The common factor in every photograph of Edson Arantes do Nascimento—famously known as Pelé—is his mile-wide smile that seemed to span every corner of the globe. In his pursuit to spread soccer to the world, Pelé left joyful impressions and memories with everyone who encountered him… including those lucky enough to have met him during one summer on St. Andrew’s campus.
“I can remember almost every detail of our encounter and it was almost 40 years ago,” says Michael Atalay ’84.
Atalay was one of many alumni who gathered over Zoom last week to reminisce about Pelé’s life and tell stories about the time they met the world’s biggest superstar. During the mid-1970s, Pelé spent three seasons with the New York Cosmos on a crusade to popularize soccer in the United States. He furthered that endeavor by coaching soccer camps across the country in the early 1980s, including at St. Andrew’s during the summer of 1984. For a week in July, the campus dorms were filled with coaches from around the world, a few Cosmos players, and campers decked out in green and white Pelé jerseys.
Chesa Profaci ’80, St. Andrew’s director of alumni engagement, recalls how Bonnie McBride, the school’s director of advancement in 1984, was playing tennis on campus with her 8-year-old daughter when Pelé walked by. He asked if she would teach him how to play; she obliged and recruited two others to play doubles with them.
Atalay, then a recent graduate, found out about the camp and drove from his home in Virginia for a chance to shake hands with the King. When he arrived, McBride beckoned him over to the tennis court and introduced them.
“It was an inspirational moment because he was so endearing, embracing, and warm,” Atalay says. “He was smiling like he always is, with that megawatt smile. I was blown away that this globally famous person was so magnanimous and friendly.”
Pelé invited Atalay to scrimmage with him and the coaches. In addition to Pelé, legendary German goalkeeper Hubert Birkenmeier and renowned defender Franz Beckenbaur also were in attendance and participated in the pick-up game.
Victor van Buchem ’89, whose parents were on the faculty at the time, was a young attendee, too. “I got to train alongside Birkenmeier as a goalie that summer,” van Buchem recalls.
Kathryn Hart ’85, who was a part of the camp’s administrative staff, shared a special off-the-field moment with Pelé and the coaches.
“The kids had all gone to their dorms and the staff and coaches gathered to sit in front of the mailroom, where there was a TV, to watch the summer Olympics,” says Hart. “It was really fun, watching alongside all of these coaches with different nationalities and everyone rooting for their home country. Pelé was there too, watching the Olympics with us until really late into the evening.”
Bulent Atalay ’58, Michael Atalay’s father, was inspired years earlier by “The King,” traveling all the way from Virginia to New York to photograph him during a game in 1976. Atalay, who organized the Zoom call, knows much about Pelé’s life on and off the pitch. He couldn’t help considering the star in relation to the latest World Cup held this winter in Qatar.
“You saw Mbappé, Messi, and Neymar in this last World Cup, but they were ultimately in the shadow of Pelé,” Atalay says. “Messi might even be a better player, but it was Pelé who made soccer as popular in the world as it was.”
Indeed, hundreds of thousands gathered across the globe to mourn Pelé’s passing in December. From the neighborhood of Vila Belmiro in Brazil, where his stardom was born; to the farmlands in Middletown, Delaware, Pelé was beloved by everyone who ever saw him play.
“It’s quite remarkable,” remarked Michael Atalay, “that his reputation as The King transcends generations of players and fans across the world. The impact that this one person had is really deep and enduring.”