Shep Messing sits in his ornate midtown office talking about the present while surrounded by relics of his astonishing and unlikely past. A picture of the shirtless netminder being hugged by his similarly shirtless friend, former teammate, and current business partner Pelé stares out from a bookcase filled with memorabilia collected during a lifetime spent in the soccer world. A team photo of the 1977 Cosmos, the global superstars that won the North American Soccer League (NASL) championship, stands next to the tight shot of Messing, the club's colorful backstop, and Pelé, the world's best player, celebrating in the locker room after the final. A portrait of the 1972 United States Olympic team standing at attention during the "Star-Spangled Banner" sits below a framed picture of one of Messing's smiling grandchildren.
Two black and white canvases dominate the opposite wall, visual representations of the DNA of the goalie's son and daughter-in-law. Wedding photos, Messing’s own and his two children's, are prominently displayed. Of course, so is Pelé. A large, framed poster of the living legend hangs just to the left of a small flat-screen television tuned to ESPN, where talking heads debate the trivial. On top of the bookcase, a pair of signed Emile Griffith boxing gloves bookend another photo of Pelé and a shot of an anonymous goalie's hand making a save. It is the evidence of a life well lived.
Messing, 63, sits comfortably behind a wood desk covered with papers, reading glasses, stacks of business cards, a half-empty packet of Nicorette, and a copy of the book, “Operation Yao Ming.” His fingernails are manicured, and he wears a clean, blue button-down shirt with the top two buttons undone and business-appropriate slacks. His curly locks are shorter and grayer than they were during the free-flowing ’70s when he rose to fame as the goalie of the world’s most famous soccer team and posed nude in Viva magazine, but he is hardly close-cropped. That’s intentional. “When I go for a haircut to this day, I tell them that I don’t want to look like an investment banker. I don’t want to be that guy in a three-piece suit with the investment banker haircut,” he says.
his business card reads, “I played with Pelé on the New York Cosmos.”
The man, whose Michael Strahan, gap-toothed smile comes easily when he talks about the Cosmos and easier still when he discusses his family, may not fancy himself a traditional businessman, but he has always been a savvy operator and professional people person. The Bronx-born goalie speaks the international language of soccer and his business card reads, “I played with Pelé on the New York Cosmos.” It has gained him entree into elite circles in sport and business, and continues to do so. “The sport for me has been a great vehicle for people. I can go to Russia and sit with the prime minister or sit with the Pope. It is a sport that transcends culture and language. You can go any place in the world and talk soccer,” he says. That means Messing can talk to anyone.
Even though conventional wisdom holds that Messing found himself in various places – Harvard, University, Studio 54, the NASL, very nearly jail – earning (and losing) fortune and fame through a unique combination of street smarts, charisma, connections, and serendipity, the truth about how he became one of the most important figures in American soccer history is more complex, more nuanced, and more instructive. The playboy who brought Pelé to New York City’s finest nightclub, who transcended sport at exactly the right time, and who got in trouble with every coach he ever had, is the same man who recently celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary, who rarely if ever drinks to excess, who avoids talking about himself, and who makes life-long friends effortlessly. The truth about Messing exists at the meeting point between the man and the myth, but it is as impossible to separate the two as it is to separate it from the era in which it took place.
Messing did not always want to be a goalkeeper or even a soccer player. He was the consummate American jock: the point guard, the shortstop, the running back who spent part of his youth in Roslyn, Long Island, pretending to be Mickey Mantle, another stretch being Jim Brown, and a third imagining himself as an Olympic swimmer. He once ran the 100-yard dash in 9.9 seconds. But in his politically left-of-center family – Messing’s mother was college lecturer and a sex educator who considers Dr. Ruth a friend, and his father was a labor lawyer – sports were an outlet, never the focus of life. Messing dreamed of being a lawyer or, after he discovered his life-long love of strange animals, a veterinarian.
At Wheatley High School, the middle of five children played baseball, basketball and football in addition to wrestling and pole vaulting. Pole vaulting was his first love. It was just Messing and the bar, flying through the air, unencumbered by earthly distractions. His success earned him a state record at more than 13 feet and college scholarship offers. Almost 50 years later, he still pauses when he talks about vaulting, looking off into the distance and miming the movements with his hands. He is at peace, far above the world once again.
