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Hidden Caps: Ben Zinn


“The Stagnation Point Reverse Flow Combustor can burn fuel with nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emissions so low that they are ‘close to the theoretical limit’,” Georgia Tech Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering Regents’ Professor Ben Zinn told Flight International in 2006. The combustor had been built under a NASA contract, just another distinction for Zinn in his long career as one of America’s leading rocket scientists.

Some 50 years earlier, before he became a rocket scientist – or more accurately, while he was studying to become one – Zinn played soccer for the United States Men’s National Team. His lone official cap was against England in 1959, playing against some of the finest English players of all-time, including Bobby Charlton, Billy Wright and Jimmy Greaves. Zinn and his fellow Americans held the English to a surprising 1-1 tie at half-time, but collapsed in the second half to a team far more fit and skilled, ultimately losing 8-1 at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field.

Zinn, 22 at the time, wasn’t actually an American citizen when he made his National Team appearance (a common occurrence at the time). He had moved to the United States only a few years earlier from Israel to attend New York University (NYU). Zinn was born in Israel in 1937, only a year after his parents left Europe just before to World War II and the Holocaust, during which many of their relatives tragically perished.

As well as being a promising student in Israel in the 1950s, Zinn was a budding soccer player, a regular for Hapoel Tel Aviv FC and likely to have gone on to have represented the Israeli national team if he hadn’t emigrated to the U.S. to pursue his studies in 1957.

Zinn’s soccer skills soon came in handy in the U.S.; in his sophomore year, NYU started a soccer program and he won a scholarship. Zinn was soon the star of the team, averaging 3.2 goals a game. NYU’s soccer team was unbeaten in his two seasons playing for the college, even though Zinn says that NYU’s coach “didn’t know a lot about soccer.”

He told his professors that heading the ball helped his studies, putting all the numbers into the right places.

At club level, Zinn played for Hakoah New York, one of many ethnic-based teams in the Northeast-based American Soccer League and winners of the championship in 1959. The same year, Zinn was called up to represent the U.S. against England. Preparation for the game was, Zinn says, minimal. There were no team practices ahead of meeting the English, featuring some of the most renowned professionals in Europe. The Americans simply showed up and took the field together.

“Literally, we were introduced to one another at halftime,” Zinn recalls.

Like the rest of the team, Zinn didn’t receive an appearance fee, with just his expenses covered. Though the team lost heavily, Zinn still buzzes with pride for having represented his adopted country in international soccer.

“It’s something that I cherish,” he says, noting that the gap in fitness, preparation and skill level between the Americans and the English could not be bridged.

In the 1960s, Zinn continued to play soccer, though it took a back seat to his flourishing academic career.

In 1961, Zinn played a season for the New York Americans in Bill Cox’s ambitious International Soccer League, a venture that tried to bring a new level of professionalism and exposure to American soccer, though at the time, Zinn was the only “American” on the “Americans,” despite being a recent immigrant himself.

Zinn’s first priority was his academic career, where stardom in his field beckoned. Playing in semi-professional American soccer was something Zinn put on the back burner as he received his Master’s degree from Stanford and his Ph.D from Princeton.

Even though soccer was a passion and not a livelihood for him, Zinn still could have become a professional sportsman in the late 1960s, even as his academic career took off at Georgia Tech, an institution he moved to in 1965 and where he still teaches and researches today.

The popularity of the 1966 World Cup kicked off a new wave of professional leagues in the U.S.: in 1967, two leagues launched, the United Soccer Association (USA) and the rival National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), consolidating into the North American Soccer League (NASL) by the 1968 season.

Zinn practiced regularly with the Atlanta Chiefs, who played in the NPSL in 1967 and the NASL from 1968 until 1973, scrimmaging alongside the likes of Phil Woosnam, the Welshman who went on to be the commissioner of the NASL. Zinn could have turned pro in the NASL with the Chiefs but, he recalls that he, “didn’t want to split my interests between too many things.”

Zinn was curious about exploring his sporting talents as well as his academic abilities. With soccer-style place kickers like Garo Yepremian and Pete Gogolak becoming the rage in the NFL, Zinn decided to see if he had what it took on the football field. On his first try at kicking the oval ball, Zinn nailed a 50-yard field goal and after a few weeks of practice had an offer to join summer camp with the Atlanta Falcons.

But Zinn decided to stay focused on rockets instead of sports, and says he has no regrets about not pursuing professional careers in the NASL or NFL. After all, Zinn says, “I am what you call a rocket scientist.”

“I’ve been pretty successful in two wildly different endeavors,” he said. “I’ve got a building named after me at Georgia Tech. And I’m very proud and happy to say I played for the U.S.”

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