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Local soccer boom was ignited by one stubborn man

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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.

While Belluzzo learned the language, "for three years I drive a garbage truck," Mr Stubborn said.

In 1957 he started the Santa Rosa Kickers, a soccer team made up of male immigrants from Germany, Hungary, Italy and Yugoslavia.

"But when there was work to do," Belluzzo said, "they quit. It (Kickers) was built up three or four times. Then I'd pick up the pieces three or four times. I was determined."

The immigrants and their game weren't made to feel welcome. The Kickers had to use baseball and football fields to play and were harassed by players from those sports. "You don't even speak English!" they were told. "Go back to where you come from!" One game they were to play at a field near Doyle Park left an ugly memory.

"All the goalposts were broken to pieces," Belluzzo said. "There were holes dug in the fields."

Another time Santa Rosa Junior College allowed one of its fields to be used by Belluzzo.

"An oak tree was right in the middle of it," Belluzzo said. "We played around it."

Did that discourage Mr. Stubborn? He's not called Mr. Stubborn for nothing. He handed out flyers at shopping centers. Belluzzo would walk up to kids right in the middle of a sandlot baseball or football game and tell them there was a game they needed to see, a game they needed to play. Come, follow me. Some did. Most didn't.

First fee: $3

Belluzzo didn't go through a world war, didn't admire Rattaro for what she did, to pack it in. In 1967 he got 33 kids to sign up for three bucks each and, presto, the Santa Rosa Youth Soccer League was born. Forty years later, 5,000 kids play soccer in the area.

"You most be a nice man. Your friend, Mike." So said a misspelled note in a thick, red scrapbook. It was from a kid Belluzzo never met but who received a free pair of soccer shoes, courtesy of the Joe Belluzzo Shoe Bank.

"Why spend $40 on new shoes?" he said.

Why indeed? In 1986 Belluzzo knew some families didn't have enough disposable income to afford to buy their kids athletic footwear. So he came up with a novel but far-reaching solution: Once a kid grows out of a pair of soccer shoes, turn 'em in to Joe. In turn Belluzzo would give that kid a larger size another kid had turned in. And so it has gone, for the last 21 years.

"Sometimes we get shoes left out on our curb," Doris said. "Sometimes we find shoes at our doorstep."

Most times kids go to T&B Sports on Mendocino Avenue and deposit their too-small cleats into a bin marked "Used Shoe Drop." Every week or so the bin is taken to Belluzzo's garage where they are sorted and stacked according to size.

"Sometimes a business is more than a business," said Mel Arnerich, store manager and former baseball coach at Santa Rosa High School. "We're happy to do this. I'm a firm believer in community involvement."

Community praised him

When it comes to community involvement, how many citizens can claim they have a hand, or a foot, in the lives of thousands of its residents? Mr. Stubborn was Santa Rosa's Citizen of the Year in 1975. A soccer field near York Road was named after him in 1986.

After the property was sold, another Joe Belluzzo Field was built in the new soccer complex across the street from Cardinal Newman High School.

"I love it," Belluzzo said of the recognition he's received. "It's a reward for my sacrifice."

The sacrifices have been monetary; he has poured his own money into his obsession. The sacrifices have been time-sensitive; he has poured many of his waking hours, especially after he retired as a machinist in 1984, to soccer. He still serves on the board of Santa Rosa Youth Soccer. And he has sacrificed some of his health as well. Skin cancer periodically appears on his face and has to be removed, the result of years on the sidelines without a hat and sun block.

"I didn't know any better back then," said Belluzzo.

Yes, play in the winter

Belluzzo believes high school soccer should be played in the winter.

"Like in Europe," he said. "It would be more publicity for the sport."

While soccer has made quantum leaps in popularity and in participation in the 50 years Belluzzo has stumped for it, it still remains at its core primarily a sport in which parents watch their kids play.

So it was with great sadness Belluzzo answered this question: When will America truly embrace the sport?

"Maybe 100 years from now," Belluzzo said. "People here don't accept it yet. I wish they (Americans) would wake up. This is a world game."

Mr. Stubborn completed his response with a shrug. So be it. So it will take time. Oh well. If he has to wait until he's 188, he'll wait.

"It's my love," Joe Belluzzo said. "I am sending my love. I have no choice."

If you do something you love, well, Mr. Stubborn has never worked a day in his life.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5490 or at bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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