The Howard Years -- Remembering Keith Aqui (1945-2016)

By Paul Gardner

There comes a reminder -- a sad reminder, alas -- from the 1970s. The death of Keith Aqui brings flooding back memories of college soccer, and the exploits of Howard University.

Aqui was on the Howard team that, in 1971, won the Division I title. A tremendous upset, the first time an all-black college had ever won a major NCAA title.

Upset indeed -- obviously there were people within college soccer who were greatly upset, who didn’t like what had happened. The NCAA was “notified” -- by whom? -- that Howard was using ineligible players. An official NCAA inquiry followed, Howard was found guilty, and stripped of the title.

Aqui was a prime target of the investigators. He was 25, suspiciously old of course, and the NCAA nailed him and four other players. So Aqui had played his last game for Howard, the bittersweet, win-it-lose-it, final of 1971.

I was at that final. I remember Aqui quite well. I never spoke to him but, oh yes, he spoke to me. He and the whole Howard team spoke to me with their vibrant soccer.

That experience rekindled my interest in the college game, which had been fading rapidly. I had seen far too many games that featured nothing but athleticism. The word I got sick of hearing was “hustle” -- that, it seemed, was the be-all and end-all of college soccer.

Suddenly here was Howard, sparkling with a different type of soccer, one that seemed to me to be a much truer and livelier version, one that allowed the sport itself to star.

Howard had athleticism, of course -- you cannot play this sport without plenty of that. But it was athleticism at the service of soccer. It did not dominate the proceedings. The skill of the Howard players did that.

And the player who -- eventually -- caught my eye was Aqui. Their goalscoring forward. Eventually, because Aqui started that 1971 final on the bench, with a fever. The fever miraculously vanished when opponents St. Louis went up 2-1. Enter Aqui -- and enter an ominous threat for St. Louis. He did not score himself but two of his teammates did.

Aqui had a special soccer quality that all good forwards need. Difficult to define. I recall a comment from Diego Maradona, before a game against Germany. “Ganaremos nosotros,” he confidently asserted, “Tenemos mas picardia.” We’ll win, we have more ... well, more what? More picardia.

And I still can’t quite get the right meaning for picardia. Trickiness? Cheekiness? Sneakiness? Probably craftiness comes closest. Whatever, it is a knack that Aqui had. The feints, the quick movement, the subtle timing of the moves, the ability to suddenly not be there when the defender moves in, but to be very much there when the ball arrives. A menace, a player who unsettles defenders, who makes them nervous.

There’s a lot to picardia and much of it has a distinct personal quality. No doubt that makes it so difficult to define. I don’t think it can be coached. It wasn’t seen too often in college soccer. It is part of the artistry that soccer needs, but which is too often suppressed in the interests of hustle.

Aqui had that artistry. Later I decided that “artful” was the right word for him. His movement could be dangerously direct, or stealthily subtle, whichever he sensed was needed. But it always had the balance and the rhythm of the born soccer player.

These were true soccer values. When they were absent, which they generally were in college soccer, the sport was diminished. Howard coach Lincoln Phillips knew their value, and he let Aqui use them. When, so effortlessly, he brought them into action, soccer began to look like the Beautiful Game.

That was all I saw of Aqui -- in the huge and echoingly empty Orange Bowl, he played in the 1-0 semifinal win over Harvard, then his substitute role in the final. I would have loved to see more.

His college days were over. But Howard’s Day, along with coach Lincoln Phillips’ Day, arrived in 1974 when they again won the Division I trophy, this time for keeps. And surely Keith Aqui had played a big part in the events leading to that belated celebration.

6 comments about "The Howard Years -- Remembering Keith Aqui (1945-2016)".
  1. Kevin Sims, November 17, 2016 at 1:29 p.m.

    PICARDIA or craftiness can be coached ... by allowing it to blossom ... by celebrating it ... by encouraging young players to take as much risk as they can muster, to dare to show flare, to make friends with failure yet try again & again ... not every player will blossom so, but nobody will blossom when organization & positions & results dominate

  2. Allan Lindh, November 17, 2016 at 1:31 p.m.

    Well played, Paul Gardner.

  3. Ric Fonseca replied, November 17, 2016 at 2:11 p.m.

    I also had the pleasure of meeting Kieth Aqui in 1970 and in subsequent years, as well as coach Lincoln Phillips and also remember the vastness of the Orange Bowl when the NCAA held the - though not called then as such - "Final Four". I was the team manager and somewhat assistant coach for UCLA, and I can tell you that not only was Howard singled out, but UCLA was also looked at with deep suspicion given it's almost full team comprised of "student athlete immigrants." As such UCLA and Howard bonded with each other and one current former player that knew them well was none other than Sigi Schmid. Keith you were and will continue to be a true gentleman and athlete! Rest in Peace!

  4. brian gilmore, November 17, 2016 at 4:16 p.m.

    My neighbor for 12 years. Total class act as a person. Did not know he was a legend of soccer as well as a superb human being. God Bless this guy. Always. I do remember the Howard teams growing up in DC, so this just makes that time extra special now.

  5. Richard Broad, November 17, 2016 at 5:22 p.m.

    Sad news but a reminder of a special time in college soccer/all of soccer in this country. Lincoln Phillips put together a remarkable group of athletes and soccer players who were the best in the collegiate ranks. They deserve to be remembered for what they accomplished, regardless of how the NCAA judged them.

  6. Denny Werner, November 23, 2016 at 10:18 a.m.

    Not taking away from Keith Aqui, who was a very good player and a gentleman. Mr Gardner, as usual, just dismiss the fact that Howard used ineligible players and was punished just like other schools had been and will be punished for infractions. They were a very good team of ineligible players, playing a team of eligible players. as you stated SLU played with athleticism and played in the NCAA finals, six years straight. It seems if you don't like the way the game is played, it isn't soccer! By the way SLU beat Howard in 1972 when they didn't have their ineligible players. in the semi-finals at the Orange Bowl.
    However, Howard did win the NCAA in 1974 with eligible players and that championship stands, as it should.

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