NSCAA Gives SA Founder Clay Berling Honor Award

The National Soccer Coaches Association of America's highest award is the Honor Award. This year's winner -- announced at the awards dinner at the NSCAA's 50th annual convention in Nashville, Tenn. -- is Soccer America chairman and founder Clay Berling, the first non-player, coach or referee to receive the award, which is voted upon by a 24-member committee by secret vote.

By C. Cliff McCrath

Martin Luther has long been acclaimed as the master of The Reformation. He was undaunted in his pursuit of the goals he established in the retaliation to the prevailing religious views in the 16th century. At the same time, he was somewhat of an enigma, who not only challenged the hierarchy of the day, but managed to offend a number of people as he journeyed throughout Europe. For example, in the winter of 1510, while trudging eastern Switzerland, he offended most of the nobility when he referred to the fabled Swiss Alps as "huge warts on the face of the earth, a vestige of the curse left over from the Flood."

A lesser known reformer, from the neighboring canton of Glarus, was a parish priest by the name of Huldrych Zwingli, who, an early biographer by the name of Marconius claimed, was far more welcome because growing up in those mountains made him more attuned to heavenly pursuits. Although both experience substantial success in their reformational polemic, Zwingli became somewhat of a Protestant Machiavelli, a religious statesman bent upon directing the political and economic affairs of his people as well as the entire life of society. To that extent, our honor award recipient for 1996, is a modern day Zwingli who, although denied childhood dwellings in the mountains, nonetheless must have had heaven on his side to accomplish what he has over the past three decades.

He was born in Escalan, Calif., Nov. 25, 1930. He grew up in San Francisco and throughout most of his adult life lived in nearby Albany, Calif. He attended San Francisco's Lowell High School, where he became on of the school's youngest graduates at age 16. He entered San Francisco City College from which he transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in chemistry. While attending Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings in San Francisco -- around age 13 -- he met a beautiful young girl, named Ruth Ellen Craig, who became his "steady item" and upon graduation from Berkeley in 1952, Ruth and Clayton Gustaf Berling were married. Shortly thereafter, Clay was drafted and, after basic training at California's Fort Ord, he was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, where he would serve for the next two years. In 1954, Lynette Anne Berling was born and over the next eight years, Clay and Ruth, both only children, would have six of their own. Lynn would be joined by Janet Louis Ceja-Orozco, who is the mother of Clay and Ruth's first two grandchildren, Victor and Mirella; Sheryl Suzanne Berling-Wolfe, who is married to Charles Wolfe and living in Arizona; James Craig Berling of San Francisco and the only single sibling of the Berling family; Alan Keith Berling, an administrator at UC Berkeley who is married to Janice; and, finally, Kenneth Craig Berling, an engineering consultant who is married to Olivia. They are the proud parents of Clay's other grandchildren, Suzanna and Claudia -- from Olivia's first marriage -- and Ken Jr., otherwise known as "Kenito."

Upon returning to civilian life, Clay and Ruth moved to Albany, Calif., where Clay became a chemistry Instructor at Oakland City College. They bought an old, run-down, former barn of a house -- which was in such disreputable condition that it was considered the local "haunted house." Clay bought a "how-to-do-it" encyclopedia, taught himself wiring, plumbing, construction and everything else it required to remodel the place. The remodeling project took about 20 years inasmuch as there never seemed to be enough time and money at the same point.

In 1961, a family friend convinced Clay that he would have a brighter future in business and he joined the State Farm Insurance Company as an agent. Over the next 36 years, he built a reputable, small agency, which remarkably, he still continues to oversee with all the other things that occupy his life since his conversion -- make that addiction -- to soccer.

Speaking of soccer, the Berling family's odyssey with The Great Game began in 1967 when the Oakland Clippers -- of pre-NASL soccer -- came to the Oakland Coliseum. The team's inexpensive -- make that cheap -- ticket plan made it not only possible, but downright alluring to attend games.

