FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Back in 1999, NFL team owners Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft approached Don Garber and asked if he might be interested in serving as commissioner of Major League Soccer.
The domestic soccer league was in trouble in just its fourth year, and at the time Garber was head of NFL International.
Garber mulled the proposition before ultimately taking the job. Now nearing two decades at the MLS helm, Garber is guiding an ever-expanding league that is set to field 26 teams by 2020.
Garber will be enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame at Toyota Stadium, the home of FC Dallas, this weekend. Originally selected for the honor in 2016, Garber put off his addition until now for a simple reason.
“Probably more important than just his role in bringing me here, Lamar is really one of the true legends in the sports industry. He had such grace and such humility, and such a passion for the sports industry, but really a deep passion for the sport of soccer,” Garber said. “As a young man in my early days at MLS, I was in such awe everything that he was — not just what he accomplished, but how he thought about life, and how he thought about the commitment needed to make the game permanent and indelible in this country.”
The story goes that Hunt was inspired to promote soccer in the United States after attending the World Cup in 1966. He founded the North American Soccer League in 1967. He was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to the United States in 1994. And he was a founding investor in MLS.
Hunt, who owned the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and FC Dallas and the Columbus Crew, passed away in 2006. One of his last big projects was to open Toyota Stadium. So it was in his memory that his family partnered with U.S. Soccer, the city and Frisco Independent School District and announced plans in 2015 for a new National Soccer Hall of Fame to be built at the stadium.
Garber put off his induction so he could be enshrined at the new Hall of Fame, which also allows him to further honor Hunt.
“When I was told that I was going to be inducted, at that point I knew that the Hall was being built and I just thought it would be a really special opportunity for me, and really, Major League Soccer, to have a close MLS connection with the Hall,” Garber said. “And it would give me an opportunity to honor the memory of Lamar and to really make a strong statement on how indebted I am and how MLS is to the Hunt family overall.”
The Hall of Fame was established in 1979 and for a time was located in Oneonta, New York. It was closed in 2010, but inductions continued. The collection was stored in North Carolina.
“We just thought it would be a fitting way to honor everything he did for the sport, while also giving the sport of soccer and the Hall of Fame, that celebrates all the great players, a really outstanding home,” eldest son Clark Hunt said.
Garber tells the story of seeing Hunt at the 2002 World Cup match between the United States and Portugal. Hunt was seated in the stands and following the U.S. upset victory, Garber glanced over and saw Hunt had a tear in his eye.
“When we were both leaving the stadium I said, ‘Boy, Lamar, you looked quite emotional.’ And he said it was one of the great sporting experiences of his life. And this was a guy who won the Super Bowl,” Garber said.
Garber asked Clark Hunt to introduce him at the induction ceremony Saturday.
“Our family does have a 30-year relationship with Don, going back to his time with the NFL,” Clark Hunt said. “He and my dad were very close, and my dad played a critical role in luring him from the NFL over to Major League Soccer, where he became commissioner. And I know he’s very excited that the Hall is going to be associated with one of the stadiums and teams my father was involved in.”
In addition to his role as commissioner, Garber is also CEO of Soccer United Marketing, the exclusive marketing partner of U.S. Soccer, and a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation board of directors.
Joining him in the Hall of Fame this year is a trio of former U.S. national team players, Tiffeny Milbrett, Brad Friedel and Cindy Parlow Cone, as well as former U.S. Soccer President Bob Contiguglia. Veteran broadcaster JP Dellacamera is the 2018 Colin Jose media award recipient.
The new Hall opens to the public on Nov. 2.