One of the teenagers Toby Rappolt hired to work at Sunset Soccer Supply was an ethnic Armenian who fled Uzbekistan with his mother in 1991 and settled in San Francisco. The boy hardly spoke English but Rappolt figured his love of soccer and enthusiasm for the opportunity would see him through.
"He was fascinated where all the customers came from," says Rappolt, who started the business in 1981. "I put up a map and got map pins. And he'd go, 'Where are you from?' And the guy would say Burlingame. Then he'd ask, 'No. Where are you from originally?' And he'd go and put a pin on the map.
"After a year, the map was pretty much covered except for Siberia."
If you've been part of San Francisco Bay Area soccer community over the last few decades, you probably have a connection with Toby and Sunset Soccer Supply, and likely beyond buying shoes or shinguards. Mine came in 1989, when I discovered he loaned videos from the 1972 European Championship, providing me the chance to watch the Germany team that my grandfather told me was its best ever.
While I reminisced with Rappolt at an outdoor cafe a few weeks ago, a man walked by with his 10-year-old son, gave a second glance and said: "Hey, you're Toby! My dad used to take me to your store all the time."
Ben Gucciardi, who founded Soccer Without Borders in 2005, grew up in San Francisco and started visiting Sunset Soccer Supply, located a block from Golden Gate Park, in the mid-1990s at age 11 and went there through his teens.
"Toby was such a popular, sort of legendary figure out there when I was growing up and his store was the hub of the soccer community," Gucciardi said. "There'd always be videos of games on the TV. We'd hang out, check out the gear. It was a real jogo bonito vibe."
Rappolt, a longtime coach at San Francisco Vikings SC for which his wife, Libby, serves as president, was a senior in high school when he coached his first team. It included a sixth-grader named Aram Kardzair, now a University of San Francisco Hall of Famer who won a pair U.S. Open titles with the Lothar Osiander-coached San Francisco Greek-Americans.
"It was a soccer haven," says Kardzair, who became an accountant and at times helped Rappolt with Sunset Soccer Supply payroll. "It was a place to eat, drink and sleep soccer. I especially loved it because he had the best goalkeeping gear. It was also really special because he gave a lot of the kids jobs. He gave them a chance to make a buck and get work experience."
A kid growing up in Visitacion Valley, the "Cow Palace part of San Francisco," Rappolt had never heard of soccer until he went to a park by himself and came upon a game supervised by a man with a hat, pipe, jacket, tie and dress shoes. He looked at the 7-year-old and said, "Fancy a game?"
Rappolt replied, "Huh?"
"Do you want to play?" clarified the Englishman named John Whittock.
"Yeah! What do I do?" asked Rappolt.
"You chase the ball," answered Whittock.
Rappolt joined the game. "I didn't realize at the time, but that was the moment. Like Leonard Bernstein said when he put his hands on a piano when he was 10, it was 'my rendezvous with destiny.' And that's what I do this day, whenever a kid's on the sideline: 'Hey, you want to play?' That's how it started and it never really stopped."
Whittock was one of the founders of the youth game in San Francisco and introduced Rappolt to Ernie Feibusch -- a German immigrant who's in the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame as a Builder. Feibusch, says Rappolt, became like father to him and coached him at Lowell High School, where "Feibusch made sure we played soccer year round."
After high school ball and playing for Coach Lou Sagastume at San Francisco State, the San Jose Earthquakes made Rappolt the 42nd overall pick in the 1979 NASL draft, the year Jeff Durgan, Angelo DiBernardo and Ty Keough went in the first round.
"Wow," says Rappolt, when I asked him about his brush with the NASL in its prime. "I didn't think anybody knew about that. ... A friend said let's go to the San Jose Earthquakes' tryout. I said that's stupid, we don't have a chance. But we went down to San Jose and there were 150,000 guys there. I won a race that was like 10 times around multi-fields, and I think that's why they invited me to join the veterans for more training."
After being drafted, Coach Terry Fisher told Rappolt he wouldn't get playing time and directed him to the American Soccer League's Los Angeles Skyhawks.
"I lived in the owner's house, a pawn broker who had like eight kids," Rappolt says. "It was the life of a low-level pro. When you asked these English guys on the team where they played last year, they'd say, 'What part of last year?'"
After high school, before playing at San Francisco State, Rappolt had a go at playing in England for more than a year, starting with YMCA teams and then a men's team, and getting to practice with Blackpool, arranged by the YMCA coach.
"The guy I made best friends and lived with was the poorest guy on the team," he says. "He lived in a council estate, basically the projects. ... With Blackpool, I was never 'on their books' and I never played in game. But they let me train, which I started figuring out was because I did all the work without getting paid -- cleaning the locker room, polishing the boots -- other players were supposed to do. The guys smoked, drank and swore. The weather was terrible. It made you hard. It was miserable. But it was great."
