View Mobile Site

Soviets didn’t play football all that well

Text Size: Small Large Medium
POSTED March 2, 2010 2:02 a.m.
In the summer of 1990, John Ralston tried to mold athletes from the then-Soviet Union into a football team.

The Moscow Bears were made up of decathletes, javelin throwers, shot-putters and rugby players. But they knew little to nothing about the American game.

Ralston, who was instrumental in making Jim Plunkett into a Heisman trophy-winning quarterback while at Stanford in addition to being named NFL coach-of-the-year with the Denver Broncos, didn’t try to sugarcoat his collection of players.

He knew he was starting from scratch.

Ralston turned to me during a practice session at Selma High, saying, “They aren’t very good.”

He was gearing up his Moscow Bears to play an exhibition game some 15 miles up the road in Fresno. Ralston had a tough enough time instructing his players on suiting up in full pads.

Using an interpreter, Ralston explained to his raw group of players just where to place the thigh, knee and elbow pads.

It was also tough for them to grasp the fundamental of the game.

For Ralston, it was nearly impossible to talk strategy.

You could sense his frustration.

His Bears were coming off a 61-0 thrashing by the upstart Tacoma Express, a Minor League Football System squad, with games against Fresno, Oklahoma City, and Macon, GA still on the exhibition scheduled billed by promoters as “Glasnost on the Gridiron.”

Looking back, these games were more about showcasing the improved relationship between U.S. and Soviets, who received shoes, helmets and pads compliments of American corporate sponsors.

Under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Glasnost had provided new freedoms to the people, including freedom of speech and information.

The Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Cold War, had already toppled.

Little did we know that, by the following year, the Soviet Union would be no more.

This assignment was my lone first-hand encounter with anything Soviet. I did go to the 1984 Summer Olympics but many of the Communist countries were boycotting the Los Angeles games.

Four years earlier, President Jimmy Carter urged a similar-type boycott against the Soviets, with the U.S. and other free countries staying home rather than compete in the Moscow Games.

Back then, we were still celebrating the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Team USA scored an upset victory over the Soviets in the semi-finals of the round-robin tournament at Lake Placid, beating Finland to capture the gold.

Times certainly have changed.

Take the recently completed Winter Games in Vancouver. The U.S. led for the first time in Olympic medal count with 37. The Russian Federation was a distance sixth with a total of 15 medals.

Curious as to when tallying the hardware became the barometer for measuring Olympic success between countries?

No matter: I’m looking forward to Russia hosting the next Winter Games in Sochi. Let’s hope the fun continues.
Commenting is not available.

Commenting not available.

Please wait ...