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Obituary of Harry J. Keough: Iconic amateur soccer player and coach

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 8, 2012 - Harry Keough, who played defense on the U.S. soccer team that turned the world upside down by stunning England in the 1950 World Cup and helped ensure St. Louis' place in soccer history, died Tuesday morning at Bethesda Dilworth in St. Louis. He was 84.

Mr. Keough had begun to develop Alzheimer's several years ago, said his daughter, Colleen Keough Erker. Until two years ago, he had lived in south St. Louis near the neighborhood where he grew up and honed his soccer skills.

His memorial service will be at 10 a.m., Sat., Feb. 11 at Saint Francis Xavier College Church on the Saint Louis University campus.

Mr. Keough was one of five St. Louisans on the 11-member World Cup squad that defeated England.

"He was one of the icons of the sport," said Dave Lange, author of "Soccer Made in St. Louis," "and he was part of probably the biggest upset in the history of the World Cup."

Team America headed to Brazil, where futbol had been imported from Great Britain, to compete simply for pride.

But on June 29, 1950, in the second game of the first round of the World Cup, the U.S. dethroned England, 1-0.

"No one, including us, thought we could beat England, but sometimes the underdog wins," said Walter Bahr, a Philadelphian and one of three surviving members of the World Cup team. "We were a little bit better than all the people thought and Harry was a big part of our success."

So unlikely was the victory that news outlets across the world thought the score was a mistake, with one Singapore paper "correcting" the score to name England the winner.

The United States lost the first game to Spain 3-1 and the third game to Chile 5-2, but in the middle, they were champions. Mr. Keough played in all three games of the first round of the World Cup and the American team acquitted itself well on the largest soccer stage in the worl.

"In any other country, those guys would have been heroes," Lange said.

Soccer In His Blood

The Keoughs' youngest of four children was not seeking hero status; he just wanted to participate in the game that he had played practically since the time he could walk.

He idolized his brother, Bill, who was 10 years older and athletically gifted in a number of sports, just as Mr. Keough would become. Bill played semi-pro soccer until he found a more lucrative career as "Willie Keo," a comedic trampoline act he performed at circuses, carnivals, state fairs and sports shows.

"The first things I learned about soccer was from hanging out with my big brother," Mr. Keough told Lange for his book, published last August.

The next lesson came from his father, "Paddy" Keough, whose knowledge of sports had won him a Cadillac on the 1950s game show "The $64,000 Question." He shared his sports knowledge with his younger son while enjoying St. Louis League soccer matches at Sportsman's Park, during the Browns and Cardinals' off-season.

He recalled being no more than 9 or 10 when he joined his father for their regular Sunday outings; at the time, he never imagined that he would one day play at Sportsman's Park.

Mr. Keough would also become an outstanding fast-pitch softball player and competitive swimmer, but soccer would be his lifelong love.

Harry Joseph Keough was born Nov. 15, 1927, growing up during the Depression on Vermont Avenue near Carondelet Park, just a stone's throw from Blow School and his first soccer field. He graduated from Cleveland High School in 1945. A year later, he won his first U.S. soccer title as a member of the St. Louis Schumachers, one of the many sponsored soccer teams in a city that enjoyed a time as the soccer Mecca.

Even military service did not deter his play. During two years in the Navy, he played for the San Francisco Barbarians, a formidable West Coast team. Upon returning to St. Louis from the Navy in 1948, he played for Paul Schulte Motors and McMahon Pontiac, during which time he qualified for the U.S. World Cup team. When he returned from the World Cup, he rejoined his team, renamed the St. Louis Raiders.

Following the 1952 season, Kutis Funeral Home took over sponsorship of the team and renamed it St. Louis Kutis Soccer Club. The Kutis team dominated soccer locally and nationally, winning the National Amateur Cup six consecutive years from 1956 to 1961, and one U.S. Open.

"Harry was the driving force behind Kutis, probably the best team in the U.S. in the '50s," said Lange. "He was the player-coach of that team."

In all, Mr. Keough won eight national titles as a player, five NCAA national championships as a coach and became something of a celebrity for his role in the U.S. World Cup victory.

He continued to play and coach for Kutis until he became head coach of the men's varsity team at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley in 1966, and served for a short time in the same capacity at Harris Stowe Teachers College.

Less than a year later, he got the opportunity to coach the men's soccer team at Saint Louis University, where he developed numerous future stars, including Patrick Leahy, the former place kicker for the New York Jets, and his son, Ty, who became a professional soccer player for the St. Louis Steamers and the San Diego Sockers, a soccer coach for Washington University and a sports analyst for ESPN.

As SLU's head coach, he posted a 213-50-23 record and guided the university to four titles in five years. The soccer Billikens won national titles in 1969, 1972 and his six straight appearances in the championship finals from 1969 to 1974 remains a men's soccer record.

