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Still Kicking - Tab Ramos
06/30/2009 - By Chad A. Safran
Photos by McKay Imaging
Soccer Legend, Tab Ramos: Still making an impact
New Jersey has produced its fair share of great soccer players over the years, but Tab Ramos is the one player people think of first when discussing the best ever to come from the Garden State. Originally born in Uruguay before becoming a United States citizen in 1982, Tabís name became synonymous with New Jersey soccer, starring at St. Benedictís Prep in Newark, where he captured Parade Magazineís National Player of the Year Award in 1983, setting the high school career goal scoring mark. Remarkably, that record still stands. He became a three-time All-American at North Carolina State, and played professionally in Spain and Mexico. In 1996 he returned to the New Jersey soccer scene as an inaugural member of Major League Soccerís New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the Red Bulls), where he played seven seasons and earned three all-star appearances.
Itís as a member of the U.S. Menís National Team, however, where Tab became an iconic figure in this countryís soccer history. He assisted on the goal that enabled the United States to qualify for the 1990 World Cup Ė the teamís first appearance in 40 years. He also became one of just a handful of U.S. players to participate in three consecutive World Cups. Overall he played 81 games for the National Team, scoring eight goals, yet it was his skills as a playmaker, not a goal scorer, that enabled him to enjoy 13 years on the international scene.
Tab retired from professional soccer in 2002, but still lives his passion for the game on a daily basis, operating his soccer programs and serving as the president and a coach of the New Jersey Soccer Academy 04 (NJSA 04 Ė a youth soccer development program). He is also a partner in the Tab Ramos Sport Center in Aberdeen. Once in a while you can find him playing in one of the adult leagues held at his facility as well. After spending time living in Old Bridge, Tab (42 years old), has made Monmouth County his home for more than a decade. When not involved with soccer, he spends time with his girlfriend Tracey and his children: Alex, 14, Kristin, 11, and Sarah, who turns 1 in August. He is also an avid tennis player. Tab recently took time out to speak with Living In Holmdel about soccer, his career, and his life since.
LIH: What is your first memory of playing soccer?
TR: That would be going to my first travel game. I had played soccer in the street all the time with friends. The first time I was taken to a travel team I was kind of scared to go. I wasnít sure if I could play. I think I cried the first time I went because I didnít want to go. I was 6.
LIH: How did the tryout go?
TR: It must have gone pretty well, because I loved itÖand even more ever since. I think it was the last day I cried playing soccer until I retired in 2002Öso the first day and the last day.
LIH: At age 11, your family moved from Uruguay to the United States, and you grew up in the Harrison and Kearney areas. How did you feel about moving to this country?
TR: I remember being disappointed about moving to the United States because at that age in foreign countries, you start to get identified by professional teams. At 11 and 12, teams really start to look at you. I remember asking my parents why, of all the countries in the world, did we have to move to the one where they donít play soccer. My father had gotten a job offer; he had worked here earlier in the 1970s for a year and didnít like it and went back to Uruguay. Then in 1976 [or] 1977 the job offer still stood, and he decided it was a good idea to move. The economy there wasnít as good. He thought it would be a good move for us to come to the U.S. so we did. I had no choice.
LIH: When did you finally start to enjoy living here?
TR: At first, I missed my grandparents and all that because they played a big part in my life.My grandfather used to take me to practices. Kids adapt quickly, and I made friends. Then I started to play soccer on the playground, and before I knew it, I was playing soccer with all the other kids.
LIH: Did you know you were a better soccer player than the other kids in the area?
TR: My first soccer tryout in the U.S. Ė I think I was 12 Ė I remember it was rec soccer. A friend of mine said, ďWhy donít you play in this rec soccer league.Ē I didnít know what that meant. I remember kids showed up in knee pads and glasses and stuff like that. I thought that was kind of unusual. I lasted one day. Someone saw me play rec soccer, and they took me to the travel team. That was the Kearney Thistle team that I ended up playing for. Once I got on the Kearney team I stayed with them.
LIH: Did you see yourself as a professional soccer player growing up?
TR: Always. I envisioned myself playing professionally from as young as I can remember.
