Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Hot Winter Nights" - Chapter 2A--The Players, Part 1

In my second installment of my Kansas City Comets tribute, I salute some of the players who made this whole thing happen in the first place.  Throughout the course of this post (and the next one), I will make mention of this YouTube video a few times, which I think you'll find highly enjoyable and for those of you not familiar with the K.C Comets phenomenon, highly educational.  Without further ado, please allow me to introduce YOUR Kansas City Comets!!!

Gino Schiraldi  Gino’s surname was misspelled in the inaugural 1981-82 Comets media guide (‘SCHIRLADI’), but little did anyone know then that he’d go on to become the man most associated with indoor soccer in Kansas City, and the only man to play for the original MISL Comets franchise throughout its entire existence from 1981-91.  Short and stocky with the funniest-looking knees you’ll ever see, Gino was a tenacious bulldog of a defender and the captain of the Comets for most of his tenure in K.C., and very active in the community off the field.  I met Gino several times over the years and he’s real nice guy, and I dearly miss his pizza establishment that he opened downtown back in the late ‘80s—Gino’s pizzas had the best-tasting bread crust I’ve ever had, as well as some tangy Italian sausage that had just the right amount of kick to it without being too spicy.  When the Comets folded in 1991, Gino received offers from some of the remaining then-MSL clubs, but to his credit, he did not want to leave K.C., and eventually signed on with the Kansas City Attack of the NPSL for their inaugural season in ’91-’92 before calling it a career, and his #2 was retired by the team.  I’m willing to bet there’s a pretty fair chance that Schiraldi will be involved with the new Missouri Comets franchise in some capacity as well.

Alan Mayer  One of the all-time great goalkeepers in indoor soccer history, and the only one with sense enough to wear rubberized headgear to protect his noggin from all the abuse goalies are known to take.  Alan’s nickname was “Kamikaze” because of his all-out reckless style of play, hence the need for the headgear.  Mayer had previously played on the evil 1982-83 championship San Diego Sockers team, going 30-10 in goal in the regular season and also served as the player/head coach of the short-lived Las Vegas Americans before arriving in Kansas City in 1985, becoming one of the most popular players on the squad.  Like so many other Comets players, Alan liked our area so much that once he got here, he decided to stay put, thus he relocated his family here permanently.  Mayer served as an assistant coach for the Kansas City Wizards for a while in the '90s, and he still works around town in the insurance business milieu.

Damir Haramina  My personal all-time favorite Comet, in part because his story just fascinated me, and partly because he kinda sorta looked like me back in the day in the face.  He came to America in the spring of ’85 at age 23 from Yugoslavia knowing only two words of English:  “Hello” and “Damir”.  He was also totally unfamiliar with the indoor game, having been raised on outdoor soccer back home, but by some fluky luck, he landed a spot on the Comets roster at the tail end of the ’84-’85 regular season.  Damir assimilated quite rapidly, and ended up scoring four goals in five games during the ’85 playoffs, including a game-winning OT goal against the arch-rival St. Louis Steamers (at the 2:16 mark of the video I mentioned above) and a game-tying goal that forced OT in the following series vs. San Diego.  Damir took English classes in his spare time in the off-season at one of our local community colleges and he lived in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, which is home to many Serbian/Slavic people, including teammate Boris Bandov, who became his mentor.  By the ’85-’86, da boy was one of the mainstays of the Comets offense, racking up 108 goals through the ’87-’88 season.

When I purchased my first Comets replica jersey in ‘86, I had it customized with “HARAMINA” and his #11 on the back—the first and only time I’ve done so with a jersey.  Said shirt also gained me the first nickname I ever had that actually stuck—“Haramina”—during my first radio gig at the “Mighty 1030”, KKJC in Blue Springs, MO.  We were a Comets radio affiliate and I proudly wore my uni constantly to work.  And because of my beloved jersey, I adopted 11 as my lucky number, which makes sense anyway since I was born on the 11th of June and 11 totally resembles my zodiac sign Gemini.  On the night of December 12, 1987 at a Comets game, my good friend Tom and I were sitting in the lower level stands at Kemper when some guy taps me on the shoulder and says, “I like your shirt.”  I turned around and was astounded to see the man himself, Damir Haramina, seated behind us!  He was sitting out that game with an injury and was taking in the game from the stands, which was not uncommon for Comets players to do when they were injured—unlike these pampered, overpaid yutzes in the NFL and NBA, et al, MISL players weren’t too good to mix with the peeples, and didn’t mind rubbing elbows with us peons at all.  Tom and I both shook hands with him and he seemed like a cool guy.

My favorite Damir moment was a Saturday night game on March 1, 1986 at Kemper vs. Tacoma that happened to be on ESPN in which he was suited-up but remained on the bench almost the entire game because of a nagging stomach muscle injury.  The game went into overtime and the Comets drew a foul that resulted in a restart at the top of the arc in front of the penalty area.  In a brilliant maneuver not quite two minutes into OT, head coach Rick Benben trotted Haramina out for the restart, and before you knew it, he scored on a nice feed from veteran Charlie Fajkus.  Essentially, the man played all of four seconds of the entire game, yet he scored the freakin’ game-winning goal!  After an injury-plagued 1988-89 season that limited Damir to three goals in 13 games, he had a falling-out with coach Dave Clements before ’89-’90 commenced.  Haramina had come to training camp out-of-shape, and evidently his work ethic wasn’t what it should have been at the time, so he was released and landed in San Diego for a season or two.  He also played for the Las Vegas team in the now-defunct Continental Indoor Soccer League before returning to Croatia in the ‘90s.
Pato Margetic  He only spent a season and a half here (sandwiched between two stints with the Chicago Sting), but “The Magic Man” was a favorite with the ladies because of his long blonde hair, and Pato could’ve passed for the late Randy Rhoads’ older brother, if he had one.  Pato was a native of Argentina and was oft-injured, and how he got around so well on those spindly legs of his is a mystery to me, but when Margetic (pronounced mar-HET-ic) was healthy, he was a prolific scorer.  My favorite Pato memory is the time during our front-row season ticket era when referee Gino DiPollito called a foul on him right in front of us and as Margetic started to protest, all of a sudden this big ol’ wad of drool comes out of his mouth.  DiPollito had already turned his back to him, so Pato quickly reached up and grabbed the wad of slobber and wiped it on DiPollito’s shirt tail without him ever realizing it!  "Dippo" was pretty clueless about most everything anyway, as I’ll detail later.  Pato later became player-coach of the Chicago Power of the NPSL and led them to a championship in 1990-91.

