George Brown, part of the only father-son tandem in the Hall of Fame, has a lot to say about U.S. soccer history, the National Soccer Hall of Fame, and playing soccer around the world. After signing and playing with a professional team at the age of 15, when he played in the Connecticut State Amateur League, George Brown played for the New York Americans, German Hungarians, and Polish Falcons. After his retirement, through his job with Exxon, he was able to travel across the world, including to the Middle East, Africa, Canada, and all over the United States. Not only did he coach soccer in many of these countries, but he played as well, often joining his neighbors for a rousing street soccer session after a hard day’s work. Today, Brown serves on the Board of the Directors at the Hall of Fame, and his wife works in the Hall’s archives department.
You are very active in the Hall of Fame, serving on the Board of Directors. Can you talk about your responsibilities and activities?
I’m on the Board, and I serve as the Secretary of the Board. I joined the board around 2001, and I’m a member of the Finance committee, and I’m the chair of the eligibility and awards committee, which is the policy committee. I’m also the editor of the Hall of Fame newsletter, which is name the Hall of Famer. My wife is also a volunteer, a much more dedicated volunteer than myself, and has been working in the archives collection for three years. She goes in almost every day, for about 3 to 4 hours. She works very hard, and is a regular. What we’ve found since coming here from Canada, from Nova Scotia, in 1999 is that our involvement means I get to see my old teammates from the 1950’s pretty regularly when they stop by the Hall. On an annual basis, we host an exclusive reception and cocktail party, called ‘The Liars Retreat’ (laughs). It’s a party just for hall of famers, and once in a while we’ll invite a special guest. It’s a great gathering and blending of generations. One of my dearest friends is 83 and played in the 1930s. So, we cover players from the 30’s until the late 80’s and early 90’s. I stay closely in touch with all of the famers by telephone. It was mixed bag before, in that there was little communication. Today, what we’ve done under Jack Huckel is that we sat down and agreed that we needed to bridge the gap. That’s why I’ve started the newsletter, and in only about 3 years we’ve expanded to 1,200 people from 80 people. It keeps people informed. But because we’ve stayed in communication, more and more famers are coming back every year. There were 25 last year, and there’s typically between 10 to 20. They do come back and they’re treated royally. It’s good for them, especially the older ones, whose names don’t resonate in the public. It gives them a good feeling.
You played on many teams in your day. What was your most valuable experience as a player?
Perhaps the most valuable time I spent was when I first started playing as an amateur, I was 13 or 14, and played with my father. He and I played together, on the same team, for two years. I played right alongside him. He never coached me, ever, so I learned from playing with him, from his example. When I had my run-out with the New York Americans and was fired, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, because the GASL (German American Soccer League) was the equivalent of the ASL (American Soccer League), but it was very ethnic. They had a first team reserve team, whereby the young players could move through the system, but I went into their first division team. The result was a congenial family atmosphere. It was very family oriented, as opposed to the ASL, which was not as familial. The German-Hungarians hosted a party at a special bar and restaurant after every game, with a great spread of food and a lot of camaraderie. I was fortunate enough to play alongside along other talented fellows like John Sousa, from the 1950 Cup team that beat England. He played on the inside to my wing. We scored a lot of goals together. There were other famous players for that team as well, like Walter Bahr and Joe Maca. I had the opportunity to play with top professionals. I got bored after some number of years, and there was a young Polish team that had came on to the scene in New Jersey, so I decided I wanted a change. So I jumped back into the ASL and played for the Polish Falcons. On this team was the same type of camaraderie as in the GASL. There were some of us who were on the national team, and two of us were on the team at the same time, Gene Grabowski and myself.
Can you describe those early leagues a little more?
It was a strange setup. It was pure ethnic sandlot, similar to the early days of the NFL (National Football League). We were actually getting paid as much as NFL players in the early 50’s; we got 25 dollars a game. The fields were unbelievably bad. There was one time when I was married, going to school, and having trouble making ends meet. The club owed me for eight games and hadn’t paid me. We went to play in a Cup match, but I refused to go on field until I was paid. I sat, ready to play, but without my boots on. I told them I wouldn’t play unless they came up with the money. They went around the crowd with a hat, and brought over a bag with about 250 dollars in it! Those were sandlot days. The teams themselves were nowhere near the quality of today, there was no training or practice. The individual players, yes, they were as talented as individuals today, but teams, no. I never went to a training session. I practiced by myself, traveled to meet the team, and we played. The quality of equipment and fitness level was a lot lower than it is today. But some of those players could have played anywhere in the world at that time.
You’ve also served as a coach for youth soccer teams. Can you talk about the growth of youth soccer in this century and how the youth soccer movement is impacting the soccer world as a whole?
My active career was really quite short. I played from age 14, around 1951, then in 1958, I played in two separate leagues for a time, and then I went into the army for two years. When I came out, I was to go on scholarship to college in Connecticut, but I couldn’t play when they attempted to claim me as a professional. Basically, I quit the game, and never played again after 1962. But by that time I was well on my way to finishing college, and I was the first in my family to go to college. So, what happened was, I joined Exxon, doing psychological research for them. I got a Master’s at Columbia, and then I proceeded to move around the world. I was in Libya during the revolution, and I used to play street soccer there with Libyans. Then, back to the States, in various places like Texas, where I helped form a soccer association, then to Colorado, where I did the same thing. Then, back to Houston, where I played and coached again, and then to New Jersey, where I also got involved in their very successful program. We moved to Saudi Arabia, where I coached, and then back to the States and then to Egypt, where I coached kids for a year, and to Kuwait, where I played street soccer again. Finally, we moved to Canada, where I coached a rural, fisherman’s daughters high school soccer team, and we won a provincial championship. I always coached my own kids, both in the States and abroad, and my daughter in particular was a very determined player. She played in co-ed leagues, and ended up refereeing in New Jersey. She’s now a teacher in Jersey. I coached and played with them, but I didn’t interfere.
Can you talk about the impact your father had on you as a soccer player?
When he played in Uruguay for the first World Cup in 1930, the team was gone for three months. They went by boat, and it was 14 days down, 14 days back. They received 300 dollars cash and a new suit of clothes. He had a huge scrapbook that my mother kept for him, including memorabilia from Europe. He played for Manchester United. They moved back up to Scotland because of the war in 1939, and put all of their belongings in a shed with the idea they’d have it shipped down later. They just brought the essentials, including the medals from the first World Cup, some shorts, the team photo, etc. It was good that she did bring those because one of the D2 rockets hit dead center on that shed and destroyed all of his memorabilia. We were able to salvage some of it, and I carried it around the world. When they put the Hall up, I was able to donate it and put it up on display.
Any final thoughts?
I’d just like to say a bit about the Soccer Hall of Fame. The Hall is a concept that has been in place since 1950. As a physical entity, it has been in place since 1979, at first in temporary locations. For a period of 10-15 years, it was housed in a storefront in Oneonta that was 3,000 square feet. They ran into financial problems. In 1997 it was touch-and-go, and at that point a group of businessmen stepped in and raised over 8 million dollars in 18 months and built this brand new beautiful building in four months, from start to finish, in 1999. It was an incredible experience. What they’ve done now is amazing. We’re now developing a national image. They’ve done so well. With the October inductions coming up, for the first time ever, there will be an MLS game at the inductions with the Metrostars playing the Fire, a hot rivalry. And, we have three icons being inducted, the fourth woman inducted in Michelle Akers along with Wynalda and Caligiuri. Every year, exposure is getting broader and higher. I’m really excited, but we still need support. It takes time to develop a national icon, but I think we’re doing a good job.