LIH: What made you have this goal?
TR: Watching it on television, knowing all the players. Uruguay has half the population of New Jersey and has won the World Cup twice. So traditionally itís all there is. It really is a soccer country.
LIH: Who was your soccer idol growing up?
LIH: What was it like finally meeting him?
TR: It was great. Heís a super nice guy. When I met him he knew who I was already, because I had already been in theWorld Cup. I was number 10 with the MetroStars and he was number 10 with the Cosmos, so there was a little bit of a connection there.
LIH: During your prep career at St. Benedictís, you set the state record for goal scoring with 161, including 57 your senior year. That career record still stands. Are you surprised by that?
TR: I am surprised, only because records are made to be broken and almost always are. I am surprised it has lasted that long, but soccer is more competitive now, so itís harder to score goals. Having said that, I could probably have scored another 50 goals in high school. I could have easily scored 200.
LIH: Did you think you would score more goals professionally?
TR: No. Actually growing up I wanted to be a right defender/fullback. No coach would ever put me there because they thought I had too much skill to play in the back; so I always played attacking mid field, and in high school I played forward, which I hated. I did what I was supposed to do. They put me at forward so I scored goals, but I feel much more comfortable setting people up and being an assist guy. I think that was the best part of my game. I liked being a playmaker more than I did being a forward.
LIH: You had the opportunity to play in Europe where soccer is the number one sport. What was the experience like playing in a place where the game means so much to people?
TR: Normally, in this country, once in a while you hear there is a brawl somewhere and thatís the extent of the news.You have to recognize [that] there are thousands of games going on around the world every day. Soccer is just so big worldwide and itís just amazing.What I loved about Europe was walking around the street and people recognizing you. It was kind of neat, coming from a country like the U.S.
LIH: You spent several years playing professionally in Spain, first with Figueres and then moving on to a bigger club when you went to Real Betis (based in Seville).Was there one particular moment from your time in Spain that you remember?
TR: With Betis, we moved up from the second division to the first division, and our promotion was crazy. We came in on the high-speed train from Madrid, and when we came into the train station there were thousands of people; we could barely move. The police had to help us get out.We got on the team bus and our stadium Ė where we had our cars Ė was no more than 10 minutes away. It took us around 3 hours to get there from the thousands of people who were crowding the roads our bus was on to celebrate the victory. It was just crazy. I remember people wrapping themselves up in green and white flags (the colors of the club) and just throwing themselves under the bus because they just wanted to die since they were so happy. It was just something that people would have difficulty understanding. I would compare soccer overseas on the club level to something like Nebraska football. Something where they donít have anything else (professional sports-wise) and thatís all the people care about. I donít know if there are many things you can compare soccer with in this country.
LIH: In 1990, the U.S. played in the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.While the team did not win a game, the time in Italy must have been a memorable one.
TR: Our second game was against Italy in Rome. That was an unforgettable experience. The atmosphere of the stadiumwas almost like the whole place was shaking. There were 80 to 90,000 people in that Olympic Stadium and I had never been in anything like that.At the same time, 2 billion people are watching you on television, so you are live to the whole world and they are watching your game.
LIH: Were you nervous?
TR: I had some butterflies coming into the game, obviously, but I always wanted the ball. I wasnít nervous to play. I wanted to make something happen and we certainly werenít good enough to make something happen in that World Cup, but I definitely wanted to make an impact somehow.
LIH: What did making that World Cup do for soccer in the United States?
TR: We see what it has done. The whole thing has turned around now. Now soccer exists, not considering the professional league, because the professional league is not at the level of the leagues overseas and its tough for the professional league to find a spot here amongst all the other leagues; but soccer has really turned around since then. That was a big moment for soccer in the U.S. Weíve hosted a World Cup. Our national teamis ranked consistently in the top 20. It all started then, and look how many millions play now as compared to then. While 1994 had a bigger impact, that is what got the ball rolling to get us to that point.
LIH: In 1994, the U.S. made the second round of theWorld Cup and faced Brazil. During the teamís 1-0 loss you took a nasty elbow to the head from Brazilian player Leonardo, resulting in his ejection and a head injury that caused you to miss more than 3 months of playing time.What actually happened?
