When all three of your sports teams are dumpster diving, they make it tough to find the motivation to write about them. But then again, I’ve had more important things to focus on… my wife and I are expecting our first child in March.
Thanks to a lifelong devotion to Cleveland’s teams, there’s a pretty good chance this kid will either grow up to share in my dedication or hate the idea of even watching a game. I’m hoping for the former. Either way, lately I’ve found myself reminiscing about my own childhood experiences and not surprisingly they revolve heavily around sports. That unbroken allegiance originally started with the Indians but one of my fondest memories comes from soccer.
Would you believe the Cleveland Force, our city’s indoor soccer team in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, used to routinely draw more than 15,000 people to the now demolished Richfield Coliseum? It’s true. I remember a packed house almost every time we went to a game. The atmosphere was electric… for indoor soccer!
Pregame introductions included an entrance tunnel, smoke, flashing lights and DARTH frickin’ VADER leading the team out onto the field. For an eight-year-old boy already obsessed with Star Wars, it didn’t get any better than that. The Force was later ordered to stop using Darth Vader as a mascot by George Lucas after he got wind of it. I remember not really understanding why at the time and applaud my parents for coming up with an explanation other than “because George Lucas is an a**hole.” That’s what I would have said.
But beyond the theatrics, there was also an exciting game happening down on the field. Soccer morphs into an odd hockey/basketball hybrid when condensed into an indoor sport, filled with faced-paced action and more goals in one game than you’ll see in a month’s worth of outdoor games. Combine this with the fact that the Force was actually a pretty good team and you’ve got all the makings of a successful sports franchise.
The Force’s success in the 80’s stemmed from its strong group of players. Goalkeeper P.J. Johns, the flop-master himself, kept the ball out of the net. The grizzly Benny Dargle was a wall on defense. Forward Craig Allen provided the offensive punch. And Kai Haaskivi, a virtual wizard on Astro-turf, was the superstar.
And while I was in awe of them, they were a far cry from the pampered millionaire athletes you find in modern sports. Routinely they would sign autographs for extended periods of time, before and after games. They posed for pictures, embraced the fans, and genuinely seemed to be having fun out there. I even remember a pickup soccer game in my aunt’s backyard that to my delight included Force forward Peter Ward. I was one of the smallest kids on the field, but I could tell he was impressed with my scrappiness. At least that’s how I remember it.
But by the time I was ten, the Force was gone. The league folded in 1988 before they ever brought a title home.
Indoor soccer returned to Cleveland in 1989 when the Crunch was born but for whatever reason it just didn’t seem the same. My interest waned and even when the Crunch won multiple titles in the 90’s, it barely registered on my sports radar. When people today talk about Cleveland’s title drought, the simple mention of three Crunch titles only draws snickers.
Maybe it wasn’t as awesome as I remember. Maybe being a Cleveland Force fan today would be impossible. But for a few years as a child growing up in Cleveland, it didn’t get any better than watching the Force score goals and then trying to imitate what I saw in the backyard the next day. I’m grateful for the experience and hope my own child will someday have Cleveland sports memories that bring a smile to their face.
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