Press-Citizen: Soccer Group Is Blind to Age, Nationality, Profession, and Weather

Sunday, February 19, 2012

By Mitchell Schmidt
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Ricardo Mantilla returns the ball to play Saturday at Willow Creek Park. The unofficial soccer group has been playing on the field for almost 24 years.

One by one the vehicles appeared Saturday morning near Willow Creek Park, the drivers and passengers emerging from their cars and trucks into the chill February morning and swapping their shoes for cleats.

After sharing brief greetings and exchanges, the group of 19 men made their way to the park’s open field with a few soccer balls, blaze orange cones and a pair of homemade goals.

There are no referees, the teams are different every week and the number of players varies each time.

But from the humid summer days to the snow-covered winter mornings, the members of this unofficial club try to meet every Saturday for a simple soccer match.

“As long as you stay healthy, you play,” said Witold “Witek” Krajewski, the last remaining original member of the group. “We play because it’s good for us and, of course, we enjoy ourselves. We feel better when we play.”

Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center and research engineer at the University of Iowa Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was one of the first members of the group that has been playing soccer for close to 24 years.

It all started in the summer of 1988, when Krajewski and a handful of fellow colleagues and students in the UI’s C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Lab decided to start getting together on Saturday mornings for some friendly soccer matches.

“First it was mainly people from here,” Krajewski said, sitting in his office on the fifth floor of the hydraulics building. “It was a small group, and sometimes I was the only one there. But then over time people learned that there was this game always there and more and more people started coming to the point that it’s now a large group overall. Now it has this critical mass that it doesn’t die in the winter.”

Krajewski, 59, said the club began meeting later into the fall and starting earlier in the spring years ago and eventually morphed into a nonstop event.

On even the coldest days, at least six to 12 members will typically show up for a match. The group has more than 30 members, with some more willing to hit the field during winter than others.

While this winter has been one of the warmest and snow-free in years, members of the group have not second-guessed getting a match going in the midst of freezing temperatures, accumulating snow or ice.

Very rarely is a game called for the weather.

They are doctors, engineers, students, law enforcement officials and deans. They range in age from their early 20s to 60s. They come from as near as Iowa and Illinois to as far as Poland, Ghana, Mexico and Lithuania.

But once they step onto the field, all those differences melt away, said Peter Berkson, who’s been playing with the group since 1995.

“Once you’re there, it’s all worthwhile,” the 44-year-old threat assessment specialist with the UI Police Department said. “When you’re on a team, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from or how old you are. It’s a family.”

Raul Curto, who moved to Iowa City in 1981 and started playing soccer with the group soon after it began, also noted the unique friendships that have formed among the players.

The friendships were built and flourished around the game.

“We’re not friends socially, in that we don’t get together every Saturday night or anything like that,” Curto said. “Soccer is the activity that we do together.”

While the 58-year-old associate dean with the UI’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences said he is among the older players in the group, he added that his passion for the game has and will continue to keep him coming back.

“When it comes to soccer, I am just like a little child. You tell me there is a soccer game this afternoon, I drop everything,” the Mendoza, Argentina, native said. “I have the same enthusiasm I had for soccer when I started when I was four years old or so.”

Agshin Taghiyev, a research assistant at the UI Hospitals and Clinics department of pediatrics, has been playing soccer since he was 7. Now 48, the Azerdaijan native has been playing at Willow Creek Park since 1999 for the friendships made, the physical exercise and to relieve stress.

“It’s just switching off totally,” Taghiyev said. “You’re not thinking about anything else.”

After two hours of play Saturday, and the frozen ground turning into slick mud in some spots, the score was 2-1.

A mutual consensus could be heard across the field: Next score wins. And sure enough, a few minutes later a point was made.

As quickly as they appeared, the members of the Willow Creek Park soccer group returned to their vehicles. Exchanges and farewells were brief or nonexistent.

After all, they most likely will see each other again next Saturday, and many more to come.

“We’re going to continue forever,” Curto said.