The View from the Top
A giant of American soccer and patriarch of one of Penn State’s most famous families, Walter Bahr has the best seats in the house. By Ryan Jones ’95
The living legend is there like always, watching from the top row. It’s a good view. The elevation allows him to see the game develop, and he appreciates the distance from the coaches on the opposite sideline. “Like any spectator, you pay your admission, you’re allowed to help coach the team,” Walter Bahr says with a smile. “No, I purposely stay away. Nothing worse than a retired coach hanging around.”
He doesn’t hang around in any active sense; he doesn’t impose. He’s simply there. He watches quietly, his expression largely unchanged by goals or near-misses or the players’ vocal protests or their melodramatic dives. He sits in the top row with his wife of nearly seven decades. Every time, the same spot. They rarely miss a game.
On this night, a cool Tuesday evening in mid-September, they are among a few hundred diehards on hand for a men’s game at Jeffrey Field. They watch the men, the team he coached for 14 seasons, and they’ll come to watch the women’s program that didn’t exist until a few years after he retired. Walter wears a thick black parka with the Oakland Raiders shield on the chest, a reminder of the sons who turned their strong legs and soccer training into NFL careers. His wife, Davies, wears a cozy blue and gray sweatshirt with a Nittany Lion logo.
For a big game, or on a weekend when former players come back to town, they might draw a small crowd. But on nights like this, a sparse crowd for a midweek game against a non-conference opponent, there’s no one sitting within 50 feet of them. But if you make your way over, they are happy to share their space, and happy to talk.
Davies is 87, Walter 86. They have plenty to share.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Soccer federation celebrated its centennial, and the party was well-timed. America’s historical reluctance to fully embrace the game is fading: The U.S. men surprised no one last month when they qualified convincingly for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; Major League Soccer, where nearly every team now plays in its own soccer-specific stadium, continues its steady growth; and European league matches pull ever higher TV ratings on this side of the Atlantic. There is no more novelty. There is only a nation catching up to the rest of the world.
The first century of American soccer can be distilled to a handful of iconic moments, and none is more iconic than the one virtually no American saw—or cared about—at the time. Sixty-three years ago, in the scoreless first half of a game played in a Brazilian mining town, Walter Bahr kicked a ball toward the English goal. A teammate dove to give it the slightest of deflections with his head. The ball bounded in, the lead held for the better part of an hour, and Bahr and his teammates were celebrated by the residents of Belo Horizonte for pulling off the greatest upset in World Cup history.
Bahr was an Olympian in 1948, and he went on to play in the seminal professional leagues that thrived in the Northeast before and after World War II. And he was good: a captain of the U.S. national team and a regular in exhibition games against top touring European sides, he was once singled out for praise by a Scottish star who said Bahr was talented enough to play for any top side in the U.K. When his playing days were done, he coached semi-pro and high school teams (while also teaching high school phys-ed classes) in and around his native Philadelphia. In 1970, he took over as head coach at Temple, his alma mater; in 1974, he came to Penn State. Fourteen years, 12 NCAA tournament appearances, and 185 wins later, he retired.
Even then, he remained happily linked to the game. His oldest son, Casey, was an All-American at Navy, played in the ’72 Olympics, and went on to a brief professional career. Next came Chris ’75, an All-American in soccer and football at Penn State, the 1975 North American Soccer League rookie of the year, and for 14 years an NFL placekicker. Matt ’79 also starred on both fields, earning All-American notice in football, briefly playing pro soccer, and winning two Super Bowls in a 17-year career.
College soccer wasn’t an option for daughter Davies Ann ’81. She became an All-American gymnast instead.
The elder Davies, the family matriarch, has a line handy when it comes to bragging about her athletic family. “Everybody in my family was an All-American,” she says. “I wasn’t even all-block.”
It’s a great line, but Davies sells herself short. A longtime faculty member in Health & Human Development, she’s been involved in sports as a teacher, administrator, and advocate for nearly as long as her husband; she watches the game with an informed eye. When a player goes down in a heap, it’s Walter who is diplomatic.
“They go down a lot easier now.”
Davies leans forward. “They dive.”
“Get off the field under your own power,” Walter says. “That was an unwritten rule.”