Clay did just that, and took the entire family to see a game they knew nothing about for an inexpensive afternoon's entertainment. It would turn out to be the most expensive decision he ever made. What happened next can best be described in the words of Soccer America's current publisher and editor-in-chief, Lynn Berling-Manuel: "The entire family soon became Clipper's -- and soccer fans. They were part of a small but passionate home crowd and occasionally took family car trips to Los Angeles to follow the team on the road. Clay became entranced with the game, considering it a fantastic opportunity for kids, even though none of Clay's children ever played more than casually. For Clay, who had never played most sports, soccer hit a resonant cord -- as a sport any kid could play and enjoy. He also was handicapped by a lack of coaching experience but did possess infinite administrative and business skills that led to immediate involvement in San Francisco Bay Area soccer.

He served in a variety of capacities for the California Soccer Association North, as well as local senior leagues. In the early '70s, he founded and served as commissioner of the NorCal Soccer League, a regional, semiprofessional league that was an early model for the USISL.

In 1971, Clay's frustration at not being able to find enough soccer news prompted him to launch a biweekly newsletter called Soccer West. By 1972, the name had been changed to Soccer America, the publication had gone national in its coverage and distribution and it had become a weekly. And albeit its circulation numbered only in the hundreds, Clay's avocation had suddenly taken on all the trappings of a vocation.

When it graduated from the kitchen table -- and Clay's State Farm desk -- the first "offices" of Soccer America were a Sunday school room rented from the Albany United Methodist Church. In addition to Clay, there was a part-time editor who made his real living as a mail carrier. Clay's daughter, Janet, was one of the first legitimate employees, responsible for distribution. Today, 25 years later Soccer America is in a 5,600 square foot building -- less than a mile from its first office -- and has 23 full-time employees.

The next 25 years were a roller-coaster ride that followed the ups and downs of soccer in America. Soccer America lost money for nearly 20 years, draining every resource Clay had available to him. His State Farm business often underwrote Soccer America. Even in its bleakest days, however, Clay was inspired by two immutable facts: (1) Soccer needed Soccer America -- and therefore it must continue -- and (2) Soccer America could never go out of business because Clay was honor-bound to pay back every subscriber every dime -- even if it took him the rest of his life. And therein lies the primary notion behind this colossal effort. What most people fail to realize is what a phenomenal struggle it was to keep Soccer America alive and moving forward, especially in the early years. Clay had no background in publishing, which meant starting from scratch with nothing but a vision. He had a business to run as a full-time State Farm agent, a wife with long-term health problems, six kids to help raise, and an active role in church and community affairs. He begged and borrowed money to keep Soccer America afloat and tapped every mental, physical and emotional resource to keep it moving forward. And whenever the obstacles seemed insurmountable, mysterious things would happen to keep the dream alive.

One of Clay's favorite anecdotes is about being at one of his lowest points ever. Money was due everywhere, and he was just about to give up when he received an impassioned letter from none other than last year's Honor Award recipient, Joe Morrone, telling Clay how important Soccer America was to the burgeoning soccer community and that he valued what Soccer America was doing. That note stopped Clay from "pulling the plug." He chose to dig in deeper and help Soccer America finally get over the hump. And the rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

What Clay -- and the Berling family -- did not know was that soon they would face personal challenges and hardships that would make the struggling Soccer America pale by comparison.

The first of these involved Ruth, Clay's wife of almost 40 years. Ruth was an active partner in Soccer America and, in addition to all her wifely and motherly duties, she became the cut-and-paste champion of the early editions. She also was the magazine's first typesetter and later became the production manager supervising the launching and development of all of Soccer America's famous directory projects including the Yellow Pages, College Choice, Camp directory and Tournament Calendar.