The event also afforded another element that the future star loved and craved: attention. Messing was, and will always be, a natural showman, one with a proudly admitted “renegade streak.” He was his own man, even when he was 16. These traits came together on the cinder runway. He would watch the inferior competition from the stands and pass until the bar reached a certain height. Then he would grace the competition with his presence and win the meet while wearing his trademark swimming trunks.
His unusual name also helped create the aura. “My story is that I was named after a dog,” he says, smiling. “But as my family tells it, I was named incorrectly after the Hebrew name Zelig. They thought the “Z” was an “S” and I Americanized it to Shep. It is just Shep. Not Shepard. It was tough the first eight years, but it’s worked well after that.” Those four letters distinguished him as much as his antics in the pole vault and the athletic, showy saves he would later make in net.
However, there was also a side of Messing that no one saw, the one where he practiced for hours on end by himself, pushing higher, faster, stronger. “I found the purest enjoyment in those solitary hours of practice where the only competition was between the bar and me,” he wrote of pole vaulting in his 1978 autobiography, “The Education of an American Soccer Player.” “I’d cut classes, or wait until late in the afternoon so I could practice alone. I could concentrate better, listening for the breeze in my ears that said I had cleared the bar or the jarring clang that told me I had failed. Some nights I pushed myself, setting the bar at an impossible height, hoping for a miracle, thudding time after time into the cushion with a spreading purple raspberry where the bar hammered my calf.”
Elsewhere in the book, written with David Hirshey, he talks about becoming a goalkeeper. He picked up soccer formally in 10th grade because Wheatley – a “small school with little Jewish kids,” he says in his office – dropped football. He then had to choose between soccer and cross-country. Messing’s older brother, an inspirational figure in the younger child’s life, played soccer, and Shep liked the coach, a man who knew little about the sport but who would whisper “remember to have fun” to his dutiful little soldiers. Messing took to net almost immediately, enjoying the feeling of owning the box and being the last man back. In the goalmouth, he felt transformed. Later in “The Education,” he tells us that as a 21-year-old he practiced saves by hurling himself repeatedly onto the concrete driveway at his parents’ house in Long Island. I asked him if the story was true. “Great athletes, and I’m not saying that I’m great, but you do what you have to do to be ready for battle,” Messing says. “In that slice of my life, that’s what I thought would do it. If I can dive on the concrete, diving on a grass field will feel great.” Wild Man Messing, the player who would one day own the penalty area obviously, flamboyantly and fearlessly, honed the trademark traits that so many would notice while he was alone, when no one else was watching.
We are in Messing’s office now, on the fifth floor of a building across from the Trump Tower, up Fifth Avenue from the world’s most obnoxious Abercrombie & Fitch. The downstairs doorperson, a middle-aged African-American woman, grinned broadly and asked me to “Tell Shep ‘Hi,’” for her as she waved me toward the elevators. She didn’t bother calling ahead first: Messing’s magnetism clearly extends to the ground floor. We’ll get to that side of his personality soon, but right now, he and I are talking about his 1972 Harvard University class. Messing graduated alongside journalist Michael Kinsley, former U.S. Presidential candidate Alan Keyes, Economics Nobel Prize winner Eric Maskin, and many others who seemed far more likely to earn a degree from the prestigious Ivy League institution than the future nude model.
Before moving to Harvard, Messing spent two seasons at New York University – earning 1968 All-American honors in soccer before getting terrible grades, feuding with his coach, and dropping out. He then matriculated at Nassau Community College where he didn’t play soccer but did earn straight A’s and mentored future United States national team manager Bruce Arena, then a young goalkeeper. In 1970, he became the first junior college transfer student accepted to Harvard and will tell everyone who asks that he never expected to be at the most esteemed university in the world. His parents, still holding out hope their son would become a lawyer, were thrilled. Messing was too, so long as he did not have to play soccer. After the bad experience at NYU, he swore he was done with the sport. At the behest of a friend, however, he went to a Harvard practice one day and realized he had to play again. As he later was quoted in the 1971 Harvard yearbook: “Once accepted, I realized that I could be playing for a very good team here. It was pleasing, but not important to my original consideration.”
