A Trip for the Storybooks: Part 2
In January 1992, 30 years ago this month, sportswriter Michael Lewis went on a record-setting trip with the Harrisburg Heat as the National Premier Soccer League team played three road games in some 48 hours. They became the first NPSL team win three away matches in as many days. This is Lewis' account of the trip, on and off the bus and field.
This story was originally published in the Jan. 30, 1992 edition of Soccer Week, a publication that covered the sport in the New York/New Jersey area.
Second of two parts
By Michael Lewis
After the Harrisburg Heat filled the net, defeating the Canton Invaders, 17-10, the team faces another challenge: filling the players’ stomachs.
Canton, Ohio - Jan.10 - 10:24 p.m.
There's little time for a postgame dinner celebration because Detroit beckons due to the game's afternoon start. Getting to the Motor City ASAP is the top priority.
Remember that Wendy's coach Jim Pollihan talked about on Thursday? It's closed. That's right; closed on Friday night before 10 p.m. So, the team needs to scout out another fast-food place soon en route to Detroit.
Another Wendy's is found, and 25 people descend upon this restaurant only 15 minutes before closing. On the road. the players eating habits aren't the greatest, but a $15 per diem can only take you so far.
"I'm not always happy [with the way some of the players eat]," Pollihan says. "Unless we're providing them with meals, I can't tell them to eat fruit for breakfast. The players don't make a lot of money. A lot of them have only one coat."
Saturday, Jan. 11 - Somewhere on Interstate 80 - North central Ohio - Midnight
Major League is finally finished.
Somewhere on Interstate Interstate - Northwestern Ohio - 1:27 a.m.
A sign says that Detroit is 64 miles away. Several minutes later, another sign proclaims that Detroit is 72 miles away. "Hey, wait a minute," Pollihan says.
No problem. The Heat is in good hands with Earl Comp, the bus driver. Comp, 57, has eight years of bus driving experience for the bus service.
"I look forward to this group because they're a great group of people," Comp says. "The group is a pleasure. I don't have to say anything to anyone. They're professionals in their jobs."
But soccer players being soccer players and men being men, they occasionally forget to clean up after themselves. Such as a soft drink can or a wastepaper. So, Comp walks through, making sure he has a clean bus.
Admittedly a hockey and basketball fan, Comp has taken a liking to indoor soccer. "They warned me early in the season this would happen," he says.
Sometimes he misses the start of games because he needs to refuel the bus. He gets along well with the players and drives safely.
That is in marked contrast to in what some players talked about a bus ride from hell three years ago, with the Hershey Impact. That driver, who will remain nameless to protect the guilty, began to drive erratically returning from a game in Fort Wayne, Indiana. "There was on the road," midfielder John Abe says, "and this guy was driving like a nut 75-80 miles an hour. We were arguing with him, and he was getting angry. I was hoping the guy would go to sleep. He eventually did and Raphael Amaya, a player who had a truck license drove the rest of the way."
Southfield, Michigan - 2:45 a.m.
The Heat arrives at the Radisson Hotel, which gives the players just about enough time to sleep and prepare for the 2:05 p.m. game that afternoon.
They had planned to stay downtown next to Cobo Hall, but because the Auto Show is in town, it is difficult to get rooms.
Cobo Hall - Detroit - 12:33 p.m.
About after about a half hour drive from the suburbs, the Heat arrives at the arena during an animal rights protest concerning the Auto Show. There are no incidents.
Cobo Hall - 2:05 p.m.
With the addition of Joe Louis Arena downtown - the Detroit Red Wings play hockey there - and the new arena in suburban Auburn Hills, the 9,561-seat Cobo Hall is used for smaller attended events. Even though the venue has been around for years, it has been renovated and looks in tip top shape.
The first quarter is no contest as the Heat rolls to a 6-0 lead behind goals by Danny Kelly, Abe and Lee Tschantret although the early success might become a Pyrrhic victory. Franklin McIntosh, the team's playmaker and leading scorer, goes down twice with knee injuries.
The Rockers are coached by former Detroit Express player Brian Tinnion and led by forward Andy Chapman, nicknamed Superman for scoring eight goals in a game against Hershey last year. Detroit slices margin to 6-4 at the half. But even without McIntosh, the Heat walk out of the arena with a 12-8 victory behind the goalkeeping of Joe Mallia and goals from David Bascombe, defender Todd Smith and forward Mark Pulisic.
The loss of McIntosh could be devastating. He suffered a severely sprained right knee and is very doubtful for tomorrow in Dayton. “It feels a bit stiff,” he says. McIntosh has been involved in 40 percent of the Heat's goals. He set up four goals Friday night, moving into second place among NPSL leading scorers (21 goals, 65 points).
Again, there is little time to celebrate because of the itinerary. Before the players load themselves onto the bus, they chat with several fans, including several from Harrisburg. In fact, Chuck and Dori Reisinger, their daughter Lindsay and her friend Gia Scordo, have followed the team on this trip, trailing the bus.
"It's a good family sport to take the family to," Chuck says. "This is our second trip. It has worked out perfectly."
Southbound Interstate 75 - Outside of Toledo, Ohio - 6:30 p.m.
It's time for another grand postgame feast - at a Country Pride restaurant at Truckstop America. Actually, the food is pretty decent here, although the service could be better. Perhaps they weren't ready to serve 25 hungry men at once on a Saturday night. Service was so bad that Jim Carabin, the Heat's director of sales and marketing, was the last one served a good 15 minutes though he ordered with everyone else.
Dayton, Ohio - 10:20 p.m.
