Chris Papagianis said he “didn’t play soccer to be in a Hall of Fame” but that’s where he is going to be.
The Chesterfield resident is among the 2014 inductees for the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame.
“It is quite an honor. St. Louis is one of the premier soccer towns in the country. It’s a very nice honor to be selected here,” Papagianis, 64, said. “I played with most of the guys in the Hall of Fame at one time or another in high school but not in college.
“The connections I made framed my life, and I hope others can see how a sport – an interest – to which a person is dedicated can lead to positive outcomes. As you would imagine, I am incredibly grateful for the award.”
This won’t be Papagianis’ first Hall of Fame induction. Ten years ago, he was elected into the Harvard Athletic Hall of Fame for his soccer achievements.
“That was a great honor for me, too, at Harvard,” Papagianis said. “What are the odds of a kid learning English and learning a sport and ending up in a Hall of Fame? I never imagined it but I do appreciate it.”
Papagianis was born in Epiros, Greece. He said his parents immigrated to the United States in 1959 and started a new life in St. Louis.
He credited his father, Gus, with bringing the family to America.
“The family emigrated from Greece thanks to a brave and visionary father dedicated to a better life for his family,” Papagianis said. “We called him ‘Gus.’
“Gus had boldly escaped a communist political prison in Albania, endangering his life to rejoin the rest of my family in Greece. Gus knew about America and he was determined to give us a life here so we could live where freedom and opportunity were highly valued. We were the classic immigrant family who believed that America would let us be the best we could be.”
Papagianis described how he got involved with youth soccer – the result of a wrong turn and a chance meeting.
“I was 9 years old and couldn’t speak or understand a word of English,” Papagianis said. “There I was in Dogtown, walking down Clayton Road, staring at everything – the sidewalk, storefronts, red brick homes. Passersby were animated, filled with expression and saying words that meant absolutely nothing to me. It’s easy to imagine how I made the wrong turn onto Graham instead of Tamm.
“I realized I was on the wrong street when I saw a different church. I had been heading toward St. James Church and instead I found myself across the street from the Memorial Congregational Church.”
But that wrong turn made everything else possible for Papagianis.
“Gathered in front of the church was a group of boys – kids like me from the neighborhood, 20 or so of them,” Papagianis said. “They were laughing loudly, bouncing around as 9-year-old kids do when they release their energy in a group. I wanted to walk over and join them, but I couldn’t figure out how. I couldn’t talk to them.
“I saw an adult trying to organize and encourage them to jump into a truck-like vehicle, still loud and joking with each other. I stopped and stared. The man, who was obviously responsible for the group, spotted me. He paused, but not for long and he headed toward me from across the street. That was Forrest Messel.”
Somehow Messel sensed that Papagianis wanted to play.
“It didn’t take him long to understand that I had no clue what he was saying,” Papagianis said. “So, he acted-out his communication instead. He pointed to the boys and stood as though he were kicking the soccer ball in his hand. Then he grabbed an invisible steering wheel and intimated that they were driving to play sports. Off I went. I became a member of the Congo’s.”
Messel became an important figure in his life, but there were others, too.
Pete Trena, who later became soccer coach for Southwest High, helped Messel.
“He trained us in critical soccer skills and taught us that there was more to sports than just pounding out goals and emitting lots of energy,” Papagianis said. “Pete showed us the value of the skills and the strategy to use them. The exposure to Pete’s lessons was an eye opener and the training became a metaphor for an approach to life.”
Papagianis went to Southwest, now the Central Visual/Performing Arts High School.
“It was an excellent school,” Papagianis said. “It had good academics. Going there was like a throwback to the 1950s.”
The school didn’t have a soccer program until Papagianis was a sophomore. Back then, soccer was a winter sport.
He was a halfback in football. He also kicked extra points and field goals. Papagianis said he believes he was one of the first in St. Louis to kick soccer-style. He got that from Pete Gogolak, the first NFL kicker to do that.
Papagianis went on to become the St. Louis metropolitan football scoring leader in his senior year and had many scholarship offers in football, including Notre Dame.
“I (turned) down Notre Dame,” Papagianis said. “Back then, if you were a good soccer player, you didn’t leave St. Louis. You played at Saint Louis University, but I got an academic scholarship to Harvard. My family as a group decided I’d go there.
It was an eye-opening experience for a kid from Dogtown.”
Once he got to Harvard, he found out the football team “wasn’t that great.”
“I didn’t know how I could play for a team like that,” Papagianis said. “It just wasn’t for me. I walked across the street and played soccer. I volunteered to join the team and they accepted me.”
He excelled as a striker.
In a crushing 7-2 win over Dartmouth, Papagianis scored three goals and tallied three assists. His 21 points – 13 goals and eight assists – in seven Ivy League games stood as league record for many years.
Harvard won Ivy League and New England soccer titles and the team participated in the soccer Final Four more than once during his college years.
“Over those four incredible years, I embraced the value of team,” Papagianis said. “I had never experienced collective excellence and the greater good of a united effort. Looking back, I can recall breaking out into applause while playing because of a brilliant play. These teammates inspired me to work harder.”
Papagianis became an All-American as a senior in 1973.
“I was the scoring champ at Harvard. It was an excellent time,” he said. He humbly added, “I just lucked into it, but I’m glad I did.
Immediately after graduation, he was selected to play in the first East/West All-American All Star game as his team’s captain, no less. There he met another inspirational person in Mike Gomez.
“He was a soccer player himself and selected to help coach this historical event because he embodied excellence and he was known to build great teams,” Papagianis said. “Mike inspired us as individuals, and we were victorious. After the game, we parted ways and Mike became one the world’s prominent stone sculptors.
After college Papagianis was drafted by the Montreal Olympics.
“Here again, I experienced a surprising personal connection when I learned that Jim Kerner was general manager of the Montreal team,” Papagianis said. “Jim had been a neighbor and friend to my family in St. Louis
“With very mixed emotions, I rejected the offer and instead turned to a business career.”
He said he thought his parents expected more than a professional soccer career. His professional life was successful, but soccer remained close to his heart. While working in Washington, D.C., he re-established soccer friendships from college, playing together on weekends on select soccer teams.
Now, he’ll cap his soccer years with his induction into the Hall of Fame alongside fellow 2014 inductees Nick Archer, Mike Barnstead, Ed Cody Jr., Vince Drake, Carl Hutter, Mike O’Mara, Tom Pollihan, Ray Schnettgoecke and Francis Slay.
Future Soccer Star honorees for 2014 are Sam Peterson, Eureka High; Kyle Weinrich, St. Charles West High; Madeline Cowell, Duchesne High; and Maddie Pokorny, Webster Groves High.
The induction ceremony and dinner begins at 6 p.m. on Oct. 18 in the ballroom at America’s Center.
The tickets are $55 per person. For tickets and information, contact Larry Donovan at 671-7147.