The Crimson were already one of the best teams in the country, and Messing, outgoing and brilliant, fit into coach Bruce Munro’s eclectic international squad. In his first season, 1970, he split time with All-Ivy goalie and senior Bill Myers. “Messing moved like a ballet dancer, and that’s not a gratuitous metaphor, only the nearest one I can think of which approximates his fluidity of motion,” Bruns H. Grayson, now a managing partner at a New York City venture capital firm, wrote in the Harvard Crimson. “He was, naturally enough, a hot dog.” The backstop was also creative and, even for the early ‘70s, more than a little weird. When the dean informed Messing, always a fan of exotic animals, that he could not house a small bear in his Mather House dorm room, the student put it in the hall. (The animal lover currently has “a menagerie” at his Great Neck house: “I have a leopard tortoise. I have a red-foot tortoise. I have a boa constrictor. I have a salt-water aquarium. I have a snapping turtle.” He proudly points to an empty space in his New York office that will soon hold a snake cage.)
The honest eccentricities helped him in the goalmouth, too. George Gibson, Messing’s teammate and fellow goalie who is now the publishing director of Bloomsbury USA, remembers him vividly. “Shep had an extraordinary presence on the field,” he says. “Some of that had to do with the way he dressed, which was a little outlandish. He always had a stylish cap, and some garish piece of clothing. He took charge on the field. You didn’t want to come into the goal crease because he would do something to you. It was kind of Darth Vaderish. This ‘I’m gonna kick your ass’ vibe. Everybody in the Ivy League knew he had a boa constrictor. It was deliberate. I’m quite sure it was.”
This was possible in the ‘70s. Athletes could be complex, true individuals, and Messing is no exception.
Messing denies that the cultivation of his myth was deliberate. Or rather, he argues that his actions were inspired by who he was and nothing more. There’s some truth to this idea. Messing is a little strange. He loved weird pets, so he had one or two in his room. He scored a few modeling gigs so he wore the flamboyant clothes he was given afterwards. He walked around campus sporting a wide-brimmed Borsolino hat, a three-piece velvet suit, and a silk scarf. He came into possession of a silver-knobbed walking stick, and carried it while strolling the premises with Emerson student Arden Rothenberg, who would become his wife in December 1972. For money, he worked as a bartender, slinging beers while a woman named Bonnie played the guitar. During Cosmos madness years later, he received a call. “Shep?” said the voice on the other end of the line. “It’s Bonnie. Just called to say hi.” Bonnie, it turned out, was folk singer Bonnie Raitt, who attended Radcliffe but dropped out. He made friends off the field and was wildly intense on it; he wanted to win, but he wanted to it his own way. This was possible in the ‘70s. Athletes could be complex, true individuals, and Messing is no exception.
“My family growing up always stressed for us to be independent, free-thinkers, have a moral compass, be humble, have dignity. Those are the mantras or philosophies of my upbringing. Like all of us, I’m a function of my early childhood. For better or worse that carried me through life,” he says in his office. “You juxtapose being a goalkeeper, the nature of the position. I’ve always believed that goalkeeping is that unique position in a team sport where you need to have the ferocity, aggressiveness, and a five-day growth [He touches the stubble on his face and smiles] with the tranquility of yoga. The best moments for me were where I found that peace and balance between being hard, aggressive, and edgy and being totally composed and totally in control.” The hair, the hat, the animals, the theatrics; they’re all parts of the same whole.
Messing, both the Harvard man of the ’70s and the person he is today, is not one to let the truth get in the way of a good joke. He met Henry Kissinger during the Cosmos days and told him he once attended a class taught by the former Secretary of State, who was a goalie himself. When Kissinger asked how the lecture was, Messing reported that he slept through it, getting a laugh for his brazen words that may or may not have been true. Yet ask Messing today whether he went to class at Harvard and he snorts in mock frustration at his self-created, academically carefree reputation: “That’s another misconception. I went to a lot of class. I like studying.”
