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"Coach Mike" once played with the Rowdies.
By SHARY LYSSY MARSHALL, Times Correspondent
Published December 18, 2007
[Zach Boyden-Holmes | Times]
WESLEY CHAPEL - He's a funny, quick, soccer-loving coach who towers above his squealing kindergarten team. Teenagers like him too, because he knows a bit more than the average coach about getting the ball into the net.
But many of his kids have no clue that he used to be a world-famous soccer hero.
From 1975 through the mid 1980s, "Iron Mike" Connell was a mainstay of the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the newly formed North American Soccer League.
Imported from his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa, as his nation descended into civil conflict in the mid '70s, the 18-year-old sensation helped his team win the league championship in his rookie year. He would later play against international soccer legends like Pele and George Best.
On a recent afternoon, he had a group of kids pumped up to chase one another around the gym. And to bounce balloons. Connell includes activities to improve agility and coordination, areas he identified as weaknesses in his older students.
"Look!" a 5-year-old announced, wandering by to show off her new balloon trick. "I did it!"
As the kids practiced, "Coach Mike" watched them closely, gauging their speed andmotor control.
"You can do it," he said. "Look! Rylie scored!"
One of his most important lessons is what to do when someone scores a goal. Hug them, of course!
"We love Coach Mike," said parent Melody Bohannon. "He motivates them and has done a great job helping them build skills, while they think they are just having an amazing time."
Somehow, even students who don't score go home happy after their jam-packed soccer session.
Soccer Kids, part of the Unlimited Motion Academy at Sports and Field in Wesley Chapel, is modeled after the European soccer academies. That means fun and basic skills for the little kids; for older students, it is comprehensive and the expectations are high.
"Kids have to be ambitious," Connell said, "Not to want to be professional, but (they) must be ambitious to be better than what they are."
* * *
Connell will tell you that he sees the game of soccer differently than many adults. He feels the sport of soccer on an emotional level, and works to re-create his own childhood experience for other youngsters.
"Kids got together because they enjoyed the camaraderie and created a special bond through playing soccer," he said, recalling his upbringing in the British community of South Africa. "I want them to look at one another as valuable to each other."
But South Africa was a complicated place for an up-and-coming teenage soccer star. Its apartheid system had prompted an international boycott of its professional athletes, and able-bodied men were being enlisted to fight the nation's enemies at home and abroad.
Sports seemed like a better way to forge links between warring races and nations. So when the Tampa Bay Rowdies' coach visited on a recruitment trip, Connell jumped at the chance to play abroad.
"To me, the value of the game of soccer is the ability of one sport to unite many different cultures and value systems around the world," he said.
Alex Yannis, who covered the NASL for the New York Times in the 1970s and '80s, described Connell as the backbone of the Rowdies defense.
"He was so consistent," Yannis said, "He was, what they say in soccer, he came to play every game. He was an asset to the Rowdies in their glory days."
Today, he's an asset to youngsters seeking to learn soccer.
"My kids are so excited," said Julie Nelson, mother of twins McKinnley and Rylie. "They have learned not only the act of playing the sport, but being a good sport, too."
Some day, long after these kids have outgrown their green Soccer Kids shirts, many of Coach Mike's lessons may stick.
Jose Lozano, parent of 7-year-old Spencer, praised the program's focus on soccer skills.
"My son advanced with Mike," Lozano said. "He really teaches kids the basics."
Other parents appreciate his passion for the game and sportsmanship.
"He encourages each one of them to celebrate their victories and be proud of themselves when they achieve something as a team," parent Michelle Sissel said.
Those building blocks come together with the older kids Connell teaches, like the two high school girls he worked with on a recent evening.
As their shadows grew longer in the grass, the students practiced several specific steps over and over. The footwork was complex, like a dance.
"That's it!" Connell urged. "Concentrate! Feel it in your brain!"
Brittany Roberts, 14, has been working with Connell for about 18 months.
"He's unlike any trainer I've ever worked with before," she said. "The way you think about the game is totally different."
As the sun sank, Connell and his students continued their practice. Working as hard as his students, he alternated between encouragement - "You are doing everything perfect!" - and direction.
"Skip, bounce and run," he called out. "You are going to look different, think different, and be more in control of the ball. "I want you to understand the power of this."
Kayla Robinson, 15, imitated his movements, smiled, and raised her arms.
She got it.
To learn more
For information about Soccer Kids or Unlimited Motion Soccer Academy, call Mike Connell at (813) 948-5500 or e-mail himat firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified December 17, 2007, 21:01:54]