The adventure was among Rappolt's ongoing attempts to make soccer a career. After college, he went to graduate school for a degree in education, figuring that teaching could easily be combined with coaching soccer.
Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings with Libby and Toby Rappolt at Sunset Soccer Supply.
Rappolt coached JV girls soccer at the second school of his student teaching while realizing the classroom part of the job wasn't for him.
"I was in limbo with no direction," Rappolt says. "I already knew playing wasn't going to happen. The teaching career I chose wasn't going to happen. What am I going to do?"
While coaching and running camps, he also did contracting "grunt work" when someone suggested if he wanted a career in soccer, he think about what soccer players need. They need soccer balls.
"And that's how it started," Rappolt says. "With 10 yellow soccer balls, selling out of my car. And then one thing led to another and we started selling gear out of our house."
He and a housemate, Scott Talbot, started buying soccer gear from low-end vendors and managed to get an adidas account. In 1981, Rappolt got a business card and a resale license. When an adidas rep warned them they're weren't allowed to sell out of a residency ...
"We found the smallest, cheapest store available," he says. "It looked like a living room. I had money to last three months and figured that would be it. But every month it just kept on going and going."
The landlord noticed the cramped space was insufficient for the growing business and converted garages into store space. Libby, his future wife whom he met on the soccer field, quit her job at a UCSF medical lab to help with the business. (Their son is named Pierre, after Pierre Littbarski, Libby's favorite player at the time.) They used their Daly City home's garage for shipping and receiving.
In 2003, they moved a block over on Irving Street to the corner of 35th Avenue and got a generous lease from a landlady whose grandson Toby coached.
"If we were paying market value, we probably wouldn't have lasted," says Rappolt.
Over the decades Sunset Soccer Supply had survived the surge in catalog sales and internet shopping while the number of soccer specific shops dwindled in the USA that Rappolt believes peaked at 1,200 nationwide.
"We were also like a bar or cafe," he says. "We would encourage people to stay as long as you like." The hanging out included flipping through issues of Soccer America magazines that Sunset Soccer Supply sold.
"It's not only a store, it's also a soccer museum. Amazing place." -- Foursquare City Guide customer review, 2015.
Early on, Rappolt educated himself on the key small business strategies. A consultant visited his store and pointed out Rappolt had a year and half supply of small shoe bags.
"We learned how to manage inventory, which is a small-business killer if you mismanage it," says Rappolt, who says 40% of the income was from uniform sales, which have a smaller margin but without the inventory challenges. "And it's a seasonal business, because there are two seasons, for the spring season and the fall season. You're essentially losing money in the small months and making a lot of money in the big months, and it balances out.
"It's like farming. You have spring harvest and a fall harvest, and in 2020 there was no harvest."
2021 would have marked the 40th anniversary of San Francisco's Sunset Soccer Supply, and then Covid hit.
"For lot of businesses like ours, the source of sales was gone," he said. "Others would go into their savings, get loans while hoping this would end. But for the last seven or eight years, as our work with Viking SC increased, we had been saying that if we ever hit an unprofitable year, we would close."
Rappolt says the closure didn't sadden him. Now he has more time to be on the field and his business had an extraordinary run.
It also left a legacy. Gucciardi puts it well:
"Everybody knows Toby. He was always uplifting and positive, trying to spread soccer. Toby and Libby are such good, kind people. Everything they did on the field or with the store was supporting and putting good energy into our soccer community."
Great write-up, thx. So much history at Sunset Soccer, sad to see it go.
San Francisco's history as a soccer community is worth a story of its own. This wonderfully diverse city of immigrants is reflected in past and present soccer leagues and teams - a quick look at today's SFSFL includes teams that originated from England Ireland Bosnia Poland Russia - and of course Mexico, Central America and Sourh America are all well represented in SF and around the Bay.
Great story, Mike. Thank you. Happy Holidays everyone.
Nice story Mike, thanks for sharing ...
Great story. Toby and Libby are SF soccer pioneers. We need more people like them. They do it for the love of the game. I am glad that I got to played with Toby but more importantly I got to brake bread with him.
Mike, Great story capturing the power (and legacy) of a local soccer store. When we lived in Omaha, Tony Turco, Soccer Internationale was our local businessman, soccer store for all things soccer. It was always a treat to take our kids to the store and see them light up over the latest cleats, kits, balls. I hope we don't lose our local soccer stores like so many other retail small businesses. Thanks for sharing Mike! Support our local soccer stores!
A great story about the roots on how the game grew here. Every city that has a great soccer community there was a store with a Toby, and builders like John & Ernie. Thanks Mike
Maybe SA can do a short story on Sports Page Soccer Warehouse a long time big time soccer store in OC Ca. It seems like most soccer folks in SO CAL shop there. Elias the owner has had 3 differnt locations over 30 years. He is an icon in SO CAL. Cheers to him and his staff.