For Dimitrios Tsatsis, the life-long love affair with soccer began in a small Greek village in the 1930s. Like so many epic love stories, his tale of loyalty and passion has crossed oceans and ages, and led to a lasting legacy on future generations.
Coming from humble beginnings growing up in the mountains on the Albanian border, Tsatsis and friends often had to walk up to two miles just to find a patch of grass flat enough to play on.
That was just one of the challenges.
“We didn’t have much equipment. We didn’t have a soccer ball plus we didn’t have a decent soccer field -- it was small,” the 85-year-old Chicago transplant told ussoccer.com this week.
Still, Tsatsis and his friends excelled together and took pride in representing their villages in matches against others nearby.
“We were playing against other villages. We were really good and we were beating them very bad all the time.”
At age 16, the regularity of playing village soccer had to be put on hold to take on other life priorities. In order to help support his family and attend a better high school, Tsatsis moved to Athens to live with his uncle. When he wasn’t studying or attending school, he was working in the family grocery store. Still, he was able to carve out time once a week to get back on the field.
“Sunday the store was closed,” he said. “I joined a team and played soccer on Sundays there for quite a while.”
The joy of the Beautiful Game provided a welcome distraction from the stress of World War II and the Greek Civil War that followed in the 1940s. Had times been different, he perhaps could have played professionally in Greece. Instead, Tsatsis was on the move again, this time connecting with another uncle in the United States.
On the surface, emigrating to the U.S. wouldn’t seem like an ideal place for someone to continue a relationship with soccer. Luckily, Tsatsis found himself in St. Louis. The nation’s original soccer capital supplied many of the players that featured on the United States’ 1950 World Cup team, who famously upset England 1-0 that year in Brazil.
While the victory didn’t resonate much around the country, even a year later in St. Louis Tsatsis recalled seeing banners throughout the city celebrating the win. Having become known in the areafor his strong left foot, he himself became a regular in the club soccer scene where he played against some of the local heroes that were part of the shock win against England.
After some time in St. Louis, Tsatsis joined the U.S. Army. It was a double opportunity to serve and gain a quicker path towards citizenship. He also hoped to go back to Europe in order to lessen the difference between he and his future wife, Fotini, who he’d been corresponding with since coming to the United States.
Stationed in Nuremburg, Germany for five months, Tsatsis found his way back to soccer when tryouts were held for a regiment team. During the tryout with approximately 150 players, Tsatsis found two other Greeks on the field and the trio connected to set him up for a beautiful, low rocket inside the left post.
That was all they needed to see.
“That’s it, one shot,” Tsatsis remembered. “So they call my name, ‘number nine out’, so I made the team.”
Soccer has long been known for its ability to build bridges and the regiment team was no different. The side played matches as a relationship builder with other NATO allies, German villagers and even some second division clubs, but it was also a way for him to connect with his fellow soldiers.
“He said some of his best memories are when he played soccer for the United States Army Team,” said Tsatsis’ daughter Mary Ann, who grew up hearing about the sport and his experiences. “He had such a great time doing that and made some great friends.”
The Army also opened the door for Tsatsis to wed. On two different leaves, he returned to Greece – first to get engaged and then married. Once discharged, he returned to the United States and soon after became a citizen.
Relocating to suburban Chicago, Tsatsis opened a grocery store on the city’s south side and began a family. Raising three children while he ran a business, his passion for the game continued, whether it was keeping up with his favorite Greek club Panathinaikos, supporting the various indoor and outdoor professional teams that called Chicago home over the years and even as he’s gotten older, remaining up to speed on U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams.
To this day, the 85-year-old fanatic plans his days around what games are on television. Holidays don’t matter in this case. Viewing of presidential debates or the World Series has to be done on a second screen. As Mary Ann tells it, if you happen to be near while watching a game on television, watch out!
“If he’s lying on his couch, none of us can sit at the end where his feet are because he’s there literally kicking, constantly jerking his legs playing like he’s the one out on the field,” she told ussoccer.com.
Married to Mark Kaufman, the founder and president of Athletico Physical Therapy (a corporate partner of the U.S. Soccer Federation), Mary Ann and her husband recently looked for ways to honor her father’s love of the game. A proud U.S. Soccer fan, with a continued desire to see the sport grow and witness the Men’s National Team win a World Cup in his lifetime, the family found the perfect way to acknowledge Tsatsis’ passion.
In summer 2016, through the Mark and Mary Ann Kaufman Foundation, the couple made a significant endowment in Jim’s name to establish the Dimitrios Tsatsis Scholarship Fund. This scholarship, as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Scholarship Program, provides need-based financial aid to the nation’s most talented young players to train and compete at the highest level.
The average annual household income of a Scholarship Participant during the 2015-16 Academy season was $24,224, which is less than the 2015 Federal Poverty Level for a family of four ($24,300).
U.S. Soccer is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and the Tsatsis Scholarship Fund is the first individual endowment of its kind to create a legacy of developing young talent and the future of the American game.
“The great thing about the scholarship is that he’ll have something to do with the growth of U.S. Soccer and the growth of the game in the USA,” Mary Ann said. “He’s been here for so many years and he loves soccer. It’s a great honor for him to know he had something to do for the growth of the sport.”
While he’s somewhat shy about the honor of having a Scholarship Fund in his name, Tsatsis is appreciative of the acknowledgement and hopes it inspires more individuals to help support the growth of the game in the United States.
“Whatever Mark and Mary Ann have done for me, maybe other people can do the same to get more people involved in soccer,” he said. “More people should do things like that.”
The Tsatsis and Kaufman family celebrated the establishment of the Tsatsis Scholarship Fund this summer at the U.S. Women’s National Team’s match against South Africa at Soldier Field in Chicago this summer.
The Team won 1-0. Before kick-off, Tsatsis and Mark met with Head Coach Jill Ellis at midfield. Tsatsis, who avoids the spotlight, was recognized in front of nearly 20,000 people.
“I want to sincerely thank Jim,” Ellis said about the Tsatsis Scholarship Fund. “[The Fund] will certainly impact boys and girls in the development of soccer in our country. I think it will help us to continue to compete for World Championships and Olympic Gold medals.”
Tsatsis went from playing pick-up games in the mountains of Greece to standing center-field with the head coach of the number-one women’s soccer team on the planet. His legacy on the game did not come from playing professionally or raising a World Cup trophy, but by being a passionate fan and sharing his love with the next generation.
“Jim came from a pretty humble background in Greece,” Mark said. “He made his way to this country and worked for everything he had. He put his kids through college, ran his own business… It’s a great American success story.”
And through his legacy with the Scholarship Fund, Tsatsis’ incredible story is just the beginning of so many more.
Thank you, Jim. And thank you to all our fans like you whose passion for the Beautiful Game is inspiring the future and our nation.
Click here for more information on the U.S. Soccer Development Fund.