Kim Roentved  Now here’s a dude I want in my foxhole if I'm ever a soldier in a war.  Not only is he a natural-born leader, but he would fight and kick and scratch and grab to steal the ball away from his opponent and is one of those scrappy players who wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing his body to make a play.  Roentved (pronounced RUNT-ved) played in more games than anyone else in MISL history, and was the Bobby Orr of indoor soccer.  Not only was he an excellent defender, but Kim often played a major role in the offense as well—defenders aren’t supposed to average 24 goals a season!  He was the only defender in league history to amass more than 500 points (goals and assists combined).  A native of Denmark, “The Rocket” was a fan-favorite during his seven years with the Wichita Wings, playing alongside his older brother Per Roentved.  Sadly, Per suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that left him temporarily paralyzed on the left side of his body and was forced to retire early (he made a full recovery eventually).  When the Wings could no longer afford Kim’s salary, he moved up I-35 and joined the Comets in ’87 and was a stalwart of the franchise until the bitter end in ’91.  I’ll never forget when I attended the Comets’ final playoff game (and final game ever, period) in Cleveland in ’91, I was sitting in the front row at Richfield Coliseum toying with my camera during pre-game warmups, and Roentved spotted me in my Comets jersey and he came over and knocked on the Plexiglas and waved at me.  You think Manny Ramirez or A-Roid would do such a thing?  I think not...

My other favorite Rocket moment was when (at 7:31 of the video) he knocked Wichita badass defender Brad Smith right on his arse.  After the demise of the Comets, Roentved returned to play and coach for the Wings during their NPSL days in the ‘90s (with Smith as a teammate, oddly enough), then returned to play one season with the Kansas City Attack in 1998-99 (which I’d totally forgotten about until I revisited all this) before retiring as a player.  He has since remained in the K.C. area and opened a chain of import high-end Danish furniture stores in the Overland Park area, but I think they’ve since closed.  His son Cole—a spitting image of his old man—plays soccer at my alma mater, UMKC, and Kim was inducted into the Wichita Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.  Which begs the question, if Wichita has a Sports Hall of Fame, why the filth-flarn-filth doesn’t Kansas City have one yet?!?  But I digress.  I’m quite pleased to report that “The Rocket” will be head coach of the new Comets franchise that begins play this fall in nearby Independence.  Excellent choice, indeed.

Tasso Koutsoukos  One of the stars of the Comets’ early seasons and a fan favorite, Tasso was a native of Montreal, not Athens, thus making him sort of a Greek/French Canuck, and he manned the midfield for the Comets for a couple years in the mid-‘80s before being traded to Minnesota in 1985, then he returned to K.C. for another tour of duty in 1987.  Tasso scored the cataclysmic game-winning goal 1:22 into overtime in Game 3 of the 1985 playoffs vs. St. Louis, clinching the Comets’ first playoff series win in team history and finally getting them over the Steamer hump, after having struggled mightily against Team Steam in both the regular season and playoffs during their first three years of existence.  He also helped mentor young master Haramina upon his arrival here, and they often assisted on each other’s goals.

Enzo DiPede  K.C.’s first star goalkeeper and another fan favorite from the early days, Enzo was an original Comet who had played previously as back-up to the legendary Shep Messing on those champion New York Arrows teams from ’78-’80.  Born in Italy and raised in Toronto, DiPede (pronounced de-PAY-day) survived original Comets head coach Luis Dabo’s revolving personnel door in that first season where he seemingly fielded a different roster of players for every game, hence Dabo’s dismissal after the team stumbled out of the gate 2-9.  Enzo and fellow original Comet Gino Schiraldi became the best of friends and like Gino, Enzo went into the restaurant biz here in town and opened up Bagel Works in the heart of Westport.  And like so many other Comets, he still lives here in K.C.

Just as an aside, Dabo pretty much cooked his own goose before the Comets ever played a game, as he was busted for soliciting an undercover K.C. Police woman for prostitution on October 30, 1981—two weeks before the Comets' debut.  His excuse was he was merely "complimenting" the woman on her appearance.  Riiiiight...

Yilmaz Orhan  A native of Cyprus and an offensive force in the first two seasons of Comets history, Orhan scored 63 goals in basically a season-and-a-half.  "Yo” was a favorite of the ladies with his thick, wavy Gino Vanelli-ish hair and European good looks—that's him scoring at the 1:15 mark of the video.  Unfortunately, Orhan fell out of favor with a DUI arrest following the 1983 season and was released outright before joining the Memphis Americans, for whom he scored 49 goals in ’83-’84.  He then bounced around with other teams for a couple years, returning here for a cup of coffee in 1986, playing in five games with the Comets without scoring a point.  By that time, he was a mere shadow of the player he was in 1982-83, and never played in the MISL again after that.  Sad case of what might’ve been…

Plenty more to come in Chapter 2B, coming soon...

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