The defining Messing-at-Harvard anecdote took place in Mexico. He was in Guadalajara to help the United States attempt to qualify for the 1972 Olympics – they would, and Messing would make nearly 50 saves in a 7-0 loss to West Germany – but he needed to take a sociology final at the same time as his classmates back in Massachusetts. As a result, Messing sat by the Hilton hotel pool, drinking a beer while being overseen by a professor on sabbatical. According to his autobiography, he penned an essay comparing his “exile poolside to Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond.” He reportedly received a “D” for effort. Forty years later, however, he tells me he got an “A” on the exam, using the anecdote to punctuate a point about how easy he found Harvard. (“The hardest part was getting in...”) The small facts are fungible, their subtle alternation hurts no one, but makes the point both then and now: Messing did not adapt to Harvard, he adapted Harvard to himself.
He graduated, giving up just 15 goals his senior season and nearly holding off the powerful Howard team in the NCAA championship semifinals. His kindness endeared him to his teammates. “I was a relative nobody on that team. He was as good to me as he was to anybody on that team. He treated me really well,” Gibson, the third-string keeper, says. “In the team photograph, I’m sitting next to him. He would have wanted that as much as I would have. Since then, we’ve become really good friends.”
Messing signed with his hometown New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League for the paltry sum of $2,300. This was 1973 when the league had nine teams and averaged less than 6,000 fans per game. Five years earlier, the NASL very nearly folded due to a lack of interest and was still barely viable. It would be several long years before big money came to the sport, before Pelé, Italian legend Giorgio Chinaglia, and the brilliant German Franz Beckenbauer joined the league, before 80,000 fans in Giants Stadium, before Studio 54.
When Messing joined the team, the Cosmos played on a sloped field at Hofstra, sometimes in front of fewer than 1,000 supporters. Messing struggled to find playing time, a casualty of the bias against American players, so he and teammate Lenny Renery amused themselves by getting into trouble. The goalkeeper’s legend began to grow beyond the confines of Harvard Yard. One night in a bar he challenged New York Jets defensive back Mike Battle to a glass-eating contest. He won by default as the NFL player didn’t show at the appointed time two weeks later. Before an away game in Philadelphia, he and Renery knew they weren’t going to play the next day so the duo went to a strip club until the wee hours. In the morning, their coach knocked on the hotel room door and informed Renery that in fact he would be playing. Messing helped his friend into a cold shower, and then went to procure a couple bloody marys for his still-drunk teammate. Renery responded by scoring his first professional goal in the 1-1 draw.
“I did more for the game by dropping my pants than the league did in five years of press releases”
Because of his tiny salary, Messing – who was also teaching and coaching at his alma mater Wheatley High – always needed money. In 1974, he made a couple thousand dollars posing nude for Viva, an adult women’s magazine, which gained him massive notoriety. “I did more for the game by dropping my pants than the league did in five years of press releases,” he writes in his biography. He was joking – although probably not incorrect – but the Cosmos ownership concluded that they had enough of their eccentric, erratic backup goalkeeper. He played less than 10 games in 1973 and 1974 combined, and they placed him on waivers, citing the morals clause in his contract. Incredibly, Messing kept his teaching gig after Viva hit the newsstand. He explained the story via email: “When the girls from ninth grade to seniors went racing off to buy the magazine and piled into the girls’ room to ‘read’ it, I was summoned to the Superintendent’s office. As I was being fired, both the principal and the wrestling coach came to my defense. The principal claimed that I was vital to the safety of the school because of my positive impact on tense race relations. The wrestling coach – I was his assistant coach – felt that our team would not recover if I were to be fired. I’m not sure which one had more influence, but I was warned instead of fired.” His mother did have him attend one of her sex ed classes at Nassau Community College. It is one of the few times Messing admits ever to being embarrassed, but “What could I do? Say ‘No’ to my mom?”
In 1975, the goalie signed with the Boston Minutemen of the NASL and learned under the tutelage of coach Hubert Vogelsinger. Whereas he previously relied upon his world-class athleticism and reaction time to succeed, the German-born Minutemen manager turned Messing into a more finished product. In Boston, Messing played with Eusebio, the brilliant Portuguese forward who was nearly Pele’s peer in his prime. Although Messing led the NASL with a 0.93 goals against average, the Miami Toros upset the Minutemen in the quarterfinal round of the 1975 playoffs.
