by Matt Kupec
November 1, 2018
I need your help!
This will be one of the most gut wrenching blog posts I will ever write! Today, I will give in and admit that a prediction made by Jimmy Wolf during our Syosset High School years that “soccer would become more popular than football within ten years” might have come true!
The setting is Syosset High School in the mid-1970’s. Syosset is riding the wave of great football success under Coach John Miller. Lopsided wins become a weekly occasion and players like Kevin Mannix, Jack Miravel, Ken Bailey, Don Perfall and I were named to All-State teams. Home games in 1973 & 1974 against rival Farmingdale draw some 10,000 people to each game. A football banner recognizing the 1974 team as the #1 team in New York is hung in the gym. Football is king, at least in my eyes!
One of my best friends in high school was named Jimmy Wolf. Jimmy was smart, hardworking, athletic and very competitive. Jimmy had an infectious personality and was very popular. Jimmy was also a star soccer player at Syosset HS.
Back in those days, the soccer team played its home games on a field right outside of the high school, pretty much of a temporary field. Games were played during the weeks with small turnouts. Due to the games being played mid-week the football guys had the chance to watch of couple of games. Jim Hanophy was another friend and a star player as well so we would support the soccer team.
But Jimmy Wolf, in his competitive and somewhat confrontational way, would always tell me that “within 10 years soccer would be more popular than football.” You can imagine my responses to Jimmy’s claims. “Not a chance,” I would boost with my head held high as football was so popular in our school and the nation. “Soccer will never become more popular than football,” I would growl at Jimmy as he kept repeating his soccer claims.
But today, I am here to say to Jimmy Wolf may be right! This conclusion has been gnawing at me for years as I knew we were headed there but I just didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that a sport so popular in the rest of the world would become more popular than football in America. I love football and think it’s the greatest team sport of all! There was also a toughness that came with putting on the pads and the helmet and then battling on the field. And football seemed to be such a great community builder. But, things have been changing.
Jimmy may argue that the soccer train left the station some 25 years ago!
But what has made me consider throwing in the towel and conceding that a sport that was once considered the “s” word in my house – a home with 5 boys who all played football – would become the choice sport of millions of young children in our country?
Here are a few random thoughts of mine on the rise of soccer. I’d love to hear your comments and additional thoughts. Please soccer devotees don’t get mad at me for this article as I am giving you the credit that you deserve today!
- My son Matthew is a high school football player. I am witnessing up close the football problem. Last year, Matthew’s East Chapel Hill High School was not able to field enough players to have a varsity team! And his high school is a fairly big 3A Conference sized school in NC! We had an 8th grade team, a 9th grade team, and junior varsity and varsity teams. Matthew’s high school could just field one team! This year they had enough players but there is considerable talk that next year they may not again have enough players for a team and Matthew’s senior year may be without football.
- Other High Schools Are Facing the Similar Football Problem. In Chapel Hill alone this year the crosstown rivals Chapel Hill HS did not have enough players to field a team. Two years ago, another local high school was not able to field a team. Last week, The New Times ran a story titled, “Across New Jersey, the Friday Night Lights Grow Dimmer” as more and more high schools are dropping football.
- Concussions and Other Injuries. Football is a very rough contact sport. Player safety is taking precedent and that is a good thing. I think back to how many concussions I had and in those years you went right back into the game as a sign of toughness. Concussion protocol forced Matthew to miss his first three high school games this year.
- A Big Positive with Soccer’s Popularity. One of the great consequences of soccer’s popularity has been the increased participation of girls in youth soccer programs and the additional opportunities it has created for them. I was working at UNC when Mia Hamm had here incredible run in growing the popularity of women’s soccer and saw the immense positive impact it has had for girls throughout our country.
- Soccer Youth Participation. Soccer’s popularity at the youth level has grown dramatically since my high school years but it is seeing a decline right now. Basketball and baseball still remain the top choices of sport for youth participation.
- One of the Greatest Speeches Ever. I was attending the College Football Foundation College Hall of Fame dinner in New York years ago and it is a “who’s who” of college football elite. This particular night, former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer was being honored and in his acceptance speech he told a story, one that rings near and dear to the heart of all football loyalists. Kramer said, “I was driving in Alabama the other day and came to a red light. As I looked out the window I saw thousands of kids playing soccer and I said to myself that is what is wrong with America!” You can only imagine the thunderous standing ovation that occurred as the attendees jumped to their feet in agreement!
- The Soccer Socks. As much as I’m willing to concede soccer’s popularity, I just can’t take those high soccer socks! It is a look I will never get comfortable with!! I know there are shin pads and the like but the look just isn’t right!!!
So, are congratulations in order for Jimmy Wolf or not?! Soccer is indeed a much more popular sport in American today than it was 40 years ago. But has it passed football in terms of popularity and participation?
Please let me know your thoughts either here or send them through my contact page at mattkupecqb.com.
