Shep Messing Talks Hofstra, Long Island and the Early Years of the Cosmos, PT. 1
Shep Messing was a goalkeeper for the New York Cosmos for three stints in the 1970's and 1980's. He was in net as the Cosmos famously won the NASL Championship in 1977 alongside Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer. He was a local kid playing on a legendary team full of world class players.
However Messing's Cosmos career actually began years earlier as the team was just starting out at Hofstra Stadium in Long Island. Now as the Cosmos are set to return to that same stadium, we spoke to Shep, who is currently an International Ambassador for the Cosmos, about his experiences at Hofstra.
Read Part two here
New York Cosmos: How did you end up playing for the Cosmos at Hofstra University?
Shep Messing: I'll start at the beginning. So I graduated from Harvard in June of 1972, I played in the Olympics that summer for the United States in Munich, Germany. I came back and in the spring of 1973, I was playing for two different soccer teams and teaching at a High School.
One of those teams was Blue Star in the German American League where I was playing for $50 a game. A man named Gordon Bradley coached that team. Gordon came to me one day and said, “I’m coaching a team called the New York Cosmos, we play at Hofstra, come try out”.
So, I show up at Hofstra, and I only live fifteen minutes away, and I’m at this college stadium, with all of these college girls, playing on Astroturf for my tryout with the Cosmos. I see a big striker with an afro, Randy Horton, and there’s Werner Roth, Len Renery, Siggy Stritzl and just the wildest cast of characters you’ve ever seen. And I thought I did great.
So Gordon says, “we have a level of interest in you.” I’m all excited because I think this is going to be my first big contract, but Gordon at the first day of practice says, “I’d like to talk to ya’. Get showered and meet me at the Burger King on Hempstead Turnpike.” I’m excited, I get showered. I go to the Burger King, Gordon meets me there, we order a couple of burgers and French fries and a Coke and we sit at the table. Gordon starts eating and he says, ‘OK, we think you’re pretty good, we think you’re about the level of Joey Fink and Len Renery.”
I’m thinking, “Ok, I’ve got a Harvard education, I’m going to negotiate like crazy.” So, Gordon says, “we’ll offer you $2500 for the season.” I paused and I said, “Well Gordon, how would you feel if I told you I want to think about it.” And Gordon takes a bite out of his cheeseburger and he said, “I couldn’t care less.” So I told him, “Ok, I’ll sign.” It was my first big negotiation and that’s how I became a part of the Cosmos.
NYC: How did the 1973 season at Hofstra go for you and the Cosmos?
That season was both great and frustrating. We didn’t have a lot of fans. We had maybe 500 to 800 fans, but it was professional soccer. But I’m sitting on the bench. I’m not getting anywhere near to playing because we had a Polish goalkeeper, named Jerry Sularz. But I had friends and family on Long Island. Again, there are only five hundred people, eight hundred people, maybe a thousand people at the game and I knew most of them. I started to have my family and friends, put up signs that said “WE WANT SHEP.” But I don’t think I played a game.
The great thing about that season was the start of my pro career, but we also trained with the New York Jets. Because the New York Jets at that time, were training at Hofstra. I never played and I’m just in practice every day, and there was a bar on Hempstead Turnpike called Bill’s Meadowbrook and I started going there with Len Renery, to have beer and lunch after practice. And there we met a guy named Joe Namath who was playing with the Jets at the time. So, Bill’s Meadowbrook became our bar of choice and even though I wasn’t playing, it became a really great season.
We were out there in community doing clinics and it was really the beginning of the foundation that the New York Cosmos were laying down in New York. That foundation grew from there. I mean it took off many years later at Giants Stadium, but the foundation was really starting to be built those early years at Hofstra. That’s when we got embedded into the Long Island, Queens, and the New York communities. And it all started with Hofstra because every one of those guys, whether it was Werner or Randy or Lenny or Jerry Sularz, was paying something back to the community because we felt that we were pioneers for the sport. That came back to roost, with the 70,000 people coming to watch us at Giants Stadium.
NYC: You grew up in Long Island, what was it like playing that close to your hometown?
SM: It was great because I was born in the Bronx but at a young age moved out to Roslyn Heights and Hofstra is probably about ten minutes away. I’m a home grown local kid, (probably one of the reasons they signed me) so it was intoxicating to have your friends from high school, your family, your relatives, in the stands. And again, I was not that great of a player that year but I would say I had 70% of the fans were rooting for me, the only Long Island kid on the team.
NYC: Was it true that the field at Hofstra used to be so curved that you basically couldn’t see from one side of the field to the other?
SM: [Laughs] Yeah, that was nothing. From touchline to touchline it would curve. The apex was in the center of the field, and then it would slope down so if it would rain, the water would roll off the field. If you were throwing the ball out to the left wing, you kind of think of yourself in a bowling alley and instead of throwing it to the left wing, you’d throw it, just left of center, knowing that once it hits the turf, it would roll left. I think it was harder for the guy who would try to cross the ball, than it was for the goalkeepers. We were pretty level in the middle of the goal. But the wide positions on the field, you had to calculate.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview later this week...