A Double Life

Mr. Keough's work as a soccer coach was always his part-time job. His day job was at the U.S. Postal Service, where he worked for 36 years, first as a carrier, then as a supervisor. He retired from Saint Louis University and the Post Office in 1982.

He needed his day job because he never earned more than $4,000 a year as a coach.

"Everybody worked during the week, practiced in the evenings and played soccer on the weekends," Bahr recalled. "Nobody ever made a living playing soccer; we were real amateurs.

"Harry talked about how they passed the hat around and at the end of the season, they divided it among the players."

After retiring, Mr. Keough became a participant in Senior Olympics, both locally and nationally; served as head coach of the boys' soccer team at Block Yeshiva High School in University City (Block Yeshiva now presents the Harry Keough Soccer Award annually to their most valuable player) and served as the assistant coach of the women's varsity soccer team at Washington University.

He was a lifetime, part-time referee at the professional, collegiate and high school levels.

The Keough Award, named for Mr. Keough, his brother Bill and his son, Ty, is now presented each year to the outstanding St. Louis-based male and female professional or college soccer player.

The Game Of His Life

The Korean War had upstaged Mr. Keough and his teammates' World Cup feats for a while, but they eventually received much deserved recognition.

He was inducted into the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame in 1972, the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976 (along with his teammates), the Saint Louis University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995, and the NSCAA Hall of Fame in 1996.

In January 2004, Mr. Keough and the four other then-living team members of the 1950 World Cup Team (Bahr, Frank Borghi, Gino Pariani and John Souza) were recognized as Honorary All-Americans by the NSCAA at its annual convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Sports Illustrated named him one of theTop 50 Missouri Sports Figures of the Century. In 2009, he was named to SLU's Half-Century Team and was inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame as a member of its inaugural class.

He also made the Missouri State Sports Hall of Fame; the Spanish Society Sports Hall of Fame; received the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Honor Award and was named one of the St. Louis Sports Commission 100 Sports Personalities of the Century.

The story of the U.S. World Cup win was told in the 1994 book, "The Game of Their Lives," by Geoffrey Doulas; in 2005 the movie of the same name was released (renamed "Miracle Match" for DVD). Mr. Keough was played by Zachary Ty Bryan, the actor who played the eldest son on the "Home Improvement" television comedy series.

Mr. Keough was featured in the 2009 soccer documentary, "A Time for Champions," which explored the World Cup victory and his coaching career at Saint Louis University.

He was especially proud to be an inductee into the Ted Drewes Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed for his invention of the Frisco: a concoction of custard, caramel, butterscotch, nuts and whipped cream.

Spanish At Heart

When the U.S. played Spain in the World Cup, Mr. Keough was the game captain because he spoke Spanish, a language he'd picked up while playing soccer as a child with many Spanish immigrants in his neighborhood.

In "Soccer Made in St. Louis," Lange described him as "Irish by blood and Spanish at heart."

He learned to read and speak Spanish fluently after meeting Alma Flores, who was born in St. Louis but grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico. During a visit to St. Louis, she met Mr. Keough. They were married in 1952.

"I think we drove roundtrip to Guadalajara about 37 times," Colleen laughed.

During one visit, Mr. Keough saved the lives of three people who were drowning. Two girls had fallen into a hotel pool and a man who jumped in to save them also went under.

"Our father went to the bottom of the pool and pushed the whole group to the shallow end," Colleen said. "Of course, he taught us all how to swim."

Mr. Keough was known for a memory that let him recall everyone on his 18-year mail route, his kindergarten seating chart and every play of every game he'd ever played in or coached. It was said that he inherited his memory from his parents, Patrick "Paddy" John Keough and Elizabeth Costley Keough, who preceded him in death. His brother, William "Bill" Keough, died in 2004.

In addition to his wife, Alma, his son William Tyrone "Ty" (Abby) Keough, and his daughter Colleen Keough (Joe) Erker, both of University City, Mr. Keough is survived by another daughter, Margaret "Peggy" (Tim) Disbennett of Shrewsbury; two sisters, Norma Keough and Betty Keough, both of St. Louis, and seven grandchildren.

He is also survived by his former World Cup teammates Bahr, Frank Borghi and John "Clarkie" Souza.

Mr. Keough donated his brain to the Washington University Memory and Aging Project, of which he was an early volunteer. He donated his body to Saint Louis University.

Memorials in Mr. Keough's honor would be appreciated to the New Dimension Soccer program, 9060 Watson Road, Suite C, Crestwood, Mo. 63126, or the Mary McDermott Fund, Cardinal Glennon Children's Foundation.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.