But Messing was meant for New York City. The Minutemen, plagued with debt, sold America’s most famous goalkeeper back to the Cosmos in the middle of 1976. The team was flush with cash from Warner Communications and still riding high after signing international superstar Pelé for more than $1.5 million per season in 1975, a gaudy move that put soccer on the map in the United States. It was a remarkable figure during a time when free agency in sports was in its infancy. Buoyed by Pele, the NASL suddenly boasted 20 teams and attendance rose above 10,000 spectators per game in the 1976 season.
Messing’s larger significance came from the way he helped millions of Americans who knew little about soccer relate to the sport
Messing started 12 games for the Cosmos in 1976 and 20 the following season when they won the NASL’s Soccer Bowl. However, Messing’s larger significance came from the way he helped millions of Americans who knew little about soccer relate to the sport, making it seem cool to thousands of kids who soon started playing it for the first time. For a time, the Cosmos drew fans like no American soccer team before or since. (The Seattle Sounders might soon have an argument.) Fans called the parking lot at Giants Stadium “Cosmos Country,” and the club’s followers included such luminaries as Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Elton John and Rod Stewart. The 1977 championship rivaled the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson-led World Series victory in terms of importance to Gotham’s residents. Soccer madness – or more specifically, Cosmos madness – was taking hold.
Messing was at the center of everything, as vital off the field as he was on it. His position, and the fact that, unlike other players, he used his hands, helped, but so did his style. “He probably had swag back in a day before anyone knew what it was. He had a confidence and a way about his movement on the field,” Tony Meola, the New Jersey-born goalkeeper who would backstop the United States national team in 1990 and 1994, says. “I’ll never forget this one move he did because I used to practice it all the time as a kid. He was rolling out a ball to a defender. He spread his legs and rolled it through his legs.” On a field of stars, all eyes were inexorably drawn to Messing. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Messing admits his wild appearance was intentional, designed to set himself apart from the crop of clean-cut American stars like his close friend, Kyle Rote Jr., and Ricky Davis after the 1972 Olympics. “I’m a curly-haired, mustachioed, Jewish kid from the Bronx. That helped. Kyle was apple pie. I was Joe Namath,” he says now. The myth of Messing grew as he played Pelé’s protector on the field and then chaperoned the forward to Studio 54, the center of New York’s nightlife in the ‘70s, where celebrity was all. He laughed along with the rest of the Cosmos’ superstars as the Brazilian legend rubbed shoulders with Mick Jagger and looked on, mouth agape, as a naked Grace Jones rode through the club on a white horse.
It was a crazy period in the history of the city and a strange time for a country still figuring things out after the upheaval of the 1960s. Drink and drugs were everywhere. “A couple of players on the Cosmos would do a line or two of cocaine,” Messing wrote in a 1978 piece for the New York Times that was adapted from “The Education.” “One guy felt he needed it. He did a little before the game and slid into the bathroom during the halftime pep talk to do a touch more.” Many players, including the goalkeeper, stayed away from the hard stuff, but nearly everyone in the Cosmos locker room had a beer or five. After games, Chinaglia – who purchased a $350,000 house in Englewood, N.J., and was good friends with Cosmos owner Steve Ross – would hold court with celebs while sipping on a glass of Chivas and smoking a cigarette.
Messing saw it all and participated in his share of the debauchery, a star in his own right. Not the biggest one on the Cosmos, but the most important American personality on the biggest team in the world, translating the “beautiful game” into the vernacular of America in the ‘70s, where everything was “super.”
The Cosmos were an international phenomenon. “HERE COMES THE PELE BRIGADE,” read the huge headline in Tokyo’s Chunichi Sports Paper when the club traveled to Japan as part of Pelé’s 1977 goodbye tour. Sixty-five thousand fans watched the team play an all-star squad from the country. Outside the National Stadium, the Times reported that supporters could purchase Cosmos key chains, paperweights, sun visors, pens and pencil boxes. The tour continued on to China, where the Cosmos became the first United States professional team to play in the country. There was a trip to Calcutta, where destitute street kids lined the boulevards hoping to catch a glimpse of the Brazilian legend they only knew through word of mouth. Finally, the squad returned to New York for one last match against Santos, Pelé’s first, and only other, team. The scene at the final game was pandemonium as everyone tried to touch the retiring superman. Messing helped usher the forward through the masses and into the locker room for once last booze-filled, tearful celebration.