Record-setting UNC Quarterback
- UNC 4-Year Starting Quarterback (1976-1979)
- Set 19 season and career UNC passing record
- Two still remain: Most Wins as a Starting QB (24) and Most Consecutive Games with a Touchdown Pass (13)
- Set ACC record for touchdown passes in one season (18)
- Winner of MVP Award for Liberty and Gator Bowls
- 1st player in ACC history to win two MVP awards in Bowl Games
Matt Kupec has been a leader throughout his life.
A three sport star – football, basketball and baseball – in high school Matt earned many honors and awards including leading his HS football squad to an undefeated season and #1 ranking as the top High School team in the entire New York state.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Matt was a record-breaking four-year starting quarterback. He led 3 Tar Heels teams to bowl games and he was the 1st player in ACC History to earn two Bowl Game MVP awards.
About Matt Kupec
College Football Career
Two of Matt Kupec’s records still remain at UNC – most consecutive games in a row with a touchdown pass (13) and co-holder of most wins as a starting UNC quarterback (24).
Matt also was the 1st player in ACC history to be named Most Valuable Player of two separate bowl games, and additionally he led the ACC in a number of passing categories during his senior year including most touchdown passes (18) which at the time set an ACC record. The Tar Heels enjoyed very successful seasons during Matt Kupec’s years at UNC, going 30-15-2 and being invited to play in 3 bowl games during Matt’s career.
Here are some season and individual highlights. Total individual and team records can be found in a chart at the end of the college football career section:
1976 (Freshman Year)
After watching from the sidelines for the first five games, Matt Kupec was inserted into the starting lineup as the quarterback against archrival North Carolina State University. Although the Tar Heels would lose that home game – and Matt would throw an interception on his first passing attempt (rough way to start!), the Tar Heels finished the season at 9 wins and 2 losses and were invited to the Peach Bowl. UNC was one of only two ACC teams invited to bowl games that season. The Heels key offensive player was TB Mike Voight who was named ACC Player of the Year and All-American.
In recognition of his performance, Matt Kupec was named Honorable Mention Football News Freshman All-American team.
UNC would lose to Kentucky, 21-0, in a frigid Fulton County stadium in the 1976 Peach Bowl. The frigid conditions and frozen tundra reminded many of the Dallas Cowboys at Green Back Packers classic NFL Championship Game when Bart Starr sneaked in the game winning touchdown for the Packers. The ground was frozen and it was tough to grip the football.
The highlight of the game for UNC occurred on the 2nd play from scrimmage when Matt audibled into a deep pattern and threw a perfect spiral in the arms of WR Walker Lee for a 50 yard touchdown pass. Unfortunately, offensive guard John Rushing had lined up offside and the touchdown was negated by an offside penalty. UNC would not score again!
1977 (Sophomore Year)
Fueled by the number of returning starters including All-American DT Dee Hardison and with the arrival of a wealth of talented newcomers like the great Lawrence Taylor (yes, NFL Hall of Famer LT!), running back “Famous” Amos Lawrence, and future 1st rounder defensive lineman Donnell Thompson, the Heels were picked by many to compete for the ACC Football Championship.
And disappoint they did not! The Tar Heels finished the regular season at 8-2-1 as ACC Champions and were invited to play in the 1977 Liberty Bowl game vs. the powerhouse Nebraska Cornhuskers from the Big 8 Conference.
Passing was not in play during the 1977 season! UNC had the top-rated defense in the country. Throw in a running game fueled by Famos Amos, and one could see that Coach Bill Dooley had little interest in throwing the football. Coach Dooley was a throwback to old school fundamentals. One of his favorite expressions was, “remember, when you throw the ball three things can happen (completion, incompletion, interception) and 2 of the 3 are bad.” Needless to say, there were games – when as the quarterback – Matt had the best seat in the house because all they did was run! But did they run it well!
Matt Kupec’s statistics for the season were very modest. After taking a beating against a top-ranked Kentucky Wildcat defense on opening day (can you believe Kentucky went 11-1 that season). Matt had solid games against Richmond and Northwestern. But then in the game against Northwestern, late in the game with Matt playing well and the Tar Heels well in the lead, Matt got hit in the leg during an option run and left the game due to injury. The strained knee ligaments forced Matt Kupec to miss the Texas Tech game and really hindered his productivity for most of the year.
As a reward for being the ACC champion, UNC battled the Nebraska Cornhuskers under 1st year coach Tom Osbourne who would go on to a legendary coaching career. The game was played on Monday night and it was again a very cold evening in Memphis for a bowl game.
The Tar Heels came out very scrappy and had the lead until a late Matt fumble gave the Cornhuskers the ball and they converted that turnover into a late game winning touchdown. Matt Kupec played so well that he was named the Most Valuable Player even though the Tar heels wound up losing the game. But clearly the Tar Heels showed they could compete with anyone on the national scene.
