Friday, March 6, 2015

The day Bill Nuttall knocked Pele on his ass

New York Cosmos soccer player Pele bites the dust during action against the Miami Toros in Miami on Sunday, April 19, 1976. The famed player got sand in his eye during the action and time out was called. The Cosmos weren´t slowed down at all and defeated the Toros 1-0 in the season opener. (AP Photo/PKS)
New York Cosmos soccer player Pele bites the dust during action against the Miami Toros in Miami on Sunday, April 19, 1976. The famed player got sand in his eye during the action and time out was called. The Cosmos weren't slowed down at all and defeated the Toros 1-0 in the season opener. (AP Photo/PKS)

The early 1970s were not, at first, the golden age of soccer in the United States; this foreign fad of kicking a ball around was a little too Communist for America's liking. In America, we score with our hands, thank you very much.

The North American Soccer League was trying to be the soccer presence the U.S. so heartily rejected, and despite its efforts, even its most popular team, the New York Cosmos, was still "…drawing less than the skin flicks on Eighth Avenue," according to one player.

In classic New York sports tradition, the Cosmos determined the best course of action was to pull in a superstar. But not just any roguish hooligan who knew how to throw down a bicycle kick - they wanted the planet's best player. And in classic New York sports tradition, they got him, despite team co-founder Steve Ross having never heard of him.

Pelé was signed by the Cosmos in June 1975 and had an immediate effect on not only the team, but the entire NASL. Crowds packed Downing Stadium in New York for home games, and stalked him relentlessly when he hit the road.

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  • One such match took Pelé and the Cosmos to Miami to face the Toros, where the goalkeeper that day was a Norristown native, Upper Merion High School grad, and converted football tight end named Bill Nuttall. His claim to fame in his later years would be blocking a penalty kick by the great Pelé.

    From the beginning, Nuttall had been placed between the posts for a reason. As a football player, he'd been scouted by a few of his high school's soccer reps, who felt they had a sport in mind for him in which his good hands could be more important and his slow feet less so.

    His resume was not comparable to Pelé's, but he had his standout moments. He'd been named an All-American in junior college, as he was the goalkeeper for a team that went 0-10 and whose closest thing to a win was a 6-0 loss. Scores would have been far more one-sided had it not been for Nuttall's 55-60 saves a game.

    Getting a shot in the NASL at Pelé's globally recognized footwork hadn't seemed in the cards back then. But here he was, the Toros' last bastion between further 0-0 gridlock and an early deficit.

    "They opened up against us in Miami," Nuttall said. "I was in the goal of course, and the ball came down the right side of the field, I crossed the ball, and there was Pelé by himself, right inside the [18-yard] box."

    He'd appeared as if an apparition, flashing into Nuttall's field of vision with exactly the tool that made him most dangerous.  

    "I looked a couple times, I didn't see anybody there, but when I looked again there was Pelé," he explained. "…with the ball."

    This was the soccer equivalent of being circled by a shark, and Pelé smelled blood. Thinking fast, Nuttall scrambled out and tackled him; which, no, isn't legal in soccer, either.

    "I knocked him down and the penalty kick came up," Nuttall said. "Here I am, staring down the barrel of the greatest soccer player to ever play the game – the best player to ever play the game ever, and I'm standing 10 yards away from the guy."

    A penalty kick in soccer is one of the sport's more lopsided exercises.

    "You can either come up and approach the ball and just slam it into a corner, and the chances of the goalkeeper saving it are almost nil," Nuttall explained. "Or, you can approach the ball very slowly and see if the goalkeeper leans one way, and then you kick it the other way."

    But Bill had a plan: "I said to myself, 'I'm not gonna move.' "

    He made the right decision. Pelé came at him gingerly, waiting for him to twitch in any particular direction. "When I didn't move, he started pushing to the right side of the net," said Nuttall. "It was a very slow-moving ball, and I had the post covered, but the ball still went wide."

    The next day, the Miami Herald article on the game refused to specify whether Pelé's shot had gone wide, or if Nuttall had gotten a hand on it. Coupled with a picture of the goalkeeper diving, a folk legend was born; its factuality not exactly debated by proud Americans.

    He's been an NAIA tournament MVP, an All-American, a national soccer champion (twice), an assistant coach, a head coach, a front office exec and general manager, and the color analyst on the first ever ESPN soccer broadcast. Now he's about to be inducted into the Montgomery County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and he can laugh about the big penalty block that wasn't.

    "My claim to fame is, if he had put it on frame, I would have saved it. The reality of it was, he pushed it just a hair wide."

    Bill Nuttall may not have blocked the shot of the greatest soccer player of all time, but in all fairness, he did knock Pelé on his ass.

    "I went out and just leveled him," Nuttall recalled fondly.

    Justin Klugh Philly.com Staff
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