Through it all, the goalie didn’t forget his roots. George Gibson, his college teammate, attended a game along with 77,000 other fans at Giants Stadium in the middle of Cosmos madness. “He had his own cheering section down by the goal. They were holding signs, chanting ‘Shep, Shep, Shep.’ He had a real following on that team,” the editor says. “I called to him at the end of the game. He came right over and gave me a big hug. I hadn’t seen him in two and a half years. He could have just waved. My memory is that people were asking me for my autograph because I knew him.”
That game, the semifinal in Giants Stadium, was the peak of America’s Cosmos and soccer fever. The insanity, like the excesses of the decade itself, could not last. Pelé retired, and the league imploded under the weight of huge contracts given to players who couldn’t possibly draw enough fans to create a positive return on investment. Expansion hurt too, as six more teams joined NASL in 1978. Attendance peaked in 1980 at 14,440 per game, but it was clear that the losses were unsustainable. Three teams folded that year and seven more the next. By 1985, the NASL was no more.
professional soccer in the United States collapsed like a zeppelin
Messing suffered a similar deflation. After the championship season with the Cosmos, he moved to the Oakland Stompers, becoming the first American soccer player to earn $100,000 per season. Sports Illustrated published a feature about the man who was “tirelessly self-promoting, young, brash, lucky, seismographically sensitive to the importance of style and the power of the media and fighting for a niche in the crowded world of established American sport.” However, the Stompers were done after a single season. Messing moved first to the NASL’s Rochester Lancers and then the new Major Indoor Soccer League’s New York Arrows as professional soccer in the United States collapsed like a zeppelin. There were shorts stints with three other teams, including a half-baked ownership stake in the New York Express indoor team that ended up costing investors millions. He played the game professionally until the late 1980s, but nothing would ever come close to those two magical, crazy, wild overwhelming seasons with the Cosmos. And nothing has come close since. Looking back, it seems as tangible as a hallucination, as ephemeral as the mirror ball at Studio 54.
Soccer's most colorful stars
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic Upon signing for Paris Saint-Germain, Ibrahimovic was asked if he knew much about Ligue 1. He admitted that he didn't, but added that "they definitely know who I am". He also once described the style of football he plays as 'Zlatan-style' and has famously criticized his former Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, on numerous occasions.
- Shep Messing The long-time professional goalkeeper and current filterless broadcaster is probably most famous for getting cut from the New York Cosmos after he did a nude magazine photoshoot.
- Eric Wynalda Like Messing, Wynalda has turned to soccer broadcasting following his playing days, and he's similarly outspoken and opinionated as a commentator. Recently coached amateur team Cal FC to a U.S. Open Cup win over the Portland Timbers, and regularly insists that he should be an MLS head coach.
- Mario Balotelli At this point, it's hard to keep straight what crazy stories about him are true and which ones are internet rumors. His antics led Manchester City to sell him to AC Milan, where he's instantly become a fan favorite.
- Carlos Valderrama Known as much for his huge blond afro as his flashy style of play, Valderrama was instrumental in getting MLS off the ground.
- Diego Maradona His career was almost certainly cut short by how much he liked to party. His animated coaching style during his short tenure as Argentina manager reminded everyone what they loved about him as a player.
- Paul Gascoigne Sadly, 'Gazza' is known more for his post-retirement problems with alcohol than his game by those who aren't old enough to have seen him in his prime.
- Antonio Cassano Despite his spectacular talent, Cassano hasn't been able to stick with a team due to his regular feuding with managers and chairmen. His recent autobiography featured extremely candid looks at his rows with coaches and numerous sexual escapades.
- Eric Cantona One of the most important foreign players to ever play in England, Cantona was key to Manchester United's revival after decades of underachievement. He was banned for eight months after kung-fu kicking a Crystal Palace fan in the stands during a game, an incident for which he has never shown any remorse.
- George Best Famously stated "I spent 90 percent of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted."
- Rene Higuita Nicknamed 'El Loco', Higuita scored 41 goals as a goalkeeper and was renown for his borderline reckless goalkeeping style. Invented the 'scorpion kick' and used it to clear balls off the line on multiple occasions.
