On Saturday, Gene Chyzowych was awarded the Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award in a packed house of American soccer luminaries at the Field House in the Pennsylvania Convention Center that was hosted by the Philadelphia Union.
The night was a veritable who’s who of soccer in America that included Philadelphia soccer legends and National Soccer Hall of Famers Walter Bahr and Len Oliver.
But in a testament to both Gene and his brother Walt, who passed away in 1994, the room was also filled with former players and colleagues whose lives had been touched by both men, among them Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz and Union head coach John Hackworth.
And how fitting that the ceremony took place in Philadelphia, the city that became the home of both men after emigrating from Ukraine after World War Two, arriving in this country aboard a US Navy ship with $15 apiece.
Walt and Gene attended North Catholic High School and would go on to earn soccer scholarships from Temple University. Both played for the Ukrainian Nationals, a team that each would later coach (older brother Ihor earned a scholarship to Penn State and also played for the Uke Nats). Walt also coached at Philadelphia Textile, now known as Philadelphia University, through much of the 1960s, when he also played for the Philadelphia Spartans and earned three caps for the US National Team, where he later served as head coach (1976-1980) and also of director of coaching for US Soccer (1975-1981).
Gene began his coaching career in 1963 at Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ, which is located outside of Newark. For a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he would run clinics in Northern New Jersey on Saturday mornings before driving down to Philadelphia to coach the Ukrainian Nationals later in the day. As US National Team coach in 1973, he compiled a 3-2-0 record.
At Colombia High School, Gene enjoyed a 50 year career, retiring in September of 2013 at the age of 78. During that time, he compiled 757 wins, the second most in New Jersey high school history and third most in the country, a span that included four state titles and 13 Essex County championships.
Gene was a pioneer in setting up a recreational-to-club-to-high school feeder program and in providing opportunities for kids to play competitive soccer year round. At the first US Soccer organized coaching school, led by coaching legend Dettmar Cramer in 1970, Gene was one of three coaches to be awarded an A License. Cramer said of Gene, “You will become the Pied Piper of American youth soccer.”
In the good humored gathering on Saturday — an opening remark that Walt would have approved of the fact that this year’s award ceremony was taking place in a bar rather than in a convention center conference room drew a big and approving laugh from the crowd — speaker after speaker described how Gene had made an impact on their lives, both in his dedication to the sport of soccer and in creating a culture of achievement and winning, and also in creating a sense of family among those he coached.
That sense of family was evident in the several generations of Chyzowych’s and their many friends in attendance at the ceremony.
More than that, it was evident in Gene’s comments when he accepted the award, which largely related to his brother Walt, and his insistence that he would accept the award with his brother Ihor and Walt’s widow Olga.
It was a moving evening of recollection in which the post-World War Two narrative of American soccer — that of an influx of new immigrants who found their way in a new country through their love of soccer and, in doing so, re-invigorated the sport while also helping to lay the foundation for its ongoing growth — was plain to see.
As Gene said in an interview upon his retirement last September, “All three of us, without soccer we would have been sweeping the floors. We loved the game and we spent so much time (playing). The fact that the game provided us to be educated, it was a special gift from God for us.”