Soccer Gets a New Home at SLAC

July 26, 2012

Soccer players streamed in on bikes and on foot Monday for the first-ever game at SLAC's new playing field at the Arrillaga Recreation Center. It is bigger, greener and flatter than many were accustomed to in the long tradition of pickup games on the rough-hewn lawn near the SLAC cafeteria.

Those who played at that site know well its flaws, down to the bad bounces, obstacles and marshy patches. "It's always been kind of a dream to have our own field that was level," said Luciano "Lou" Garcia, who has played lunch-time soccer with SLAC co-workers for about 15 years and was a goalie in Monday’s game.

Now, said Krassimir “Chris” Grouev, a SLAC mechanical engineer, players can no longer use the field as an excuse for poor play. “You can expect a perfect game in this terrain,” he said.

Soccer at SLAC is a decades-old tradition, said longtime player Rafael “Rafa” Miranda, a mechanical technician at SLAC. He recalls when Ernie Frei, a Swiss native who joined SLAC in 1963 as a mechanical fabricator, was a lead organizer for SLAC’s soccer team, which in those days played against corporate teams in the area.

“We always had some kind of team playing here or somewhere in the vicinity,” Miranda said.

Onsite games waned and gained in popularity over the years, and organizers recently stepped up the lunchtime game schedule from a couple of times a week to every day.

At one point there were two makeshift soccer fields at SLAC, Miranda recalled, until construction of new buildings carved away field space. Some SLAC employees regularly play in games at Stanford, he noted, and some play both here and at Stanford.

The games are designed to be inclusive, safe, and just for fun, said Miranda. “We do not reject anybody for lack of skill or superior skill,” he said. “No matter how many people show up, we always include them.”

To minimize injuries, no slide tackles or rough play are allowed.

Some rich soccer traditions have sprung up around the game at SLAC, including an annual game between SLAC employees and students participating in the SLAC Summer Institute.

The employees have traditionally won that annual contest, he said, particularly as “now we are getting a lot of interest in the game from new players coming in.”

Other notable recurring matches include occasional games between older players and younger players – in true scientific fashion, the median age of participants is used to form teams – and an “Americas vs. the world” game based on players’ geographic allegiances.

David Fryberger, who joined SLAC as an experimental physicist in 1967 and remains involved in SLAC research, was among the early SLAC soccer players.

A former Yale University soccer player, Fryberger played soccer with SLAC colleagues both at the lab and at Stanford until he was 75 years old.

His soccer shoe, which he infamously had duct-taped because it remained a much better fit than any new shoe he tried on, was immortalized as the “Golden Shoe Award”: A fellow player nailed it to a 2-by-4 and spray-painted it gold, and it still serves as a trophy for important games.

When that shoe was finally retired, he said, “it was torn, with holes, and the heel was coming off.”

Fryberger visited the new field at SLAC on Monday to observe the first game there. “I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the field, which along with the adjacent gym facility will be maintained by Stanford.

He recalled some lean times in soccer play at SLAC, about 20 years ago, when there were perhaps six to eight employees who played a weekly game on Friday nights. He said he would call people up to remind them to play, just to ensure there were enough to field two small teams.

Fryberger and others noted the resourcefulness of SLAC soccer enthusiasts. He personally mapped the field boundaries in chalk before one annual SLAC Summer Institute game with a borrowed device, joking about his amateurish job: “The lines sort of looked like general relativistic curves.”

Bob Traller, a SLAC engineering associate who has played soccer with SLAC colleagues for about 30 years, noted that SLAC employees custom-built  goals for use on lab grounds and at Stanford.

Traller, who plays on teams at Stanford University now but used to play in the pickup games at SLAC, said the new field is “a beautiful facility," and he's looking forward to playing there.

There had been talk decades ago, Traller said, of establishing a better soccer field at SLAC, and the new field came together surprisingly quickly.

"Finally, it happened," he said.