We are in Messing’s office again, a month after our initial meeting. When I left the first time, he told me to come back whenever; his door was always open. And it was. It is for everyone he knows. The jacket of his tailored pinstriped suit hangs over the back of his chair. He’s fresh off lunch with a potential client and is flipping through a stack of envelopes, holiday presents for employees and others in the office building. Nine months ago, he and FIFA executive committee member and former CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer launched a business that seeks to leverage the duo’s vast contacts in the soccer world and beyond. The agent for Manchester United star Wayne Rooney called during our first interview. When I stopped by a couple weeks later, U2’s manager was in the next room meeting with a third party. Messing and Blazer put the pair together; if something comes of it, they hope to get a slice of the pie.
Still, the matchmaking business is a little too slow for Messing. “I’m used to go, go, go, and this is more steady, let’s look for the right things to do. Let’s be patient. I’m not great at being patient,” he says. He is focusing more on doing things he cares about, rather than looking for the easy score. “I was never worried about where the next dollar was going to come from. I was worried about where the next passion was going to come from,” he says.
That quote may be true now but is also ironic considering that he is recovering from a period in the 1990s where he nearly went broke and almost ended up in jail. For both personal and legal reasons he rarely talks about his legal trouble, but he opened up in his office. He admits to being “stupid and naïve,” calling himself a consummate pawn. Messing invested money and went into business with Bear Stearns’ broker Bruce Black and Harvey LaKind, an agent. Other athletes, including Darryl Dawkins, invested as well, at least partially convinced to do so by the allure of Messing’s name. Black disappeared with the money. Messing went to the FBI to file a report. The next thing he knew: “Some young prosecuting attorney – I’ll never forget it – said, ‘I don’t care whether you’re guilty or not. I’m going into private practice on this.’ I was the only name. Nobody knew the guy, Bruce Black, or the accountants or the lawyers. They knew the name Shep Messing.”
In October 1990, Brooklyn prosecutors filed a 38-count indictment against the trio, claiming they transported stolen money across state lines and conspired to defraud their victims. Messing fought the case in court. After five years, nearly $1 million in fees, and a last-minute intervention by soon-to-be New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Messing says he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, Federal Wire Fraud, paid a $2,000 fine, received five years’ probation, and was barred from working in the securities industry.
“It was a terrible part of my life,” he admits. “My kids at the time were 13 and 11 years old. But it’s a lesson. I taught my kids that it’s not just enough to know what you’re doing. You have to know what your friends are doing if you’re at the same party. That’s what I was guilty of. I had an office like this, but I didn’t know what the guy in the next room was doing.”
the legal trouble got him back into soccer
However, the legal trouble got him back into soccer. Broke, he called his friends Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, one of only two footballers to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager. They were “two pretty good numbers in the Rolodex,” he says. The pair suggested that Messing return to the world he left, so in the mid-90s he and the Brazilian star formed an agency to represent players. They were trying to find the next global talent and help develop other players. Messing also got back into the television broadcasting game, parlaying his experience doing color commentary during the 1986 World Cup into a job with New York Metrostars in 2001, for the 2002, 2006, and 2010 World Cups, and the last two Summer Olympics. The man who was once the face of American soccer is now one of its best-known voices.
The venture with Blazer, a controversial figure who initiated bribery charges against African Football Confederation president Mohammed bin Hammam and FIFA Vice President Jack Warner in 2011, is in its early stages. It may work out, it may not. Regardless, Messing will keep bouncing along, getting opportunities and hedging his bets, while focusing on his family and his friends. The rest will work itself out; it always does. “I kind of like the spot I’m in. I’m like the grandfather, just sitting back and being involved in the soccer scene,” he says. “I don’t want to pick a horse if I don’t have to. I’m with the Red Bulls. I’m with the Cosmos. Maybe Man City does a team in Queens. I’m sitting back and watching with a vested interested.”
One of the reasons for his many business lives is that despite the missteps, it’s hard if not impossible to find anyone who will offer anything but praise for Messing. This is partially because he’s a gatekeeper, an entree to Pelé, the Cosmos, and other big names of what is still the biggest era of American soccer, but also because people gravitate toward his honesty and kindness. “He’s one of the most engaging people I’ve ever met. If you go through life and you find two or three friends like Shep Messing, you’ve done well for yourself,” says Steve Cangialosi, Messing’s play-by-play partner on Red Bulls’ broadcasts.
