When my friends and I gathered in the Bates School gymnasium for our first-ever soccer tryouts in the spring of 1974, we were stunned to observe that coaches had failed to set up an obstacle course. As 9-year-olds in the mid-1970s, our pre-adolescent understanding was simple: Any athletic activity worth a damn required an obstacle course. Without one, we reasoned, how exactly could the nascent Wellesley United Soccer Club hope to parse the athletic attributes of all these kids?
We had developed this nuanced understanding of athletic hierarchies on account of a single and singular cultural happening: Superstars. This made-for-TV decathlon captivated youth soccer players especially, on account of Kyle Rote Jr. having claimed the 1974 Superstars “title”. Indeed, the American-born striker, who then toiled for the Dallas Tornado of the North American Soccer League, won three of four individual Superstars competitions, starting in 1974.
Former Boston Globe soccer columnist Frank Dell’apa, who is kindly working his way through a review copy of my new book, Generation Zero, is the fellow who shared the archival news clipping above. His point is well taken: 9 year olds weren’t the only ones obsessed with Superstars-style competitions during the ever-so-brief Ford Administration. In 1975, the Hub apparently staged its very own knock-off decathlon featuring a raft of local sporting celebrities, including Patriot scat-back Mack Herron and Celtics guard Jo Jo White. And yet, when the dust cleared, it was another American-born soccer player — Benny Brewster of the NASL Boston Minutemen — who walked away the winner.
There existed a lot of soccer haters back in the mid-1970s. Kyle Rote Jr. and Benny Brewster rammed a lot of their derisive language straight back down their throats.
Superstars first burst into the American sporting consciousness during the winter of 1973, only a few months after the Munich Summer Olympiad, when perennial third-place network ABC collected prominent athletes to compete in a sort of nontraditional, made-for-TV event. The inevitable denouement of said competition? Always the obstacle course.
Eventually, the popularity of Superstars would trigger an avalanche of even schlockier competitions, all of them presented on ABC: Battle of the Network Stars (hosted by none other than Howard Cosell), for example, and Team Superstars, which pitted the reigning World Series champions against reigning Super Bowl champions in events like outrigger canoe races, tugs of war on the beach, and, of course, obstacle courses. Reigning NASL champions? Not invited.
Figure-skating commentator and former Olympian Dick Button, of all people, was the man behind the Superstars concept, and its appeal wasn’t entirely schlock-based: Following the 1972 Munich Games, an authentic Olympic fever had been loosed in the land. It would ultimately canonize the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Dwight Stones and Bruce Jenner following the 1976 Summer Olympiad. So, it was no surprise that this down-market decathlon quickly grew into an American TV phenomenon. Fittingly, the inaugural event had been claimed by a former Olympian: pole-vaulter Bob Seagren (who would later cross over into acting by playing Billy Crystal’s gay lover on the quite-racy-for-its-time sitcom Soap).
Youth soccer revolutionaries paid particular attention starting in 1974, when Kyle Rote Jr. started winning Superstars with regularity — striking a blow for alleged pussies in knee socks everywhere — at the expense of more famous athletes in all the major sports. Soccer players in the Seventies took a lot of shit for choosing to participate in this outlying activity over American football in the fall, and/or baseball in the spring. Incipient manhoods were questioned. “Why don’t you play an American sport?” others asked, rhetorically.
No figure during the 1970s did more to answer them, demonstrably, with such visibility, than Kyle Rote, Jr.
In a different time and place, Rote would have been a great story for his on-field prowess alone. He was, in fact, the NASL’s first American-born “skill player” of consequence. Most of the league’s quota-filling, U.S.-born players were grunts playing left back (Brewster) or goalies (Shep Messing). By contrast, this long-waisted, toothy 20something — the son of New York Football Giants star Kyle Rote — was a striker, and a prolific one. In 1973, his rookie season with the Dallas Tornado, he led the NASL in scoring.
While Rote was a legit-if-one-dimensional offensive sensation, it would take a trashy bit of mass-market, sports-entertainment programming to convey his obvious physical gifts, and those of all soccer players, to the wider culture.
“Yeah, that was big for me,” Soccer America editor Mike Woitalla says, in the pages of Generation Zero. Woitalla, myself and every member of the 1990 U.S. Men’s National team, the narrative starts of GZ, were all born between 1963 and 1969. “When I was playing in the Seventies, soccer was still considered a foreign sport. I can’t really overstate that, or how happy the Superstars thing made me, made all of us — because we were playing when people didn’t really know what soccer was. It was not a sport certainly that got a lot of respect. To have him win the Superstars was just a huge affirmation.
“I can remember Kyle Rote from the Tornado games I went to, as well. So I looked up to him in the way other kids latched onto Americans in NASL. But yeah, the Superstars thing was huge. Kyle Rote was already famous in Dallas because of his father. He wasn’t a great player, but Ron Newman [Rote’s British-born Tornado teammate] was brilliant. He figured out that if he hit him a good cross, Rote could score on headers.”
It’s hard to pin down the actual popularity of anything on television in the pre-cable Seventies, a period featuring just three network channels, no cable and a bunch of UHF stations showing reruns of Fifties sitcoms alongside even more archaic content like Little Rascals, The Three Stooges, Felix the Cat and The Bowery Boys. The sheer paucity of channel options resulted in massive/lucrative Nielsen ratings that stemmed from Americans having literally nothing else to watch.
Sensing it had stumbled upon something with genuine appeal, ABC soon took Superstars and its cousins to new levels. In 1975, the network produced Almost Anything Goes, a proto-reality show where regular folks, representing different towns across the country, competed against other municipalities in ridiculous team events: blindfolded pie-throwing, relay races centered on bagging groceries, and the obligatory obstacle course. The show lasted only one season, but it did spawn the inevitable All-Star Anything Goes, wherein one memorable 1977 episode pitted the New Mouseketeers against the cast of Little House on the Prairie.
Only the 1970s, with their pervasive moods of cynicism and farce, could have fueled such a cornucopia of lowbrow, derivative television content.
Then, in 1978, the network maxed out by creating and airing The Rock ‘n Roll Sports Classic, another Superstars-style team competition knocked off to include a preposterous agglomeration of pop figures. Those waiting patiently for soccer-relevant information, see here: The Classic featured an obstacle course, naturally, but also a penalty shootout pitting Rod Stewart against Richard Tandy, keyboardist from the Electric Light Orchestra. The young Rod Stewart had reportedly earned a trial with the English club Brentford F.C., and he unmercifully trash-talked Tandy, who, I was disappointed to see, didn’t show up for the shootout wearing one of the super-cool ELO sweat suit tops worn by Jeff Lynne and the boys on the back cover of A New World Record — the first LP I ever bought with my own money. “He’s gonna get really beat,” the former Faces front man boasted to host Ed McMahon ahead of the encounter. “He can’t play football.” Tandy skied the deciding kick over the bar.
Bearing in mind the suspect nature of the era’s television-entertainment universe, perhaps it is less surprising that Superstars resonated so hugely with our pre-pubescent demographic. Yet God help us: My friends and I would have watched it anyway, religiously — even if Kyle Rote Jr. had not won three out of four. As it happens, however, he did. This proved conclusively and for all time what superb all-around athletes soccer players truly are, and how recognizably American soccer players could be.