Monday, August 4, 2014


Around the time my father’s father, Max Gutstein, brought beer back to New York, my maternal grandfather, Emil Ringel, clipped around Brooklyn, looking for work. He had wended his way through Ellis Island a scant three days earlier, with little money in his pocket, after crossing the Atlantic in the steerage deck of a steamship. My grandmother, Anne, a maternity ward nurse, had mailed a bit of money for him to join her, in early 1930s America. They had met in Austria, as part of an arranged marriage between two families originally from small Polish villages. Grandpa, as I would always call him, spoke little English at the time. He had apprenticed in Vienna as a commercial artist, but following his emigration, needed to find low-wage factory work or the like, to start his life anew in this melting pot of a city. He wore his only good suit, hoping to make an impression. His walk led him to a field where a team of football players practiced.

The ball, as he told the story, rolled away from the players onto his shoe. He couldn’t understand the goalkeeper, who beckoned for the ball’s return, but when Grandpa took a few steps back, the goalkeeper established himself in the goalmouth, and waved, challenging my grandfather to beat him with a shot. Emil, in suit and tie and coat and hat, ran to the ball, and with the strike of his life, bent it around the goalkeeper, who dove into mud. A fellow on the far sideline, who’d watched the ball swerve into the netting of the goal, jogged across the impoverished field toward my grandfather, a whistle around his neck. The team gathered, too. One of the players spoke a little Polish or a little Yiddish, and the fellow, able to make himself understood, described the situation. He, both coach and foreman, offered Emil a factory job, and a position on the factory’s football team.

We would term this arrangement “semi-professional”, as my grandfather earned a stipend to play on the company team, the Brooklyn Red Sparks, which competed against other company teams around New York. I don’t know the factory’s name, or what the factory produced, or how many years my grandfather toiled there. I know that he dribbled the ball fast, attacking from the center or the wing. I know that he scored, a lot. Grandpa stood no more than five foot seven, and weighed no more than a hundred forty, but when I met him—me, a toddler; he, in his sixties—his sinewy muscular arms astonished me. During World War II, he assembled aircraft, and afterwards, began a small commercial art business, but his football adventure bestowed him with a classic American beginning. “Is a great country”, he would say, with a thick accent. “You kick a ball: you get a job!”

The blogger and his grandfather. Also pictured: the
only ball, a sand ball, my grandpa could not juggle!

My grandfather could juggle most anything round. He juggled a football, of course, but also a nerf ball, whiffle ball, and tennis ball. I once—briefly—owned a hacky sack, and he juggled it, too, quite a few times: foot, knee, and forehead. Through my mother, Ruth, he passed down his physique to me, but I’ve largely underutilized it, except for a few moments, perhaps. Once, I attended a youth camp sponsored by the old NASL club, the Washington Diplomats, where I had kick-arounds with several Dips players, including the legendary Johan Cruyff, who said kind words to me about how I played. Cruyff, in that moment, didn’t exactly speak to me, but to the poor kid, Emil Ringel, who grew up in Poland, playing the sport with a football fashioned from rags. My grandfather could smile at you, and you’d want to put your arm around his shoulder, and have someone snap a photograph of you, standing beside a man who smiled in such a fundamentally kind way.

Sports Week #2 of 5: The Landover Football Team
Sports Week #3 of 5: Wilfried & The Swans
Sports Week #4 of 5: Who I Heckled As a Young Man
Sports Week #5 of 5: Draws

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