J.P. Dellacamera, another television personality who has known Messing since the mid-80s, agrees. “The Shep Messing that I know, I’ve referred to him in the past as the smartest person that I’ve ever met. He’s Harvard-educated. His persona in the past has been this wild guy, but I found him to be such a bright guy,” he says. “Whatever the topic is, I can talk to him about it. I find him to be so knowledgeable about stuff. Nobody talks about that part of him.”
It’s not just coworkers. George Gibson, the doorwoman in the lobby, and everyone else I spoke with for this story sing Messing’s praises. Not all do so effusively – many mention the rumors about his business struggles in an ominous tone, although they claim no knowledge of the details – but they all view him positively, a good guy who would run through a wall for a friend, just as he ran through attackers when he covered the net. They note how he doesn’t often talk about himself, simultaneously making a point about his humility and, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not, perpetuating the myth of Messing themselves.
That myth, which always precedes the man, is deeply wrapped up in the Cosmos legacy, specifically in the fact that they stopped playing in 1985 and have since passed into the realm of scratchy Technicolor videotape. The 2006 documentary “Once in a Lifetime” gave the club some new life, as has the return of a team bearing the New York Cosmos name to the field. In 2013, they will play in the new NASL, ironically enough calling Hofstra’s 13,000-person stadium home. The team could potentially join MLS as its 20th franchise. But mostly, like the decade they exemplified, they exist only in memory. “The Cosmos have taken on mythical proportions because they’ve been out of the scene. Had they never stopped playing ...,” Messing, who serves as an ambassador for the reborn team, says in his office, trailing off for a second and getting lost in thought. “It’s the same for me. I’m part of that history. I think I took on mythical proportions because of the void in the marketplace. Stories became bigger and embellished more. Do I think about any of that? No. I wake up every single day feeling the same way about life, my friends, my family. But I probably feel like I’m ageless. I feel like I’m 28 and I have a game tomorrow.”
Of course, he doesn’t. It is no longer 1977. Studio 54 was sold in 1981 and closed a decade later. But Messing is still here, a keeper of stories. He continues to play full-court basketball and remains in good shape but rarely, if ever, plays soccer. Getting in net was an all-encompassing prospect; it cannot be done lightly. “When you go between the sticks, you’re there to play,” he says. Apart from the occasional charity game, he has been done with that part of his life for decades. He did jump into net during a Legends event in Harrison, N.J., before the Major League Soccer All-Star Game in 2011. The story comes up after I ask him how he thinks he would fare if he was born 25 years later and had a chance to play in MLS.
“I was fucking unbelievable,” he says about the charity game that featured former United States national team members including Meola, John Harkes, Alexi Lalas, and Tab Ramos. He’s laughing, but he’s also not joking. “I think I’d be right there.” His lawyer – and best friend – even suggested he join MLS when the league debuted in 1996. Messing laughed off the suggestion. But still …
We are winding up. Although Messing says he would talk all day – and I believe him – it is clear he has things to do, phone numbers to call, red wine to drink, a business to build. Before I go, I ask him about a moment in his book that surprised me. Messing writes about a must-win game in 1971 against El Salvador during Olympic qualifying, describing the moments leading up to the five-shot shootout. Everything was on the line: “Guelker [the Olympic coach] left me in goal for the tiebreaker. I would have preferred a snakepit.” I thought a man like Messing, an adrenaline junkie who thrived under the bright lights, would welcome the opportunity to have the eyes of the watching world on him and him alone. In his office, four decades and thousands of miles away, I asked him about the quote.
His eyes light up at the memory. “Did I write that?” he asks. “I gotta go back and read the book. I know what I would have meant. For all my extrovert craziness, I’m very pragmatic, organized in terms of thinking and probability. Goalkeeping at a certain level is all about probability, percentage, angle, physics. What I probably should have said was ‘I don’t like the fucking odds.’ I can do everything right – analyze the inside of his right foot, the angle of the run, when he’s going to strike the run, and it still might go in.”
That notion bothered him. He could make all the right moves and still fail, still let his team down. Sometimes people just get lucky.
He smiled that charming, mischievous, honest, gap-toothed smile: “But no, I love the attention.” And, for the record, he won the shootout.