Kyle Rote Jr. is headed to the hall of fame, but not the one his dad had hoped for.
Kyle’s dad was an All-American half-back, playing American football for Southern Methodist University. He was the NFL’s first overall draft pick, chosen by the New York Giants, in 1951. He went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL, making appearances in four pro-bowls.
Meanwhile his son was growing up in Texas excelling in football, baseball, and basketball. To keep in shape, he started playing soccer when he was 16.
When Rote Jr. started looking at colleges, a friend of his, Henry Davis, chose tiny University of the South in the mountains of Sewanee, Tennessee. That’s where Davis’s uncle was on the faculty. Rote, a high school football All-American, chose to accept a scholarship to Oklahoma State University and enrolled there in 1968.
Davis’s choice gained importance after Rote became disheartened with the training camp atmosphere of O.S.U. and was framed by teammates for stealing. He left the college to join Davis and the Sewanee soccer team. It was big news back then.
Rote succeeded within the young Sewanee soccer program and got noticed by NASL scouts. The Dallas Tornado drafted him as its first pick in 1972 with the intention of working with a local player, a novel idea among most NASL teams.
A year later he was named rookie of the year and led the league in scoring, the first American to do so in the 6-year-old NASL. Sports Illustrated labeled him the “Great American Hope” for soccer.
Two years later Rote was center stage when Pele joined the NASL. In the King’s first NASL match, his Cosmos met Rote and the Tornado in Dallas in front of 78,700 fans. The game was a metaphor for the sport’s struggle of foreign-versus-domestic players. With Dallas up 2-1, Pele scored to tie the game, where it ended.
Certainly soccer haters were thinking (a) Rote is an idiot for choosing soccer over football and (b) Rote is no longer an athlete since he plays soccer. After all, to many people, baseball, football, and basketball were the real team sports; everything else was for communists and men who liked men.
But Rote did soccer players a solid off the soccer field. He kicked ass when pitted against his father’s compatriots and the guys considered to be real athletes.
Rote proved his, thus soccer’s, superiority, via ABC’s “Superstars” competition. In 1973, he matched up with Americans from several sports to determine which of them was the best overall athlete. In 1974, he won the competition, competing against Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer, O.J. Simpson, John Havlicek, Franco Harris, Stan Smith, and other top athletes.
Rote showed the nation that soccer players were athletes, not just big-three rejects. In trying to repeat the feat in 1975, he finished third, but placed first again in 1976 and in 1977.
Had Rote never scored a goal, been named Rookie of the Year, or faced Pele, his success against other athletes merits his induction into the soccer hall of fame. Those victories told sports writers, high school football coaches, and parents of future soccer players that soccer players are athletes.
More than that, Rote’s successes made those folks realize that most professional soccer players are better athletes than the members of those “real” sports.