NOT ON HIS RADAR: Wall of Famer Lewis didn't want to cover soccer or the Lancers, but the soccer gods had other ideas
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Growing up as a sports-crazed sports fan on Long Island, Michael Lewis followed the local baseball, football, basketball and hockey teams religiously.
Soccer? Not on his radar.
In fact, when he became a sportswriter at his first job at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1974, the only team he did not want to cover was the Rochester Lancers.
"I wasn't familiar with soccer's rules and the game itself. The Lancers did not exactly have the best of reputations at the time," Lewis said. "But I guess the soccer gods had other plans for me."
On a cold wintry January night in 1975, Lewis was called over to the desk of D&C assistant sports editor Bill Parker.
"There was a stack of files as he talked about how encouraged the editors were of my work and that they wanted me to cover the Lancers," Lewis said. "All I wanted to do is push the files and say, 'No thanks.' But I didn't. I was still on probation and I didn't want my ruin my chances of a sports-writing career. I didn't realize it at the time, it turned out to be the best professional decision I ever made."
Lewis wound up covering the Lancers for six years, the Rochester Flash for another three before continuing his soccer career in the New York City area.
Lewis will be one of 20 individuals who will be inducted into the Lancers indoor Wall of Fame at halftime of Rochester’s Major Arena Soccer League game against the Baltimore Blast at the Dome Arena in Henrietta, N.Y. on Friday, Jan. 31 at 7 p.m
"It is a great honor and humbling to be chosen," said Lewis, who is also a member of the Lancers Wall of Fame that honors the original team. "To be on the list of so many people who have put their heart and soul into the team is amazing."
As it turns out, the first soccer game Lewis covered in Rochester was of the indoor variety in one of the North American Soccer League regional tournaments on Feb. 6, 1975. The Lancers lost to the Boston Minutemen, 4-3, after the New York Cosmos beat the Hartford Bicentennials in the opening game of the doubleheader at the Blue Cross Arena (then known as the War Memorial), 6-4, as future Lancer Fred Grgurev scored twice. The Lancers topped the Cosmos and two nights later, 8-7. New York won the tournament on goal differential.
Lewis had a second encounter with indoors on March 29 of that year as the Lancers were defeated by the Toronto Metros-Croatia in the International Soccer Cup, 10-7, before 2,562 at the War Memorial.
"There are two things that I remember about that game and they occurred afterwards," he said. "A few Toronto players go a hold of a small program from the game and they didn't like the fact they were called the Metros in it. They claimed the team was called the Metros-Croatia. I was astounded why an ethnic name would be part of a team in a national league. When I spoke with Lancers forward Tommy Ord, I had trouble understanding his cockney accent and he spoke English! I said to myself, 'If I couldn't understand his English, how could I have a chance of figuring out players with heavier accents had to say?' I thought I would be in a for a long season, but it worked out fine.”
Lewis admitted his early soccer stories weren’t exactly Pulitzer Prize winning stories, as he put it.
“I cringe just a bit when I look back at some of them,” he said. "I look back at my Lancers' experience as a great education. Back in the day, there was no internet, only a handful of soccer publications available in the United States, very few books and virtually no soccer on TV, which left me quite hungry to learn the game. And I got an opportunity to interview some of the greats of the game, one-on-one. That includes Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Gordon Banks, among others.
"Soccer opened up the world to me. I have been able to travel the United States and the globe, writing about memorable matches and personalities. I have met so many people that that have affected my life and gave me many friends throughout the world, including ones I still have in Rochester. Rochester Rhinos games and Lancers game and reunions have given me an excuse to return to the city many times.”
Lewis admitted he didn't truly embrace the sport and feel comfortable with it until his third season covering the Lancers.
"Nuri Sabuncu, one of the Lancers' owners, once said that once soccer gets into your blood, you could never get it out of you. He was absolutely right," he said.
After leaving Rochester, Lewis went onto cover soccer with the New York Daily News for 22 years and helped create BigAppleSoccer.com and was editor of Soccer Magazine. He currently is the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com and has covered the sport for many publications and websites. He has written seven books about soccer, including four on the World Cup and Soccer For Dummies.
He has returned to Rochester many times for Lancers reunions. When the Lancers were resurrected in 2011, Lewis attended the first home game at the BCA and has witnessed several more games in Rochester in person since.
"When I heard the Lancers were back in 2011, I could not have been happier," he said. "I was excited that the brand was revived in a 21st century version of the club.
"I give SoccerSam [Fantauzzo, the team owner] so much credit for making the audacious decision to bring back the Lancers. The team always will always be close to my heart."
Lewis, who lives on Long Island with his wife Joy, is completing a book about the history of the original Lancers.