From the original San Jose Earthquakes of 40 years ago to today, players’ community relations have captured the essence of the franchise.
In the beginning, it was a hearty of group of Quakes, guys like Johnny Moore, Davie Kemp, Buzz and Mark Demling, Art Welch and Paul Child who served as player/ambassadors, youth instructors and salesmen for a sport few in the suburbs knew much about.
Players would socialize with fans at pubs after games, eat dinner at people's homes, conduct youth clinics galore, and make impromptu appearances at neighborhood soccer fields.
Today, Quakes players do more than 200 community appearances every year in the Bay Area - at schools, parks, and community events. They donate to charities and serve as role models.
“Our guys are out there every week, different players doing something in the community,” Community Relations Manager Alison Piergallini says. “That’s been around since the ‘70s.”
Superstar Chris Wondolowski, for one, contributes heavily to the “Get Earthquakes Fit” program designed to increase physical activity among students at Title I elementary schools, in partnership with Kaiser Permanente and other organizations.
“We’re basically trying to teach these kids how important it is to be healthy and fit. It’s the cornerstone of our mission statement,” Piergallini says. “At the end of each program, our players go to each school and give an assembly and congratulate the kids for the work they’ve done.”
Players tell the assembled students what it’s like to be a professional athlete and preach a healthy lifestyle.
“Everyone dreams of being a professional soccer player when they’re a kid, but we want these kids to associate healthy eating habits with that hero that they see,” Piergallini says.
Of course, the Quakes’ early heroes in the '70s, most of them transplants from abroad, also had to explain to people what soccer was all about. How do you convince folks weaned on home runs, slam dunks and touchdown passes to care about well-weighted passes and the symmetry of 11 players flowing in unison toward a common goal?
“When the NASL started, I think every team realized that it was a new sport in comparison to other sports here in America,” said ex-Earthquake Chris Dangerfield, the club’s radio voice. “They felt it was very important to go and educate people on the game. That was the grass roots of the whole thing. Some teams did it better than others, and the early forefathers of the Earthquakes back in the day really took it upon themselves to do a very good job of it.”
Dangerfield said there was a true lack of understanding of soccer here and what it meant to people in different countries. Americans didn’t see much soccer in the media for the longest time, except for Pele doing bicycle kicks on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”
And, what did "football" mean in Europe?
“In a lot of cases it was more important than and compared to religions,” Dangerfield says. “There were these famous managers, like Bill Shankly in Liverpool, who said football is not life and death; it’s far more important than that. That was the mentality of people that supported and played the game. It was fairly hard to get that across. Believe me, it got a little bit tiresome. I don’t know how many ‘Pele bicycle kicks’ you can do on a gymnasium floor before they start to hurt you a little bit.”
Nevertheless, the soccer promoting and the community relations have continued for four decades. Earthquakes Hall of Famer Troy Dayak, a current Earthquakes academy regional coach, has always held a close bond with fans. They can sense and relate to his passion for the sport. It's contagious.
“It was fun because I never really played for myself,” Dayak says. “I played for my team. I played for my family and for my fans. I felt that was a unique quality and connection between me and the fans, especially at Spartan Stadium, where you’re so close. I just loved to play there.”
He enjoyed being in the community as well.
“I did camps. I did school clinics. I did assemblies, pretty much anything they would ask me to do I would do...(even) birthday parties,” Dayak says. “Those are things people don’t forget. That’s a relationship where people realize that these are human beings. They may play professional soccer, but they also put it out in the public here with us.”
Piergallini feels Quakes’ fans' easy access to players on and off the field helps separate soccer from other professional sports. Fans see soccer players as being just like them.
Moreover, Wondolowski does remarkable work as a national ambassador for “Street Soccer USA,” a program which strives to integrate homeless people back into society. Life skills and job skills are emphasized, along with soccer skills and teamwork.
“It’s about learning those skills through soccer,” Piergallini says. “Every year Chris donates $100 per goal that he scores to the organization.”
Two years ago Wondo scored 27 goals, so he donated $2,700, a figure the club matched. But instead of just writing a check, he went to a SSUSA practice in a high school gym. He shared hugs and high-fives with the players, and played soccer with them.
“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” Piergallini said. “He’s just really committed to the organization. We have a lot of special guys like him on our team that do stuff like that.”
- Richter Media