By Jim Hague
It was the fall of 1961. Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Sean Hannity, Meg Ryan and Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers were all born. Ty Cobb and Ernest Hemingway died. “Stand By Me,” by Ben E. King, graced the top of the Billboard record charts. “West Side Story” swept the Oscars, including Best Picture.
And a dedicated Kearny man who had the game of soccer flowing through his veins decided to do something about teaching the kids of the area about the sport he loved.
Hugh O’Neill, Sr. noticed that a ton of Kearny youngsters were playing soccer, but without any guidance or supervision.
So with the help of the Recreation Director at the time, Sam Hagen, and a young man who had recently graduated from LaSalle University as a basketball All-American named Bill Raftery, decided to start a Kearny Recreation soccer league.
Raftery, who would go on to later become the head basketball coach at Seton Hall University and is now known for his work as a basketball analyst on television, had made a deal at the time with then-Kearny Mayor Joseph Healey while he was pursuing a career in pro basketball.
“When I graduated from LaSalle, I was made a supervisor in Kearny Recreation,” said Raftery, who was a three-sport (soccer, basketball and baseball) standout at the now-defunct St. Cecelia’s High School in Kearny. “I was at training camp with the (New York) Knicks, trying to make the team and I was able to keep both jobs. But if I got cut by the Knicks, I would turn my attention to recreation.”
So one of the first things Raftery did in his official business with his hometown was to help start this soccer league, with guys like Pete Carson and Hugh O’Neill Sr.
“We knew that the kids could play,” Raftery said. “Hughie was a special guy who loved the game, loved kids and knew the game. We all got together and started the league. We knew that the kids would be great. We just needed to give them the opportunity and the place to play.”
The elder O’Neill’s son, also named Hugh, remembered that his father named the first teams in the new Kearny Recreation soccer league after the all-time legends of the game that came from Kearny.
“There were teams named after Archie Clark, Bill Sheppell, Seamus O’Brien, Jim Hanna, Eddie Brown, John Kurziewicz,” the younger O’Neill recalled. “They all played on the United States national teams in the early World Cups and they were all from Kearny.”
The younger O’Neill recalled that the fledgling league had over 100 kids in its inception, but he wasn’t one of them.
“My dad wouldn’t let me play,” O’Neill said. “I was only seven years old and you had to be at least eight to play. My dad told me that I could hand out shirts and chase after the balls. It really made me hungry to play the game early on.”
Eventually, the local businesses came forward and helped to provide sponsorship for the league, as it continued to grow, prosper and flourish.
“If you didn’t play soccer at that time, you were not considered an athlete in Kearny,” Raftery said. “You had to play soccer. You had no choice.”
The younger O’Neill went on to have a great soccer career of his own, once he got a chance to play. He was one of the first American-born players to play professionally in the top divisions in Scotland, earning a spot with the famed Rangers. He also played for the North American Soccer League, the American Soccer League and the Major Indoor Soccer League. In 1981, O’Neill scored the game-winning goal as the Carolina Lightnin’ won the ASL title, defeating the New York United.
O’Neill was one of the famed alumni that came out of the Kearny Recreation soccer league. It was the first place where people like John Harkes and Tony Meola played, but also David D’Errico, Santiago Formoso, Eddie Austin, Gerry McKeown and Jim Harrison.
“We had some great coaches and league presidents,” O’Neill said. “Guys like Mike Gray, Tom Mara, Jose Torres, (the late) Pete McIntyre, Peter Miller and Rob Logan. We had thousands of kids gain college scholarships from out of that league.”
“There were so many kids who got a college education after playing in the league and they continued to play soccer right into adulthood,” Raftery said. “We just took advantage of what we had. It was a lot of resourcefulness in those days. Kearny was such a great place to grow up and how we all kept going was sports. Soccer was the main connection. I can’t remember many kids from Kearny who didn’t play soccer back then.”
O’Neill pointed out that the Kearny Recreation soccer league was formed long before the current staple of youth soccer, the Thistle program, was ever thought of.
“The Kearny Rec league started in 1961,” O’Neill said. “Thistle started in 1977. This was the breeding ground, where it all began.”
The Kearny Recreation league led to the formation of the Kearny United travel team in 1966, which was basically an All-Star team from the recreation league.
On Saturday afternoon, at 12:30 p.m., there will be a special presentation honoring the 50th anniversary of the Kearny Recreation soccer league.
O’Neill is asking anyone who was ever involved with the league to head back to the Gunnell Oval field house and take part in the festivities and reminiscence. Everyone is welcome to attend the presentations.
“Anyone who was a volunteer, a coach, someone who worked the field house, the directors, we want them all to come back,” O’Neill said. “We’re going to rededicate the field house and recognize the 50th anniversary.”
Raftery will take a break in his hectic schedule to be in attendance.
“It’s always nice to remember, but it’s even nicer to be remembered,” Raftery said. “I appreciated the fact that we had kids who already knew how to play, how to handle the ball, how to play the right way. They just had to be nurtured a little. I also applaud the efforts of the parents who knew what the game was about and supported us.”
Of all the integral people who were involved in the infant stages, one will be sorely missed. Hugh O’Neill Sr., one of the founding fathers of the league, died in 1982, a year after his son led Carolina to the ASL championship.
A plaque remains on the field house wall in memory of Hugh O’Neill Sr. His son will reflect on the efforts of his father on the 50th anniversary on Saturday.