The bus arrives at the Holiday Inn. Unlike Detroit, there is no sense of hurry as tomorrow's game is at 5:05 p.m.
Sunday Jan. 12 - Homewood Suites - 9:34 a.m.
On Sunday morning some people are at church. Others sleep late and yet others have brunch. Equipment manager Mike Butala, however, is at a hotel adjacent to Holiday Inn in its laundry room cleaning the team laundry. If he doesn't, players won't have clean jerseys for tonight. Or the team will have to wear purple ones used in Canton Friday or the new blue ones utilized in Detroit Saturday.
When he takes the dirty laundry out of the bus, everything is frozen. "It was like a rock," he says.
It defrosts fairly quickly. The entire process should take two hours, Butala says.
"I know what the players like purple tops and black striped ones for the pregame workout," he says. "They're superstitious like every anyone else. I tried purple socks, but they didn't want to wear them. They're 0-4 with purple socks."
He had planned to do the laundry Saturday, but he admits he was tired. "I didn't feel like doing it," he says. "Plus, my blood pressure is up to the ceiling. Now we're on that edge."
The edge is winning three consecutive road games on a weekend.
After two victories within 24 hours, Pollihan realizes he must motivate the team.
The Heat will play the Dayton Dynamo, which reached the championship series last year before falling to the Chicago Power. But the club has fallen on lean times this season. The team owner personally went bankrupt, forcing the league to find a new owner. It did and coach Rick Schweizer was replaced with an old favorite - John Dolinsky, who guided the team last season.
Dayton lost to Milwaukee in Dolinsky's debut Friday night, 17-13, dropping to 4-13 (last place in the American Division).
"You're going to be tired physically on the third day," Pollihan says. "You have to conserve yourself mentally. I have to make the guys realize that they're going to have aches, pains and frustration.
"And you can't say you've won two out of three and you've done the job already on the road trip. You're allowing excuses to come in."
On the locker room blackboard before the game Pollihan writes:
Let's make history
Nutter Center - 3:15 p.m.
While the players are getting dressed at the new $36 million Nutter Center at Wright State University, it's time for broadcaster John Wilsbach to do his pregame interviews with both coaches.
"I have absolutely no clue about Harrisburg," Dolinsky tells Wilsbach. "I know they have a knowledgeable, well-organized coach."
Wilsbach, nicknamed Radio Shack by McIntosh, could be the hardest working broadcaster in the league. He treats each game as though it's major league baseball or hockey.
"That may sound cocky," the 26-year-old Wilsbach says. "I want the Harrisburg Heat to be the best team on the field. I want to be known as the best broadcaster off the field."
After games Wilsbach will rush down to the locker room to interview the player of the game. Because he is usually a one-man show, Wilsbach has his procedure down to a science.
"When the game ends, I take a commercial break," he says. "I take a stopwatch. As I look at my watch, I set the levels and head downstairs with a wireless microphone to the locker room."
(For the Canton game. Pulisic was interviewed. For Detroit, Mallia was the man and for Dayton goalkeeper Larry Tukis was the postgame guest).
"People want to hear the star of the game," Wilsbach says. "They want to know how the winning goal was scored or how a goalkeeper did in a close game."
Unlike other arenas, press and broadcast facilities at the Nutter Center are at field level, giving the media a different and up-close and personal view of the action.
"Sometimes you have to duck when a ball comes whizzing by you," Wilsbach said. His color man is Carabin, and there will be plenty to talk about.
It's an emotional pregame introduction because Dolinsky is making his debut in his second coaching tenure. He high fives every player. The Dynamo looks up for the match.
After trading first-quarter goals (Bill Becher for the Heat), Harrisburg begins to pull away as Tschantret and Abe tally for a 6-3 halftime advantage. The Heat extends it to 12-5, behind goals by Scott Cannon, Pulisic and Bob Lilley.
The Heat doesn’t score again as Dynamo keeps the pressure on in the fourth quarter, hammering away at Tukis, who makes several spectacular stops. Forward Fahmi El-Shami's second goal makes it 12-11 with 50.1 seconds left. Those final 50.1 seconds seem like a half hour to the Heat. Harrisburg would clear the ball from its penalty area out of bounds and the Dynamo would get a free kick on the top of the penalty area, again and again.
Finally, the final buzzer sounds, and the Heat has a well-deserved victory and a place in NPSL history. "It was hectic," Pollihan says. "They kept coming at us. The calls were not going for us. The ball was like a pinball bouncing around the penalty area. Those are the ones that go in."
Added general manager Pat Flynn: “If we would have played another 30 seconds they would have won."
And there's one there was one last fast-food feast as the players are scattered among the fast-food alley - Taco Bell, McDonald's and Arby's near their hotel.
The real celebration will begin on the bus. Two cases of beer go in hurry while the bus is abuzz as it travels through the width of Ohio, the upper northeast part of West Virginia and finally Pennsylvania.
“This is what it's all about," one player said.
Monday, Jan. 13 - Harrisburg, Pa. - 5:17 a.m.
A bus bringing home a happy Harrisburg contingent pulls into the Farm Show Arena parking lot.
Comp says goodbye, congratulating the Heat.
"It has been a great trip and a well-done job," he says. The team responds with applause.
Then it's back to reality. The players take their belongings from under the bus and head to their cars to get a well-deserved and good night's - or maybe morning's sleep.
Addendum: After the third game, several players wanted me to take other road trips because I was viewed as a good luck charm. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. I returned to Harrisburg in 1993 for a sequel, though. This time I wrote about a weekend in the life of the NPSL team as the Heat hosted two games at the Farm Show Arena. That also turned into an intriguing and historic weekend.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, will be published soon.