Duluth celebrates 50 years of soccer and its growthJON NOWACKI: Adam Jaros remembers what it was like to not be wanted. To be told he didn’t belong. To be a stranger in a strange land.
By: Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune
Adam Jaros remembers what it was like to not be wanted. To be told he didn’t belong. To be a stranger in a strange land.
Back in the early 1960s, Jaros was a teenager, and after church on Sundays people from across the Duluth hillside would flock to Park Point to picnic and swim.
Around that time, a few of the boys noticed a pair of soccer goal posts in the grassy field that dominated the Point. To locals, they were about as foreign as moon-landing gear, but to European immigrants like Jaros, they were a welcome sign of home where soccer is king.
“A lot of us didn’t know any other sport but soccer,” Jaros said. “So when we saw those goal posts, we were like, ‘Holy smokes!’”
The St. Lawrence Seaway opened to navigation in 1959, opening the Great Lakes region to oceangoing vessels nicknamed “salties” and throngs of foreign sailors. The goal posts were apparently put up on Park Point to give the sailors something to do in their free time. It didn’t take long for the Europeans living in Duluth to join in, rolling up their Sunday best to play pickup soccer games of shirts vs. skins.
By 1962, it became a regular occurrence. Now 50 years later, Jaros, who the late News Tribune sports columnist Bruce Bennett called the grandfather of soccer in the Twin Ports, is looking back and reflecting on the golden anniversary of soccer in Duluth.
“It’s a miracle how it all started,” said Jaros, 65. “It’s like starting your own business and having that attitude where you know you’re going to make it because you’re willing to do whatever it takes to make it work. Now when I drive by all these soccer fields around town, I can’t believe it.”
wasn’t the case 50 years ago, when hockey rinks, baseball diamonds and football fields dominated the landscape. It was long before the term “soccer mom” entered the American lexicon, and the foreign soccer players weren’t always looked upon fondly.
Jaros is a Bosnian-born Pole who moved to America in 1960. Like most of his fellow European immigrants, he couldn’t speak English initially, but soccer was his international language.
“They were all foreigners, from Yugoslavia, Poland, Germany, Greece, Italy, all over,” Jaros said. “American kids didn’t understand that I didn’t know how to speak English and that I wasn’t a dummy. They asked me questions, and I had no idea what to tell them. Kids are kids and they started laughing at me. Soccer on that field was my out.”
At 15, Jaros was one of the youngest players as many adults competed. At first they used volleyballs because soccer balls were hard to come by and expensive (in Bosnia, Jaros played with a ball that was nothing more than a rag stuffed with cow hair and mud). Eventually, they had their own shirts made and crowds began gathering to watch their games.
The first locals to play were Duluth ski jumpers looking to stay in shape and members of the Duluth Air Force Base, who started joining in about 1967 when the team became part of a league that included Twin Cities’ teams. They even added a sponsor and were officially known as Jeno’s Jets starting in 1968.
“The Americans didn’t know the sport. They thought we were goofy,” Jaros said. “But they looked at us, and kept looking at us, because we got good. They’d say, ‘What is this?’ And we’d say, ‘Come on, try it.’”
Jaros’ English gradually improved and he worked as a television photographer from 1967-1973. His relationships with TV personalities Marsh Nelson and Bob Junkert helped him advertise his sport, often getting free publicity on the air and in print. Players would perform soccer tricks at halftime of Minnesota Duluth basketball games to fans that had never seen the sport. The advent of ESPN and the Internet was still years away.
Jaros coached the Twin Ports’ first high school soccer team at Duluth Cathedral in 1972, and when he left in 1973 after getting picked up by a semi-pro team in Salt Lake City, Bill Hoene helped the sport continue to grow for both boys and girls in his absence.
“I never knew that Americans were so much against this sport until I went to the City Hall and asked for a field,” Jaros said. “That was all we ever asked for, and we’d be told, ‘No, you guys are going to ruin these fields with those damn shoes you’re wearing.’ And that was it. We’d get kicked off the fields by baseball or football players and have to go play in a corner somewhere.”
Eventually they found new fields for the burgeoning sport, with Jaros crediting former Duluth Parks and Recreation director Harry Nash for embracing soccer and realizing it could coexist with traditional American sports like football and baseball.
Jaros returned to Duluth and has a long history as a bar owner in the Twin Ports and working with various charities. He currently lives in Superior, where he manages the Eagles Club. He is the younger brother of former News Tribune photographer Karl Jaros and state representative Mike Jaros.
What happened in Duluth reflected a cultural change across the U.S. as soccer, the world’s game, began making inroads.
While professional soccer might never be confused with the NFL in this country, the growth of the sport at the grassroots level has been nothing short of phenomenal as it continues to grow. The number of youth soccer players doubled from 1990 to 2010 alone, up to more than 4 million, according to the United States Soccer Federation.
Adam Jaros can take pride in that because he remembers how it used to be and how he helped change it. He still gets emotional talking about it. Jaros had a dream of making soccer acceptable to the masses, to be a sports option for boys and girls in this country just like it was in his, and then he went out and made that dream come true.
“I had that dream that there was something missing, but at the time, I didn’t know what it was,” Jaros said. “It was soccer. I just couldn’t understand the opposition to it. Why can’t the people play it? I’d lose sleep at night over it. ‘What am I doing wrong here? How come they don’t like this? Why don’t they like something I love?’ You have to grow up with it, and now kids in this country can.”
Jon Nowacki covers sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (218) 723-5305.