan, and Ringo Cantillo. Only Dennis Witt among the players who stayed local didn’t show. They were with a variety of wives, and friends and clearly enjoying themselves. I’ve run into Nino a bunch over the years. He’s in the floor installation business, but also coaches a team in the men’s soccer league here in town. He’s still passionate about the game and his thick Slavic accent remains despite more than two decades in the U.S…
Dusan was a late add to the team in the early ‘80’s but has made a home here. He’s told me he was headed back to Yugoslavia in a couple of weeks to visit family and hoped to see the U.S. basketball team play an exhibition game while he was there and the American’s were on their way to the Olympics in Athens. Ringo lives in Mandarin and has all along. He and his wife have two grown children and are grandparents. His son was recently named the wrestler of the year in North Florida from University Christian. He’s the same. He’s a nice guy and always has been. Very earnest, very tuned into personal responsibility.
We talked a lot about parenting and laughed about his now being the second youngest player to sign a professional soccer contract in this country behind Freddy Adu. Ringo was 16 when he turned pro, Freddy’s only 14. Alan is doing social work in his home town of Worchester. He works with abused and abandoned kids each day. “Tough work mate,” Alan explained through a grin. “Could make you a little loony if you didn’t really care,” he explained.
Jack is “in the car business” in England. A vague reference to some kind of work he’s doing for a big car dealer/distributor in Peterborough. It was fun to watch these guys catch up after twenty years. They talked about old times some, but nobody was about to break into Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
“You all look the same, only older,” I countered to Jack when he made fun of my thinning hair on top.
All in all, it was a nice trip down memory lane, made memorable itself by a comment Jack late into the night. “I’m so glad these guys showed up,” Jolly explained. “We’re different nationalities, but we’re all here together. We’re still teammates.”