A Letter to Toby Charles

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Editor’s note: The following is a heartfelt letter from soccer fan Barnett Turk to football commentator Toby Charles and his fans out there. Hope you enjoy it and I hope Toby Charles comes across it. In the meantime, feel free to listen to the exclusive EPL Talk interview we did with Toby Charles here. It’s one of the best ones we did.

I just heard the November 20 interview with Toby Charles. What a pleasure.

It’s obvious that he realizes he had a bit of notoriety here in the states, but I sense he has no idea how deeply his influence truly was among developing American players in those years.

I began playing soccer in Alabama in the mid-70s. At that time, none of us had ever seen more than a few quick clips on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Our sense was that it was a niche sport along the lines of cliff diving or Australian Rules Football. One of the guys had a relative ship us a ball from Germany, a heavy, brown, long-paneled ball, the kind that preceded the 1976 Telstar with stitched hexagons and pentagons that has become the symbol of the sport.

No ball was available because virtually no one was playing the sport in our state, and it was inconceivable that a soccer ball could be found in any sporting goods store in any city, no matter how large.

We began playing the sport by simply whacking the ball back and forth, with no concept of form or strategy. Then one afternoon, a friend said they’d begun showing a program called Soccer Made in Germany on the local PBS station, 6 p.m. Sunday nights. We all gathered at one house to watch for the first time, and I will never forget our reaction. Total silence and a feeling of utter incompetence. We’d been shown the beautiful game and how well it could be played. From then, we never missed a broadcast, and we used what we saw as a textbook for learning the game. We learned basic give-and-go plays, through passes, using wingers and crossing to the middle.

Today, though we’re all approaching 50, many of us are still playing in over-30 and over-40 leagues, where the level of play has become surprisingly good.

As I went off to college and began making my way across the country afterward, there was one common element to nearly every pick-up game I joined, every club team match I participated in, and every practice I attended. From Alabama to St. Louis to Seattle where I eventually settled, I don’t believe I played a single time for more than a decade when I didn’t hear at least one player mimic Toby Charles during play. The obvious “high, wide and not very handsome,” was the most frequent, of course. A shot returned to play by a keeper deflection or a post to the same player for a second shot generally came with “another bite of the cherry.” And a spectacular play-of-the-day type of shot or move was greeted with “Ooooo, they’ll be talking about that one in the pubs tonight.” At halftime or a water break in a pickup game, you’d hear “Halftime, ka-chick ka-chick (he sound effect of a camera shutter fired twice) Newsbreak.” All of it was carefully accented by American players who were getting their weekly dose of international soccer on PBS.

Toby Charles asked you why the show had been so popular here. Simple. The show defined all of us who played the game here in the states from the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘80s. There was little or no cable and absolutely no televised soccer. The sport had become our religion, and there was only one place to go worship…PBS and Soccer Made in Germany. Toby Charles was the high priest. Any American soccer player who played the game during those years adored him and still does. We were not only entertained by his wonderful commentary, but also instructed as we watched. I can’t emphasize how much we learned from those games.

These days, when I hear a Toby Charles quote somewhere on a field, I automatically know a bit about the person without looking. He is probably in his forties with solid skills from playing more than 30 years. Most assuredly, that person is smiling. You simply cannot think of Toby Charles or quote him without a smile.

I can’t tell you how happy it would make me if there’s any chance you can forward this letter to him and let him know how much of an impact he made on an entire generation of players in this country.

Barnett Turk
Seattle

Listen now to the interview with Toby Charles.

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