Stanford Soccer's Renaissance Man: Leo Weinstein, 1921-2009

May 12, 2009

STANFORD, Calif. - Leo Weinstein was many things - scholar, author, linguist, and bon vivant. He was worldly, a master of four languages, and a lover of classical music. But above almost all else, Weinstein was a soccer fanatic who left a considerable imprint on the game by helping popularize it in the United States.

Weinstein, a former Stanford player, coach and professor, died of cancer May 4 at age 87 and was buried at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella, Calif., on Tuesday.

Natalie Dunn, his companion for the past 13 years, noted that it was years into their relationship before Weinstein included a picture of her in his wallet. But he always kept one of Pele, the legendary Brazilian soccer star. Such a gesture seems appropriate, given his devotion to the sport that began in the North Sea port city of Willelmshaven, Germany.

Born to a tailor in 1921, Weinstein was a gifted player, playing in the youth system of Werder Bremen, one of the Germany's oldest professional clubs. But that came to an end as Hitler's anti-Semitic policies took affect and 14-year-old Weinstein, a Jew, was forbidden to go to school or play soccer.

Even at a young age, Weinstein sensed the impending danger and every day knocked on the door of the American consulate, pleading for visas that would allow him and his brother, Rudy, to leave the country. There wasn't enough money to get their father out.

'You have to take us!' Leo screamed at the U.S. consul. 'Or, you will be responsible for our deaths!'

Finally, after bribes and a letter that secured the support of an aunt and uncle who toiled in a New York City sweat shop, Leo and Rudy escaped in 1938 on one of the last ships to the United States.

Their father could not afford the passage. Their mother had died of cancer in 1934.

Their father would die in 1941 at Buchenwald, a massive Nazi concentration camp where more than 100,000 Jews were executed. Weinstein, as a member of the U.S. Army, helped liberate Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, but it was too late. While there, he discovered the records of his father's death.

Despite the tragedies he experienced and the atrocities he witnessed, Weinstein maintained a zest for life.

'He was very big-hearted and generous to everybody,' Dunn said.

Asked to describe Weinstein, Dunn said he was 'an independent thinker, in politics and every other way.' He was 'an original,' 'big-hearted and generous,' 'loyal,' 'a performer,' and 'a youthful spirit.'

There are many dimensions to Weinstein's story, but from the point of view of Stanford soccer, that story began in 1948 when Weinstein joined the team as a graduate student and immediately served as team captain.

The Stanford soccer program had been a model of stability since Harry Maloney created it in 1911 and coached the team for most of the next 41 years. However, all stability was lost after World War II, going through seven head coaches in as many years.

Weinstein captained the team through 1950, served as a player-coach under Russ Latham in 1951 and was head coach for the two seasons. In 1952 and 1953, he went a combined 11-5-4, with a pair of runner-up finishes in the Northern California Intercollegiate Soccer Conference.

'In those days, we had to go to the admissions office each fall and find out which foreign students were coming in,' said Derek Liecty, a Stanford captain under Weinstein. 'We had to see what foreign students we could recruit and get to play.'

Recruiting students from various backgrounds and getting them to play in a unified style were two different matters, but somehow Weinstein was able to mold diverse players into a single team.

'He brought order and a style of play to the team, which we would not have enjoyed otherwise,' Liecty said.

More important than Stanford's success on the field, was the care that Weinstein put into the program. Having been a leader on the team for six seasons - as a captain and coach - Weinstein allowed the program to stabilize. The more settled environment allowed Weinstein's successor, Fred Priddle, to serve as head coach for the next 22 years and take the program to the NCAA tournament for the first time.

Even while Weinstein embarked on an academic career at Stanford - first in the Department of Modern European Languages and then in French Department - he developed a niche as a soccer correspondent. Using his command of languages as well as his European contacts, Weinstein became one of America's pre-eminent experts on the sport overseas when there was precious little information available in the United States.

Weinstein covered eight World Cups, including four for the San Francisco Examiner, and served as an international correspondent for Soccer America and other publications for over 30 years.

'He was one of the most knowledgeable soccer people I've ever met,' said Soccer America editor and general manager Paul Kennedy.

'At that time, it was truly unique in America to have someone with the soccer expertise, and the international scope, and the ability to write for an American audience like he did,' said former Soccer America publisher Lynn Berling-Manuel. 'He came from this enormous intellect, but never wrote over their heads, and never patronized.'

In 1967, the Oakland Clippers became the first professional soccer team in the Bay Area. With Liecty as the team's general manager, Weinstein was hired as its publicity director, with a special role of educating the press and public, who were mostly new to the game, to its rules and styles.

'He would literally hold classes in the press box,' Liecty said.

In 1976, Weinstein was instrumental in another important development, convincing San Francisco public-television station KQED to air the weekly 'Soccer Made in Germany' series, introducing European soccer to many American viewers, including kids, who would make up the first wave of what would become a youth soccer explosion in the country.

In academic circles, Weinstein would become known for his research in Renaissance French and Spanish literature. And as a devotee and biographer of French 19th-century composer Ernest Chausson. And as a professor emeritus of French at Stanford where he taught until 1991.

But through the years and the accomplishments, he still kept that photo of Pele in his wallet.

A memorial service is scheduled for June 2, at 3 p.m., at Stanford Memorial Church.

- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics

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