Hank Steinbrecher: A great American soccer man checks in from the surf

Our friend Hank Steinbrecher is unequivocally one of the greatest contributors* to the growth of American soccer. When we saw this piece by Steinbrecher, published on his Facebook page and in The East Hampton Star, we wanted to make sure that the Soccer America family had a chance to read it.

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The day began well enough. Up before dawn with childlike anticipation, clear skies and a bit of the night chill still in the air. Out for a big breakfast. Sun up, getting warm, we headed east on Montauk Highway to Montauk Point.

I had been there often as a young lad, some 50 years ago. The area then was nearly barren of buildings. A few beautiful homes and the old Montauk Tower. Now it’s a mega resort, a playground for the rich.

Young and passionate about surfing, my friends and I would make the long trek east to find the best waves on Long Island. Ditch Plain was my favorite spot. We would drive out and camp for a few days of surfing.

On this day I was heading there after being landlocked for the past 36 years. Chicago and Tucson do not produce great surf. I yearned for the rhythms of the ocean. I have always found it cathartic. Dreamed about it, actually. We turned into the beach parking lot and there she was. The Atlantic Ocean.

My son has served in the military for the past 20 years. He and I have not spent more than a few days at a time together, because of his deployments and my international travel. On his last deployment he sent me a message.

“Dad, I have sent you a ticket in the email. We are going on a trip together.”

Where are we going?

“It is a surprise. Once you get here [Washington, D.C.], we will have a seven-hour drive. We will spend the week together.”

He knows how to keep a secret. I felt like a kid a week before Christmas. I got out my compass and looked on a map at the 500 miles around D.C. Ah, he’s taking me to the beaches of South Carolina. We spent many a vacation there.

Wrong. We headed north from his house. Where were we going? “It’s a surprise.” Over the George Washington Bridge. Going to New England?

Wrong. Over the Throgs Neck Bridge. This was my old stomping grounds. Past Levittown, my hometown. What were we doing? My son was taking me home. We would spend the week reliving my past.

Wrong. The boy can really keep a secret. We arrive in East Hampton. He’d booked a B&B; here for the week. We would relax and get to know each other again.

Wrong again. The next morning, we went to Grain Surfboards. These guys are the best. My son had arranged for us to build a classic wooden surfboard from scratch. Grain sources sustainable wood to build their skateboards and surfboards. Wood, not foam boards. Classic.

It was our project. We spent every moment of the week together. The depth of our conversations and frankness of our talks were marvelous to experience. Yet the most salient moments came when there was no conversation. In the quiet. Feeling the bond between father and son. It was a real reconnection. That alone was worth its weight in gold.

My college teammate and dear friend, Antonio Rutigliano, lives in East Hampton. We were able to hook up with him and shared many stories and meals.

Back to Ditch Plain, where the story began. I am a 74-year-old man diagnosed with end-stage heart and kidney disease. Complicated by Parkinson’s. Told that I need a heart and kidney transplant. However, I did not qualify. They said that there was not much more they could do. Go live life.

I have been unstable and weak in the legs. Yet here we were making a new board. My son truly knows me. I may never use it but my family will, hopefully my grandchildren.

We ambled out to the beach. I sat down in a chair we’d brought. Immediately I felt a sense of serenity. I’d brought my camera and took shots of the surfers. The lads from Grain Surfboards, Brian, Theo, and Luke, were with us, along with a friend of theirs, Jay. Jay is a hulk of a man with great humanity. Brian, Theo, and Luke are unique businessmen. They showed us genuine care, compassion, hard work, artistry, and intelligence. They were fun guys to be around.

I have come to know the ocean and love it. There is really something mythical and magical about the surf. You are at the junction of land, water, air, and wind. They envelope you. Yet you can master them. The rhythm of surf is hypnotic. I have learned that the ocean has many moods. On some days it can be very angry, other days peaceful. Now it was happy. The surf was a two-to-three-foot swell. A slight offshore breeze, sunny and warm. Many surfers in the water.

Sitting there I yearned to be in it. My son asked, “Want go surfing?” Given my condition, I would have to be out of my mind to say yes. I can barely walk without assistance.

“Hell, yes! Go for it!”

So, my son, Jay, and Brian got a board and helped me into the surf. Theo documented the journey in photos. We walked in, surf coming at us. I felt an immediate sense of excitement and simultaneously a sense of peace. The waves were coming in and we were going out. I was determined to get past the break. The first sizable wave came at us. I duck-dived under it, reliving childhood memories. The feel of the ocean breaking over my head and through my hair was energizing. I felt great satisfaction and happiness.

“How many more days do I have left?” I thought. Thank God and thank my son for giving me at least one last chance to feel this harmony with nature.

We made it out past the break. We stayed there for a bit and then made the journey back to shore. Weakened, I needed lots of help to get back in. I climbed onto the board, lying flat and too far back to catch anything. The nose of the board was high in the water. No way to catch a wave.

The lads got my legs back under me and walked me out of the surf. I must have looked like a beached whale. My son and I embraced, teary-eyed in each other’s arms.

We made the trek back to the surf shop. I was exhausted and energized all at the same time. You could say I was “stoked.” Indeed, my son had brought me back home.

Photos by Theo Papademetriou / Grain Surfboards

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* During Hank Steinbrecher's tenure as U.S. Soccer Secretary General (1990-2000), the USA hosted the 1994 World Cup and hosted and won the 1999 Women's World Cup. It also won the first Women's World Cup (China 1991) and Olympic women's soccer competition (Atlanta 1996). Steinbrecher was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame as a builder in 2005 and the Werner Fricker Builder Award in 2012.