As a child Ruth, had been smitten by rheumatic fever, leaving her with irreparable damage to her heart from which she would struggle throughout life. In 1974, her scarred heart needed a valve transplant that had to be repeated twice more in the following years -- the latest of which was in 1988. After three of her healthiest years ever, she passed away Jan. 26, 1991 -- four days after her 60th birthday. A blood clot thrown off by the artificial valve apparently struck her brain while she was taking a nap on a Saturday afternoon. She had laid down, took her glasses off and never woke up. Later that afternoon, Clay came home to find her. Thinking she was still sleeping, he tried to wake her, but to no avail. The paramedics arrived and took her to the hospital, but she was gone. It was a sad night as their children and grandchildren arrived at the emergency room to say good-bye.

Two years later, Clay would marry Patricia Hendry, a pure soccer aficionado he had met casually years earlier when she was a volunteer -- later paid staff member -- working with Peter Bridgwater on the U.S. vs. USSR game at Stanford Stadium. Clay remembered her and they began a serious relationship that culminated in a huge wedding with all their family and friends.

Pat was an independent, outgoing, fun-loving lady -- which Clay found to be the perfect match to help bring him out of the despair of Ruth's death. She was a bigger-than-life soccer fan, having raised two soccer-playing sons and worked at a variety of soccer events in the Bay Area. They moved to Richmond, Calif., and made plans to travel, entertain and enjoy soccer. But tragedy would strike again.

In 1994, just prior to the World Cup, Pat was diagnosed with liver cancer and began chemotherapy immediately. World Cup '94 was kind enough to provide special seating because she no longer could sit in the sun. But her lack of strength caused her to miss most of the special gatherings and the people she so dearly loved. She made it to the World Cup in Los Angeles but, after a grueling battle, passed away in October 1995.

Recently, Sarah Wedge, one of Pat's closest friends, has become a significant person in Clay's life. She is a psychotherapist practicing in Los Altos and residing in Santa Clara, Calif., but possesses a rich soccer heritage of her own. Sarah is the mother of a grown son Doug, a policeman, who was the goalkeeper on the second-place team in the 1988 McGuire Cup Championship. In addition, her father was the legendary Walter McCloud, one of the founding fathers and early patriarchs of the National Soccer Coaches Association. More importantly, to know Sarah is to know that Clay has been "touched by an angel!"

So what do we have here: A mountain of a man who had a vision for a game he knew nothing about. A man who has been politically active -- particularly in his community. He has served on planning boards, the Parks and Recreation Commission, on the board of directors of the YMCA and such reformational efforts as the Henry George School of Social Science, as well as the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and, of course, the Albany United Methodist Church. In addition, he has been recognized by a number of soccer organizations who have bestowed special honors on him, including induction into the California Youth Soccer Association Hall of Fame; the NSCAA's Honorary All-America Award in 1983; the esteemed NSCAA Letter of Commendation in 1987; the Soccer Industry Council of America's Simon Sherman Award in 1990 and induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1995.

But in comparison to most soccer denizens, Clay Berling is not a player, is not a coach, is not a referee. He has no wins no losses and no ties to his credit. But then again, perhaps he has more wins, ties, losses and records than all the coaches and players in the game. Because without Soccer America, we wouldn't really know about each other. We wouldn't be as aware of wins and losses and strategies and coaches-of-the-year and records and where and how our game fits in with the rest of the world. We would be more isolated, perhaps, even more esoteric, than we are now. For in reality, he may well be the legend of legends -- the keeper and caretaker of our journeys. The clarion of the hope and fears, the wins, losses and the aspirations of pilgrimage. After all, what would our records mean without the record-keeper?

Luther was wrong. The magnificent Alps were not warts on the face of the earth. They were -- and are -- metaphors for our collective embrace of The Great Game. Zwingli would have been proud -- as we are -- of the NSCAA's 1996 Honor Award recipient: Clayton Gustaf "Clay" Berling!

(C. Cliff McCrath is the head men's coach at Seattle Pacific University. He presents the NSCAA Honor Award annually.)

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