The man known as the “father of metro-east soccer” may get a statue to his memory in Granite City, courtesy of some of the people he coached.
Ruben Mendoza was a three-time member of the U.S. Olympic soccer team and was a member of the U.S. national soccer team. Now, in his honor, a committee that includes Madison County Coroner Steve Nonn is fundraising a statue in the style of the “famous Mendoza kick.”
Mendoza was born in St. Louis, but his family moved to Durango, Mexico, when he was 8 years old. He learned to play soccer there, and eventually won a championship title in Mexico.
He returned to the metro-east when he was 16 and settled in Granite City. He rose through the St. Louis Major League, Municipal League and other teams throughout the 1950s. According to the committee, he was a prolific scorer who wore the No. 10 jersey and popularized the Mendoza kick, which eventually became known as the bicycle kick.
Mendoza was playing for the St. Louis Raiders (later renamed St. Louis Kutis) when they won the National Amateur Cup in 1952 and 1956-60. Later he played for the United States in the World Cup and was in the starting lineup for the Summer Olympics team.
In 1960, a knee injury forced Mendoza’s retirement. But he wasn’t done with soccer. He partnered with the Granite City YMCA to create local youth leagues in the 1960s, working with many early coaches who went on to form new teams and spread the game to other metro-east cities. He lobbied Granite City, Edwardsville, Collinsville and other area districts to begin high school soccer teams, and his club teams went on the state and regional competitions.
Nonn is secretary of the committee, but in those days, he was a kid introduced to soccer by Mendoza.
“I still have very clear, vivid memories of my playing time with Ruben as my coach,” Nonn said. There were only four soccer teams in Nonn’s age group in the metro-east at that time, so Mendoza took the teams over to St. Louis to play in better competition.
“Even to this day, some 50 years later, there is still a special kinship and bond between all of us,” Nonn said. “We were part of the birth of soccer in Granite City that eventually led to many state soccer championships in later years, and Ruben had an influence in the development of those players ... Those were the best days of my life.”
According to the committee, Mendoza was known as the father of Granite City soccer, but was truly “father of metro-east soccer.” He organized, coached, provided equipment, and transported players “while instilling positive life values and behaviors in the thousands of individuals he touched into the 1980s,” the release read.
“I had no idea what soccer was, never heard of it, never played it until a classmate of mine asked me to join him in a practice and I fell in love with the game,” Nonn said. “Ruben was a great teacher and very patient in teaching the game.”
For Ruben’s wife, Norma Mendoza, soccer was part of their family tradition and central to Ruben’s life. They met as he was working in a barbershop during breaks from playing soccer, and she was carpooling to her job in 1958. He would stand outside the barbershop and wait for her, but never spoke to her until they were both invited to a coffee shop on Christmas Eve. They were married two years later.
After Ruben’s professional career ended, he rounded up kids on the street corners and soon had so many kids vying to learn soccer that they formed the leagues, and later convinced schools to add soccer teams.
He just loved the game, she said. She spent a lot of time by the sidelines — in fact, she met the rest of the Mendoza family watching Ruben play soccer. All the kids played soccer growing up — their daughters’ desire to play with the rest of the family spurred pushing for girls’ teams in the era before Title IX.
“People who don’t appreciate soccer think it’s boring, but there’s a lot of finesse involved in the plays and the way they pass the ball back and forth,” Norma said.
The family ran a sporting goods store for a time, which suffered when competition from big-box retailers came in. But still Ruben’s volunteer work continued — Norma marveled at modern soccer camps charging $350 for a week when Ruben was doing it for free as long as the kids showed up. “He truly gave himself to the sport, to the community and the kids,” she said. “He never did anything for self-aggrandizement or money … That was his legacy, what he believed in.”
But Ruben didn’t just teach the kids the rules of the game — he taught them rules of life as well, Norma said.
“Many of them say they learned (from Ruben Mendoza) how to be a gentleman, to conduct themselves properly and stay out of trouble,” she said. “When I see these kids like (Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer) — he’s a kid to me — and what they’ve achieved, I believe what they say about how Ruben helped them not just to play soccer, but to be people who could accomplish things.”
And yet, Norma said Ruben would be embarrassed by all the fuss over him now. “He would be impressed, but for something to be that notable … he was very humble about things like that,” she said. “He would be proud and thrilled that they think that much of him.”
Mendoza was inducted into the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame in 1984, and died in 2010. The line to pay respects at his funeral stretched for hours, according to the committee.
“A statue is a fitting tribute to a kind and great man, ‘Mr. Soccer,’” Nonn said.
Now the Ruben Mendoza Memorial Committee wants to erect a statue of Mendoza performing his “bicycle kick” in downtown Granite City. In addition, the stretch of Niedringhaus Avenue from Madison Avenue to Illinois 3 by the Melvin Price Center will be renamed Ruben Mendoza Way.
The committee will be selling memorial bricks to be placed in the walkway around the site of the statue, which has not yet been decided. The cost of the bricks and of bench sponsorships have not been determined. More about the fundraising can be found via the Granite City Area Community Foundation.
The first event is a trivia night to take place Saturday, Dec 2, with online registration underway for $160 tables of eight players. For more information or to donate or sponsor the fundraiser, contact committee spokesman Domingo Valencia at 604-9005.