A soccer pioneer's life after leaving the pro gameby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The eyes of Minnesota soccer fans are on South Africa for the opening game of the 2010 World Cup today. One of those fans is Buzz Lagos.
Many people know him as a founder and longtime coach of the Minnesota Thunder professional soccer team. Lagos now has a different, and some would say surprising, job.
Let's start with the accolades.
"Buzz Lagos is synonymous with Minnesota soccer," says Brian Quarstad, who writes the Inside Minnesota Soccer blog.
Quarstad has watched Buzz Lagos' career for decades, from his involvement in club soccer in the 1970s, to a quarter century of coaching at Saint Paul Academy.
"(He) went on and created the Thunder," Quarstad continues. "The Thunder was one of the longest running teams in North America till they sadly folded last year."
Lagos retired from the Thunder in 2005 to take a new job, which brings us to the Higher Ground Academy parking lot in St Paul.
Young African men juggle soccer balls with their feet. They are all recent immigrants, mainly Somali and Oromo and play for the school's under 19 summer team. Tonight's a game night. They're awaiting their coach Buzz Lagos and the school's big van.
"Mahad! You made it," Lagos calls when he gets there.
Lagos says coaching this team takes a mixture of soccer skills, tenacity, diplomacy. And there's some cat herding.
A player called Kassim says he's not sure if he should come play. His cousin is graduating and he thinks he should be there, but he doesn't want to leave the team short. Lagos suggests a solution.
"Have the players take a vote," he says.
The players raise their hands. Kassim's going. Everyone climbs into the van. Then Lagos gets on the phone.
"Hello? Where are you?," barks Lagos. It's a missing player called Noor. "Where are you now?"
Noor's at another player's house. In fact, there are three players there. The van sets off to pick them up.
For Lagos it's just part of the job. But think of it this way -- his job shift is like an NBA coach quitting to run a charter school basketball program.
Meanwhile the discussion with Kassim continues. He's the family driver, and he's worried the team won't be back in time for him to pick up his mom from work at 10.
"OK, why don't you go then," Lagos says in an understanding tone. "Can you get the bus alright? You need money?"
"I've got it," Kassim says. "Bye now."
Kassim hops out at a red light. Lagos says Kassim is a strong player, and a team captain, but like many of his Higher Ground teammates, he has other responsibilities.
Half an hour later, at a soccer complex in the northern suburb of Coon Rapids, Lagos talks about how his players often arrive at Higher Ground from East African refugee camps.
The school teaches them English and other academic skills. But Lagos says the soccer team gives them a community which keeps them out of trouble, and that makes him proud.
"We know good things are happening. We're doing good things for these kids," he says.
As they warm up before the game, the players agree. Mahad Abdi just finished his freshman year at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Now back for the summer, he says Lagos is the reason he's in college.
"I wouldn't go there if it wasn't for Lagos," he says.
Even though he wears an A League Championship ring, none of the players knew of Lagos' storied career.
Defender Abdullah Bashir, who's also on his way to college, says Lagos is a regular guy.
"He's not arrogant," says Bashir. "He's passionate about this job and he always calls us. He always washes the clothes."
That's a thing you often hear about Buzz Lagos. Even when he was at the Thunder, he washed the team uniforms.
There's a lot of testosterone in the air when the whistle blows to start the game against the Coon Rapids under 19 team. The Higher Ground players are tall, fast, but skinny. Their shorter opponents have muscle and their own speed. On the sideline Lagos keeps up a stream of advice.
"Sidney! Watch that last defender! Concentrate!" he shouts. He keeps turning to his bench to advise the subs, too.
"Mahdi could have gone ahead, get deep on the guy, so Sidney could have had more time and control and turn," he says.
Higher Ground gets the first goal midway through the first half. The lead lasts until the second half when Coon Rapids scores two goals in quick succession. Higher Ground ties the score in the dying minutes of the game. It's the team's third draw in a row, but Lagos congratulates the players for a job well done.
It's 9:45 p.m. when the players climb into the van for the drive back to St Paul. In his pro days, this is when Lagos would be heading to a post-game party. Tonight, he's got to take a dozen or so Higher Ground players home. It's a two-hour drive, yet Lagos says he looks forward to going to work each day.
"As I told the players here, when they asked me why I came to Higher Ground, and I told them I got a promotion," he said.
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- Morning Edition, 06/11/2010, 6:40 a.m.