1978 (Junior Year)
Coming off an ACC Championship and with 17 starters returning from the 8-3-1 season, expectations were extremely high for the 1978 Tar Heels. Some pundits were even predicting a Top Ten season and perhaps a major bowl game for UNC.
There was one problem, though. Coach Dooley had left immediately after the 1977 season to take the dual job as Athletic Director and Head Football Coach at Virginia Tech. Dick Crum from Miami (Ohio) was ushered in too much fanfare and a promise to install a new, wide open offense that would bring touchdowns, great offensive statistics and many wins. “Steer clear, the veer is here,” were the bumper stickers and billboards around Chapel Hill proudly displayed as Coach Crum brought the vaunted new triple option with passing offense into would fill the air of beautiful Kenan Stadium.
Those lofty expectations faded quickly after squeaking out a disappointing home opening win against East Carolina the Tar Heels had consecutive losses to Maryland and Pittsburgh. Three games into the season, the “veer” was dropped and the Tar Heels returned to the old reliable I formation.
The Heels finished at 5-6, a very disappointing season. Matt Kupec had suffered a concussion against Pittsburgh and missed the next game against Miami (OH) and then sat for a couple of games before regaining his starting quarterback job for the season closing games.
The highlight of the season was the finale against Duke. Trailing 15-3 with just over 4 minutes to play, Matt engineered 2 scoring drives that was topped off with Famous Amos Lawrence taking a spring draw running play into the end zone with just seconds remaining on the clock to lift the Heels to a dramatic 16-15 win over arch rival Duke.
1979 Season (Senior Year)
After the very disappointing 1978 season, the Tar Heels had an extremely demanding off season in getting ready for a season that would include opening games against the University of South Carolina (with George Rogers at RB) and the Pittsburgh Panthers (a team that would wind up going 11-1 for the season.
With the transition to Dick Crum more settled, the Heels opened the season with an impressive 28-0 thrashing of the South Carolina Gamecocks. A balanced offense with Matt Kupec at QB and Famous Amos at RB had a very impressive debut. A new addition was the emergence of TE former walk-on Mike Chatham who would catch an ACC record 8 touchdown passes during the year.
Next game was against the very highly ranked University of Pittsburgh Panthers. With 7 defensive starters who would go on to start in the NFL and an offense introducing freshman QB Dan Marino, the Panthers were loaded.
But on the third play of the game, Matt Kupec launched a 43 yard scoring strike to a streaking Phil Farris that sent the Tar Heel faithful into a frenzy and stunned the Panthers. UNC went on to win 17-7 as Matt accounted for both Tar Heel touchdowns.
Two more wins moved the Tar Heels to 4-0 and a #12 ranking in the national pools. Enthusiasm was as high as every in Chapel Hill for the football team.
Sadly, that ended the following week when upstart and underdog Wake Forest pulled off a startling upset of the Heels on the Kenan Stadium turf. The Tar Heels wound up finishing the regular season 7-3-1.
Of note, the Heels were #5th in the ACC at 3-3-1 but recorded out of conference knocked off South Carolina, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Army. Those wins helped the Tar Heels earn a bowl bid to the prestigious Gator Bowl to face the mighty University of Michigan Wolverines.
What a game it turned out to be!
Before a sellout crowd of more than 70,000 people and playing before 1 million television viewers on a Friday night, the Tar Heels took on and beat the Wolverines from the Big Ten. Matt Kupec and Amos Lawrence shared co-MVP awards as the Tar Heels outlasted Michigan to win this Gator Bowl classic 17-15. The highlight of the game was the game winning 15 play, 97 yard game winning touchdown drive engineered by Matt. Mixing runs and passes, the Tar Heels went the distance against the vaunted Michigan defense to take the lead in the closing minutes of the game.
UNC wound up being #15 nationally, the only ACC team to be ranked.
Pro Football: A Quick Cup of Coffee with the NFL
Following the completion of his career at UNC, Matt Kupec signed a free agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League.
Disappointed at not being drafted, Matt was immediately called after the draft ended and had lunch the following day with the Seattle Seahawk representative at Crook’s Corner, a great eating establishment.
Matt Kupec was the most heralded of the four free agent QB’s signed by the Seahawks due to his successful career at a major program that included Bowl Game participation in three separate bowl games. Matt’s roommate at Seattle was a quarterback from a little known college – Milton College – that eventually went out of business. His name was Dave Krieg. He went on to be the Seattle starting QB for years and play in the NFL for nearly 20 seasons.
The Early Years: High School Football
Matt Kupec has always been a leader throughout his life. Born and raised in Syosset, NY on Long Island, he enjoyed a prolific high school career as an outstanding student-athlete. A three sport star – football, basketball and baseball – Matt earned many honors and awards including prep All-American in football where he led his Syosset HS football squad to an undefeated season and #1 ranking as the top High School team in the entire New York state.
With many full scholarship offers to choose from following his successful football career, Matt Kupec chose to accept a full scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because of its high academic standing and strong football program.