Goal Keeper – Shep Messing

by Adam Kluger

Editor’s Note:  Being a soccer goalie in high school was always fun and exciting. My Freshman year at Horace Mann, I was even voted All-City and had a wonderful coach named Richard Remsen along with so many terrific teammates over the years always making me look good.  As a teenager, I wanted to be like Shep Messing, the incredibly talented goalie for the world-famous New York Cosmos. All these years later I’m so excited to interview my sports hero, the legendary goalkeeper and broadcaster. -AK

Shep, what are some of your high school memories at Wheatley? You were quite the all-around athlete?

I played American football, basketball, wrestling, and at the same time track and field and baseball and it was really just unbelievable circumstances by all rights that I ended up having a place in soccer. I never saw a soccer ball till I was 16. The soccer coach came up to me and said I need a goalkeeper, I know you’ve never played but you are a shortstop in baseball you are a point guard in basketball and you are a little bit crazy, and so, I thought I would give it a try. I ended up going to NYU and I was a walk-on, I just walked onto the field and I was an All-American the first year. I ended up loving it and because I was an All-American in college, they invited me to try out for the Olympic team. I sprained my ankle playing basketball but I begged and pleaded and got a second tryout in St. Louis. I slept in the airport. I’ll never forget waking up at the airport and I picked up the newspaper and there was an article on the Olympic team and I had been named to it. Our Olympic team was a pioneering team with a bunch of kids and it was the first time the U.S. team had gone through qualifying and made it to the Olympics. So I graduated from Harvard in June, went to play in the Olympic games in Germany.

Tell me about the tragic Munich Games in 1972.

For me Adam, you go through life always not knowing what to expect. To actually get to the games and to Munich was one of the high points in my life. we were a bunch of college All-Americans playing against West Germany some professional players from Bayern Munich. My son tells me I have two  Olympic records, one for most saves ever made in a game, 63 saves– as well as the record for most goals allowed– which was seven (laughs). Still, the Olympic Games were a dream come true until I got a knock on my door at four o’clock in the morning. We were right across from the Israeli complex about 25 yards away. I opened my door and there were two German soldiers with machine guns and they said “, are you Shep Messing?” At first my instinct was to jump the bigger soldier because I grew up in the Bronx, I didn’t know what was happening but they showed me their police ids and said,”come with us,” and they took all the Jewish athletes on the U.S. team,  including Mark Spitz,  into protective custody. So, for 24 hours we were held in protective custody and we were only getting bits and pieces of what was going on… only that terrorists had attacked the village. We got all our information from television. How do you describe the horror to other people if you are Jewish? You can’t describe it.

Shep, what are some of your high school memories at Wheatley? You were quite the all-around athlete?

I played American football, basketball, wrestling, and at the same time track and field and baseball and it was really just unbelievable circumstances by all rights that I ended up having a place in soccer. I never saw a soccer ball till I was 16. The soccer coach came up to me and said I need a goalkeeper, I know you’ve never played but you are a shortstop in baseball you are a point guard in basketball and you are a little bit crazy, and so, I thought I would give it a try. I ended up going to NYU and I was a walk-on, I just walked onto the field and I was an All-American the first year. I ended up loving it and because I was an All-American in college, they invited me to try out for the Olympic team. I sprained my ankle playing basketball but I begged and pleaded and got a second tryout in St. Louis. I slept in the airport. I’ll never forget waking up at the airport and I picked up the newspaper and there was an article on the Olympic team and I had been named to it. Our Olympic team was a pioneering team with a bunch of kids and it was the first time the U.S. team had gone through qualifying and made it to the Olympics. So I graduated from Harvard in June, went to play in the Olympic games in Germany.

Tell me about the tragic Munich Games in 1972.

