Local soccer boom was ignited by one stubborn man
I was watching Montgomery wrestle Maria Carrillo Wednesday night when a gentleman left the stands to stop me and give me a three-minute lecture on why high school soccer should never be moved from fall to winter and why the issue came up at all. I was impressed. High school soccer has ended. Club soccer has yet to begin. A wrestling match was going on. But this issue was just too hot for this man.
Soccer around here doesn't have an off-season. Soccer doesn't even have an off-day.
So I called Joe Belluzzo on the phone.
"Did you ever think it would come to this?" I asked the Godfather of Sonoma County soccer.
"I was hoping so," Belluzzo said.
Depending on your point of view, you can either blame or credit this 88-year old man for the zealots, pontificators, soccer moms and thousands of kids who breathe, eat and burp the sport. In a way they are logical extensions of Belluzzo. His devotion became their devotion. His obsessiveness became theirs.
His followers will be delighted to find out how this Italian immigrant and Axis prisoner of war has overcome poverty, prejudice, disinterest, a language barrier, violence and skin cancer to preach the gospel of soccer. A lesser man might have checked out already, especially at Joe's age. Ah, but no one ever accused Joe Belluzzo of being a lesser man.
Belluzzo is one of those last-man-standing kind of guys. He couldn't have become The Beginning if he had frightened easily and took no for an answer. He couldn't have provided free soccer shoes to thousands of soccer kids here -- the south wall of his Santa Rosa garage looks like a Shoe Pavilion -- if he wasn't consumed.
"I had a good product to sell," Belluzzo said.
"And you're stubborn," said Doris, his wife.
"Yeah, I'm stubborn," Belluzzo said.
Long journey to Santa Rosa
Belluzzo has spent a lifetime developing that characteristic . . . or was it a lifetime that forced Belluzzo to develop that characteristic? Belluzzo was four when his father died in Verona, Italy. His mother, Rattaro, raised 10 children by herself. A woman doesn't raise 10 kids by herself if she is frightened easily and takes no for an answer. Stubborn is as stubborn is raised. By 13 Joe was behind a horse and a plow, working the farm.
"We never went to bed hungry," Belluzzo said. Of all the statements he made during a two-hour interview none carried as much pride.
He was drafted into the Italian army at the start of World War II and captured by the British in 1943 in North Africa. He was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Florence, Ariz. Even to this day Belluzzo smiles ruefully at this memory: On a boat he saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, the symbol of freedom and, he thought to himself, wow, I'm a POW.
Belluzzo was told to pick 40 pounds of cotton daily. He dragged a 10-foot long sack behind him. Cotton is light. The Arizona sun is hot. Mr. Stubborn shrugged. He was alive.
"A lot of Italians captured by Russia went to Russia, froze to death or never came back," he said.
Dancing Joe met Doris
After Italy surrendered, Belluzzo was sent for the duration of the war to the Oakland Army Base. He was given limited freedom and, at 24, met this 15-year old beauty at an Italian-American dance. They waited to get married until Doris graduated from Notre Dame High School in San Francisco. A machinist by trade, Belluzzo couldn't speak English and so he couldn't read an American blueprint.