Sports Illustrated called him a “superstar” and “Soccer’s Great American Hope.”
The son of an NFL All-Pro, Kyle Rote, Jr. was the first U.S.-born soccer player most of his fellow Americans had ever heard of.
Rote never came close to playing in a FIFA World Cup – and only played five games with the U.S. National Team, but his poster bedecked the walls of nearly every soccer-playing kid’s room throughout the 1970s.
In the action shot, he is outfitted in his blue No. 12 Dallas Tornado uniform, drilling a right-footed shot at the camera. The picture became a favorite of budding footballers from Boston to Los Angeles even if they were fans of the New York Cosmos, Philadelphia Atoms or Colorado Caribou.
“It showed how little there was from a soccer marketing perspective at the time,” Rote said. “It affirmed (to soccer players) that the sport they were playing was not a communist sport, it was not un-American to do that, that it had a commercial value. It was a lot less because of me, but by SI selling them, it affirmed the value of soccer, which was desperate for validation.”
In reality, Rote was a superstar as far as the North American Soccer League was concerned. He entered the league five years after its start and was the only native-born player to top the scoring chart for a single season (1973).
In the mid-70s, Rote further enhanced his – and soccer’s – image on ABC’s made-for-TV event called “Superstars” – a decathlon-like competition where various luminaries from several sports competed in events from cycling to tennis. A typical American kid who grew up playing baseball, football and basketball, he won the competition three of the four years he entered, beating out the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Lynn Swann, Reggie Jackson, Bobby Hull, Julius Erving, Stan Smith and even former Olympic decathlon champs Bill Toomey, Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias.
“Winning Superstars propelled him and our sport to whole different level,” said Kenny Cooper, Sr., a roommate of Rote’s with the Tornado and the father of Kenny Cooper, Jr. who plays for FC Dallas. “When you compete against world-class athletes, it made a great statement for soccer and soccer players as athletes.”
Rote and his fellow NASL players grew to understand the impact of what was essentially one of the first forays into “reality television.”
“I didn’t get why achieving or surpassing athletes on that level meant anything anyway,” said Ray Hudson, an England native who played eight years in the NASL before eventually becoming coach of the Miami Fusion and D.C. United. He now is an analyst for BeIN Sport. “It wasn’t until later on, when it was explained to me that (Americans) didn’t consider soccer a game to be taken seriously.”
It was Rote’s natural athletic ability that enabled him to morph from a start quarterback and safety, who was recruited by 50 colleges before choosing Oklahoma State, to soccer striker after beginning to play the sport in his mid-teens.
His soccer education began when a high school friend, whose family came from Scotland, invited him to watch a satellite transmission of the 1966 FIFA World Cup final – in a theater.
A year later at 16, he and his Highland Park High School teammates from baseball, basketball and football decided to play soccer in the middle of a Texas summer as a conditioning exercise. While driving by, British reporter Ron Griffith – in Texas to cover Dundee United as it played in the United Soccer Federation, the NASL’s predecessor – noticed Rote’s group.
Rote remembers Griffith getting out of his car to instruct his friends on several basics of the game. While the eager Texans thought they had figured out something the rest of the world had missed – that using one hand on a throw-in could send the ball a lot further than two – Griffith informed them that it was illegal to do so.
Despite their naiveté, Rote’s group, dubbed the Black Bandits, would become the unofficial Highland Park team – “even if the school didn’t know it” – and launch a soccer career for the son of one of the most famous football players of the day.
His pro career began when he was drafted No. 1 by Lamar Hunt’s Tornado midway through the 1972 NASL season. In a league dominated by foreign imports, particularly from England and Scotland, Rote was an anomaly.
“I only got to play because immigration kept a couple of English players from getting into the country,” Rote said. “(Coach) Ron Newman had recruited a couple of guys for the 1973 season, but they were postponed for several weeks.”
Given the chance, Rote scored 10 goals and had 10 assists in 18 games and led the Tornado to the title game, the Soccer Bowl, against the Philadelphia Atoms at Texas Stadium.
“God gifted me with an unusual athleticism which I’m very thankful for,” Rote said. “My skill was scoring goals, and passing to set up teammates, it was not dribbling. I was a very limited player, very good at one thing.”
His magic, however, abandoned him in the title game, and Philadelphia won 2-0 to claim the crown in its first year of existence.
“As an American, he had a fabulous career, that’s how I see Kyle,” said Al Miller, the Atoms’ coach in 1973 and Rote’s manager when he moved to the Tornado in 1976. “When I had to trade him, I had some sleepless nights. He was the only guy I ever coached who came to practice with a notepad. He was a student, like he was going to college.”
With his father’s name, and Rote’s fame, the “Superstars” came. Pele arrived in the United States in 1975, and while the Brazilian was the face of soccer worldwide, Rote was its American personality.
The Houston Hurricane bought Rote’s contract for $250,000 – an unheard of transfer fee for an American in 1979 – and he played one more season before retiring.
He moved into broadcasting full time in the Major Indoor Soccer League and college football, and while in Connecticut for a Hartford Hellions game he helped facilitate the sale of the club to a group that moved the team in 1981 to Memphis. The team was renamed the Americans and played in Tennessee for three seasons.
Rote arrived in Memphis with the club as part of its management, taking over as its coach in the final season before it was sold and moved to Las Vegas.
Choosing to remain in Memphis rather than relocate, he began an agency representing sports personalities. Athlete Resource Management had clients such as College and Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman Reggie White and Basketball Hall of Fame forward Scottie Pippen before taking on recent more contemporary stars like Tim Tebow, Nick Saban and Matt Cain.
Since retiring as the CEO two years ago, Rote has become the chairman of the board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes soccer ministry, run by executive director and former Colorado Rapids, New York MetroStars and Columbus Crew midfielder Ross Paule.
Besides writing a fourth book, “Living Life in the Zone: A 40-Day Spiritual Gameplan for Men,” one of Rote’s accomplishments with FCA is the “Chapel in a Box” program. It includes a 20-minute DVD that allows youth players to have a Sunday service while on the road at weekend tournaments instead of having to ignore their faith for the sake of soccer.
Rote’s return to the soccer stage is much more modest than his debut, and in a much different role.“I was kind of like a circus,” Rote said about his introduction to the pro game. “I was the bearded lady -- a different look, a different flavor, a curiosity to many.”