I will always be grateful that Harry Keough came out for lunch last May. He sat next to me in a neighborhood Italian place in St. Louis, wearing a green jacket, the sweetest, friendliest man in the world.
He was soccer royalty. I knew that from his history -- playing fullback the day the United States stunned England, 1-0, in the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, June 29, 1950. That amazing accomplishment glowed from him for the rest of his life, which ended on Feb. 7, at the age of 84.
There was no need for me to prod Harry to recall the upset because it has been documented in so many books and films and newspaper stories. It was quite good enough to sit around a raucous table in what just might be the best soccer city in the country, yet one that constantly falls short of joining Major League Soccer.
What a glorious past, all the ethnic clubs that sprung up when St. Louis was a top-ten American city early in the Twentieth Century. And Harry Keough was from that tradition, playing his way into the rudimentary national program after World War Two.
He was shipped off to Brazil with a makeshift team in 1950. Newspapers could not believe early reports of a 1-0 Yank victory; some edited it into an English victory. But it really happened, after a virtual outsider, Joe Gaetjens out of Haiti, flicked the loose ball past the English keeper, still one of the great upsets in World Cup history.
Then Harry Keough came home to live a full life as family man, coach and father of the American player and broadcaster, Ty Keough. Harry continued to play into his 30’s…and 40’s…and 50’s….His full-time job was as a postman. In between he coached junior college, and then he won five national titles at St. Louis University.
What really ticked his players was that Harry was still the best player on the field. Bill McDermott, another major St. Louis soccer guy, player and broadcaster, said it used to annoy him that Harry, twice his age, could nudge varsity players off the ball, take control of it, distribute it upfield.
Harry had been a pioneer as a fullback. Up to then, fullbacks had been content to blast the ball upfield, theoretically out of danger. He preferred to deliver the ball to a teammate. He dominated the game – as the coach, just filling in during practice. Disheartening, McDermott said.
Harry mostly smiled at our lunch. The lovely obituary in the Post-Dispatch by my friend Tom Timmerman – definitely worth reading -- said Harry had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it didn’t show at lunch in May. Harry just enjoyed being out with his people.
When I heard Harry had passed, I e-mailed Ty to send my condolences.
“You know the saying: ‘He who dies with the most toys wins,’” Ty wrote back. “For my Dad it was: ‘He who dies with the best stories wins.’ BIG Winner, my Dad was.”
The stories are out there. Now only Walter Bahr and Frank Borghi, the keeper, remain from that 1950 team. I’ll remember a powerful man with a sweet smile, who hardly needed to say a word, because we all knew what he and his mates had done.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.