For me Adam, you go through life always not knowing what to expect. To actually get to the games and to Munich was one of the high points in my life. we were a bunch of college All-Americans playing against West Germany some professional players from Bayern Munich. My son tells me I have two  Olympic records, one for most saves ever made in a game, 63 saves– as well as the record for most goals allowed– which was seven (laughs). Still, the Olympic Games were a dream come true until I got a knock on my door at four o’clock in the morning. We were right across from the Israeli complex about 25 yards away. I opened my door and there were two German soldiers with machine guns and they said “, are you Shep Messing?” At first my instinct was to jump the bigger soldier because I grew up in the Bronx, I didn’t know what was happening but they showed me their police ids and said,”come with us,” and they took all the Jewish athletes on the U.S. team,  including Mark Spitz,  into protective custody. So, for 24 hours we were held in protective custody and we were only getting bits and pieces of what was going on… only that terrorists had attacked the village. We got all our information from television. How do you describe the horror to other people if you are Jewish? You can’t describe it.

How did you become Pele’s goalkeeper?

I got home from Munich and found out I had been drafted by a team I had never heard of called the New York Cosmos. I was drafted by the New York Mets too and I was enrolled to go to law school. I started at Fordham law and my father was a lawyer and I told my dad, “ I really want to play one more year of soccer, what do you think?” He said, “Shep the last thing we need is another lawyer…go play soccer.” (laugh) The Cosmos to me were just love until one day there was a helicopter and it flew over the field and it landed and the whole world changed for the New York Cosmos and professional soccer changed when Pele joined the team. We were getting, Adam,  maybe two thousand, twenty-five hundred fans at the game, and with Pele, two years after he had arrived,  we were playing at Giants Stadium in front of 77 thousand people. New York in the ‘70s was rock and roll, Studio 54, we were owned by Warner Communications, Warner Brothers and Steve Ross so every game there were sell-out crowds of 75 thousand people.  We would be whisked away in a limousine after the game to nightclubs in the city. At Studio 54 there was Robert Redford, Mick Jagger they were all fans of the team. They were at games and coming to the city for the parties after. And if you know New York in the ‘70’s it was financially broke there was a blackout, Son of Sam in 1977 and it’s kind of what sports can do,  it can take a city on its shoulders and raise spirits. I think the Cosmos, Pele’s final year when we were playing to sell-out crowds and winning the championship,  we were bigger than the Giants or the Jets or the Yankees or the Mets. We were the talk of the town in the New York Post, Daily News, magazine articles because of Pele and Beckenbauer and Chinaglia those guys were rock stars worldwide.

Was Pele the biggest name in sports at that time?

I’ll never forget I grew up and I loved Muhammad Ali and I went to all his fights and one day I went to the locker room in Giants Stadium and there’s Muhammad Ali he wanted to get into the locker room to meet Pele. Muhammad when he was outside he was being Muhammad Ali, joking and trash-talking, and then when he came into the locker room I was one of the few Americans on the Cosmos so I was like the social director so I brought Muhammad over to meet Pele and Muhammad was the most humble with his head down sayingto Pele, “ it’s an honor to meet you.” and then they became good friends. Muhammad used to joke around with Pele and say, “ hey, people tell me you’re more famous than me, I don’t believe it!” and Pele would say, “I think I’m more famous but you’re prettier.” They loved each other,  they hit it off.  I’m still good friends with Pele, we have a business together he still comes to New York all the time to see his grandkids. we have dinner. What’s still amazing to me Adam is that Cosmos team when I go to Europe I can walk into any stadium in Holland and Germany and England and just walk up to the VIP entrance, tell them I was the goalkeeper for Pele and they bring me right in. That team got national publicity.

Why were the New York Cosmos so special?

I grew up in the Bronx and we were like the Bronx Zoo, we had a bunch of characters. Chinaglia, god rest his soul, he was my friend but he would get in fights in the locker-room. One day at practice we were scrimmaging and Giorgio has the ball and Pele starts to make a run near him and Giorgio starts shouting at him, “get away from me you’re drawing a second defender,” I mean who says that to Pele? He yelled at Pele and he took a shot from like 45 yards out and Pele put his hands in the air like what are you doing shooting from out there and Giorgio starting yelling at Pele,” I’m Chinaglia I shoot from wherever I want to shoot from!” (laugh).  If you dream of anything in the sport, this was living the dream the Cosmos had a collection of guys, the owner Steve Ross, Warner Bros. Rock & Rollers want to be athletes, and those were the people coming to our games.