(“Hank has been one of the most important people in developing and guiding the sport in this country. Under his leadership, U.S. Soccer accomplished numerous achievements and earned respect across the world for the Federation’s success on and off the field.” -- Sunil Gulati.)

Steinbrecher was recognized by United Soccer Coaches with the 1990 Bill Jeffrey Long-Term Service Award and presented the 2005 Honor Award, the association’s highest honor. The USASA national amateur champions compete for the Hank Steinbrecher Cup.

A New York native, Steinbrecher grew up playing soccer and won an NAIA national championship at Davis & Elkins College in 1970. Steinbrecher served as head coach at Warren Wilson College, Appalachian State and Boston University. While at BU, he served as the venue director of the 1984 Olympic men's soccer competition in Cambridge, Mass. He was later director of sports marketing at Quaker Oats -- when such positions weren't held by soccer enthusiasts -- before joining U.S. Soccer.

15 comments about "Hank Steinbrecher: A great American soccer man checks in from the surf".
  1. frank schoon, August 21, 2021 at 8:40 a.m.

    Much Love,

  2. Wooden Ships, August 21, 2021 at 10:59 a.m.

    Wonderful read Hank and Hooah to your son for his service and for whisking you away for the week. I met you twice, once in St. Louis and many years later in a small midwestern town. Incredibly your wife and mine are from the same tumbleweed berg. 2002 before Japan-Korea, you were exiting an Italian eatery and I was entering. Can't remember which brands of soccer clothing we were wearing, but it was clear we were soccer people. After, several people were asking who you were. My initial comment was, "you aren't going to believe this, but...." Best wishes to you and thanks for your dedication and love of soccer. 

  3. Wayne Rasmussen, August 21, 2021 at 12:25 p.m.

    Great story Hank.  You have been a great friend to the development of soccer in America, and an even greater friend to so many in the beautiful game.

  4. Wayne Norris, August 21, 2021 at 1:10 p.m.

    Hank, from one D&E guy to another......wonderful representative of D&E and US Soccer all these years! Best wishes.....

  5. Richard Groff, August 21, 2021 at 1:39 p.m.

    Hank  From the moment I met you Italy in 1990 , when you were working for Quaker Oats, and we were both excited about the World Cup Final, your passion for our sport was so impressive.  Thank you for your ability to lead and grow US Soccer. Thank you to your family for sharing you with the soccer world. Your continuing advice to US Soccer is important and makes a difference.

  6. Dan Woog, August 21, 2021 at 3:25 p.m.

    Fantastic story. Hank is a true hero on the American soccer scene. I am proud to call him a friend, and an inspiration. He has caught many waves, in many ways. Well done, Hank!

  7. Kevin Sims, August 21, 2021 at 4:52 p.m.

    Enjoyed this social media post from Hank. Glad to see it available for wider consumption. 

  8. James Madison, August 21, 2021 at 5:27 p.m.

    Great to read from and about Hank. Heartbreaking to learn of his physical condition. What a wonderful loving son!!!

  9. Ric Fonseca, August 21, 2021 at 7:37 p.m.

    Amigos para siempre!!!  I met Coach Hank many years ago and then "solidified" my acquaintanship that grew to a friendship.  When I first entered the "realm" of youth and then amateur-yout state soccer, finally collegiate soccer, I vividly remeber writing him a note to see if he could send my new community college (L.A. Mission College) a cooler and some sports-drink poweder mix, little knowing that Coach Hank arranged to send us five coolers and several cartons of the powder drink.  Imagine my utter surprise when I arrived home and waiting for me were these cartons Gatorade and the coolers - which I then immediately ualed into our garage and took them to the College!
    I later got to know Coach Hank when he came to L.A. when Alan Rothenberg was running for US Soccer President, and then later on when he was appointed manager of US Soccer and running WC USA 1994!.  I've more stories, but suffice to say that he was and IS a true CABALLERO of US Soccer, and a true friend to and for our then fledgeling Latin American Soccer Coaches Association.  I anjoyed reading about his love of surfing and spending time with his son - to whom I extend a very sincere THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.  I hope and trust that I may be able to see Coach Hank at the next Socer Coaches Convention in the meantime from the Fonseca household to Coach Hank, saludos, abrazos, y mucha felicidad nuestro gran amigo!!!
    The H. Ric Fonseca Family

  10. Mike Lynch, August 21, 2021 at 11:44 p.m.

    Hank, thanks for sharing this beautiful moment with your son. Thank YOU for your commitment to soccer in the US! Thanks to your son for his service to our country! You and your D&E teammates are remarkable and have made a mark like few others on the US Soccer landscape. Truly amazing, all of you. Thank YOU for your leadership and grace. 

  11. Bill Dooley, August 22, 2021 at 12:17 a.m.

    Back in the days when Hank would speak to promote the game, you'd soon be expecting to see the flyover and fireworks. Wonderful times. Great for soccer in the USA. 

  12. Susan Hirsch, August 22, 2021 at 1:37 p.m.


  13. Arnold Ramirez, August 22, 2021 at 3:52 p.m.

    Hi Hank, what a beautiful story of you and your son. I first met Hank when we coached against each other. Always a gentleman, always a class act. Wishing you all the best.

  14. Hue Menzies, August 22, 2021 at 5:32 p.m.

    Great story and wonderful generational memory. Nuff respect to you and your son. 

  15. Luis Sagastume, August 26, 2021 at 3:25 p.m.

    Hank. What a great moment to spend with your sons, thanks for sharing! Truly enjoyed the moments we had together. My prayers are with you praying that you enjoy other moments like the one you just experienced. Love and peace! Lou Sagastume. 

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