It goes on like this, Walter reminding Davies to watch junior defender Eli Dennis, whose father, Greg ’83, played for Walter three decades earlier, or Davies telling how she and Walter met in a dance class as undergrads at Temple. “We were both phys-ed,” Walter says. “Had to know how to waltz, jitterbug, fox trot.”
“Tomorrow we’re celebrating our 67th wedding anniversary,” Davies says. I ask if they’ve made any plans. She says no. “It’s always during soccer season.”
There is nothing new to report where Walter Bahr is concerned. He has been retired for a quarter century, and his famous sons have long since hung up their cleats. If this story is in any way timely, it is only in its tangential relationship to bigger stories about the growth of the game in America, and the fact that the U.S. men are once again making plans for a World Cup trip to Brazil. Those stories beg a recognition of history, and as one of only two surviving members of that 1950 team, Bahr’s relevance speaks for itself.
(And while we’re talking history, relevance, and links to the past: The 1950 World Cup squad was coached by Bill Jeffrey, who also coached Penn State to nine national championships between 1926–52. Two decades after Jeffrey retired, Bahr took over at Penn State, where he coached Greg Dennis, whose son Bahr watches now in a stadium named after Bill Jeffrey.)
Bahr was born in Philadelphia on the eve of the Depression, came up in the working-class neighborhoods of Kensington, in the shadow of the textile mills. The kids played what he calls an “industrial game” on fields that barely qualified as such. “I’ve still got cinders in my hands from when I played,” he says, looking out at the pristine expanse of Jeffrey Field. “We never played on a field like this.”
“Did you tell him about the leather ball?” Davies asks. “When it got wet? It was like a medicine ball.”
“There were a lot of dirt fields. You’d have tons of mud caked on,” Walter says. “They didn’t have any material that the mud wouldn’t cling to it. The only way to get the ball up in the air was to toe it. They hurt.”
“I didn’t realize how heavy it was, until I was outside the stadium on a rainy day,” Davies says. “The ball came out, and I lifted it up … I couldn’t believe it.”
Down on the field, the lightweight ball with the smooth, synthetic surface pings and rolls over a field of immaculately maintained grass.
It’s not only here that he watches. Walter Bahr keeps tabs on the modern game, on the Americans home and abroad. He has opinions. “Dempsey,” he says, picking out the dynamic U.S. goalscorer, “he’s a dangerous player, he reads things well, but he’s in and out of games for a long time.” Or the continental game: “I like watching Barcelona play,” he says, “but sometimes it gets boring.”
He’s isn’t cranky or critical; he’s simply skeptical of what he sees as misguided trends. He and Davies lament the increasing specialization among young athletes, knowing how well their own children did by playing more than one sport. He thinks increased TV coverage is a mixed blessing, promoting the game even as it promotes the theatrical behavior of players who crash to earth at the hint of contact. Maybe more than anything, he sees too much coaching. “Kids should be on the playground, having pickup games, learning how to handle themselves when somebody’s kicking the crap out of them,” he says. “Once a coach shows up, the learning stops.”
Mostly, he thinks we make the game more complicated than it needs to be. And this reminds him of a story:
Matt Busby was the coach of Manchester United. I played against them a half a dozen times. In fact, I had a chance to go back with ’em at one time—nothing serious, as far as getting down the money. I had just gotten married and we had had our first child, and the money was 12 pound a week … There was no money in soccer. They traded players like they traded horses.
But Matt Busby used to say all the time—I used to ask him after the games, we’d go back to the club and have a beer and a sandwich, and I said, “Do you have any kind of a system?” He said, “Well, not really.” He said, “When we have the ball, we want all 10 players on the other side of half field. When we’re defending, I want all the players in the back.” And that’s about as complicated as he got. Every new system they come out with, they’re just calling things a new name.
Matt Busby is one of the legendary names of British soccer: long-time manager of Man United, name-checked by the Beatles and knighted by the Queen. Walter Bahr’s resume doesn’t quite stack up to that, but he can share a memory of having a beer and a sandwich with the man, if only to help make a point.
Keep it simple. It doesn’t seem so complicated on a cool Tuesday evening, the sun settling in over the low hills, the sky a horizontal stack of colors beyond Park Avenue. Here, you can sit quietly in the top row with your wife, watching a game you played and coached and that you quietly helped build, even if you didn’t know it at the time.