And Warner Bros. General Counsel Marty Payson would sign all the checks?    

The story goes that Steve Ross knew nothing about soccer.  So, again I signed with the team before Pele and I was making 150 dollars a week,  like a semi-pro league. So, when Steve started with the team he said he knew nothing about soccer so he asked,  “who is the greatest player in the world?” The answer was Pele. Well Steve didn’t know who Pele was but he got Payson and he put him on a plane and told him,” don’t come back until you sign Pele.” So, each time it was up to Payson. He was told, “go get Beckenbauer, put him on the corporate plane and don’t come back without Beckenbauer!” (laugh) So, Marty Payson was legendary. We all loved him.

You are a pioneering athlete and respected broadcaster.  What are you most proud of?

I’m  proud of what I did for American soccer. Harvard, the Olympics, and goalkeeper for Pele. I was proud to be the first American drafted out of the college draft and signed by the Cosmos. I was the first player on the team that qualified to go to the Olympic games.  I’m proud of joining MISL. I was the first player signed. I played on the New York Arrows.

With Steve Zungul another legendary goalscorer.

Yeah, my man Zungul. I’ll never forget how the crowd at the Coliseum called his name “Zunguuuuul!!”

You continue to be passionate about American soccer on your podcast and as a broadcaster. How important do you see your role as a sports ambassador?

I try to have a social conscience and moral compass. We would arrive in Rome and there would be 20,000 fans and Pele would sign autographs and every kid would ask Pele, “how do I become a great player?” and Pele would always say, “first you be a good person, don’t worry about being the best player in the world, you be a good person, do the right thing, and then if you love soccer that will come.”

Over  the last couple of decades name some  U.S soccer players who have caught your attention.

I’ll start with the women first because I am very proud of them and I was one of the first to have women soccer camps and I was actually on the committee that lobbied FIFA for women to have a World Cup in the 1980’s. So Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Briana Scurry in goal, I took so much pride in what they did by winning the World Cup because I knew some of them when they were just first becoming players and I still love the women’s national team and on the men’s side I liked Landon Donovan because he stuck to his convictions. He didn’t really want to play in Europe so he played most of his career here. I like Landon because he’s his own man. and of course Tim Howard is a favorite because I knew Tim when he was 18 years old and sitting on the bench for the MetroStars in New York and he would always come to me for guidance and what a great career he had. But the goalkeepers are a fraternity right? Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, Tony Meola, and Tim Howard are the four that stick out to me over the course of the last 30 years.

What does it take to be a great goalkeeper?

To me, the best you can be as a goalkeeper is a combination of a few things that I always tell kids and even told goalkeeper Tim Howard when he was 17. You have to have the physical tools, you have to be agile you have to have good hands you have to be able to jump you have to have good reflexes but you have to be tough because physically it’s a tough position. Aside from the physical tools, it’s all mental. It’s really Harvard physics, it’s all about angles and physics. You have to be able to anticipate the flight of the ball, you have to be able to cut down the angle. You have to be tranquil like you are taking yoga. You have to always be in command of the penalty area. The greatest goalkeepers in the world have the physical tools but it’s really the mental aspect of studying and analyzing and your brain is like a little computer chip and after you play so long at a high level, really there is nothing you haven’t seen so it’s anticipation and you want to be proactive you don’t want to be reactive.

Who is the greatest soccer player of all time?

For me, I can’t be objective about it Adam, it’s always Pele. I was told that I’ve played with or against five of the players who have been called the greatest soccer players of all time- Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, I was teammates with Eusebio, I played against Johan Cruyff but look, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are in every conversation and Maradona, but for me, it is always Pele. He had 360 peripheral vision. It wasn’t that his vertical leap was 5 inches higher than everybody, he defied gravity he was able to hang in the air longer than anybody and he had the ability to head the ball. Physically he was beyond belief but again it’s that genius you can’t quantify it. He just saw the play developing before it developed,  you know,  like a Wayne Gretsky in hockey. So for me, Pele is always.

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