TR: It was physical for me because I was one of the guys on the U.S. team who handled the ball. I remember thembeing a little bitmore physical with me. I know the particular player who hit me with the elbow was not one of those guys. I knew Leonardo from the earlier World Cup, and he played at Valencia when I played at Betis. He was not a violent or dirty player by any means. Sometimes we all lose our heads, and particularly in sports you get that way. It was a moment where he lost his head. He came to the hospital and apologized.We have had a good relationship and we have talked many times since then.
LIH: Did you see it coming?
TR: I was actually trying to come around him and didnít see it coming at all. It cracked my skull.
LIH: Did you know how badly you were hurt at the time?
TR: No. All I knew was that I didnít have control of my body.At that point I didnít know what to think. You have to remember, there were over 80,000 people and all I could hear was a train going through my head. I remember lying on the grass hearing this really loud noise and I couldnít control myself. It was a little scary. I had to stay in California for 2 or 3 weeks; the doctors didnít want me flying across the country. I had to get back to my team in Europe and they were not happy. They called and I told them I could not play for a few months.
LIH: Along with Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa, you were one of the first three players in the history of the U.S. Menís National Team to play in three consecutive World Cups. How did the experience change from the first one in 1990 through the final one in 1998?
TR: The first oneÖwe were just a bunch of college guys who made the national team and somehow found ourselves there. We werenít really good enough to qualify and we qualified on a lucky goal. The second one, in 1994, I thought we had a team as good as we had ever had here. In 1998, we had a full team of professionals that just didnít blend together. We had an issue with our captain (New Jersey native John Harkes), who got released right before the World Cup. That kind of threw the team off and divided it a little bit because some of the veterans, like me, supported the captain. There certainly were some issues. The 1998 World Cup was certainly one that was not a lot of fun. Sometimes that happens on national teams. You have a lot of personalities. There are a lot of issues that come with that, and sometimes you need a real good manager to put that together. For whatever reason, it didnít work for us in 1998. Thatís how the professional game is sometimes.
LIH: How do you regard the time you spent in Major League Soccer (MLS) with the MetroStars?
TR: I felt the obligation more than anything to come back and kick start the league. After having played in Spain and Mexico, playing in MLS was certainly not the same.
LIH: You were inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005. Had you ever thought about being honored in such a way?
TR: The Hall of Fame is something you never strive for. Itís not something I ever thought about. Growing up you want to be a professional and you want to do well, and if you make it to the pros youíve made it. If you get selected to the Hall of Fame, itís an elite group. To ever aspire to that is really difficult. When I retired and became eligible to be on the ballot I thought that was pretty neat. It wasnít a goal of mine. To top it off, going in with my childhood buddy who I grew up with on the same team (Harkes)ÖI mean what are the chances of that happening. I played youth soccer with a Hall of Famer next to me the whole time.
LIH: What is your most memorable experience playing soccer?
TR: Itís hard to pick one because there have been three or four that I will always remember. The game we played in Trinidad to qualify for the World Cup in 1989 will always be important. Playing Italy in the World Cup in 1990 would be another moment. Winning the cup, while playing for Tigres in Mexico, was important. Winning promotion, while playing for Real Betis to go to first division, was memorable. I would say those are moments that stand out as being special.
LIH: How has soccer in New Jersey changed since you were competing here in the 1980s?
TR: Itís changed a lot, and mostly because there are a lot more knowledgeable people around the game now. There are a lot more coaches who know what they are doing and a lot more people who played the game who are [now] teaching it. Just from that side alone, the game has taken some huge stepsÖand then just sheer numbers. For anyone who has a child, soccer is probably the healthiest sport to play. You have the kids running around; whether theyíre good or not they are active. Itís a great sport to play. Soccer will continue to grow at the youth level, and there is no way to stop that beast. Itís going to get bigger and bigger.
LIH: What is the talent level compared to that of the rest of the country? In the past, New Jersey was a hotbed of soccer talent.
TR: Thatís changed.Weíve fallen behind.At this point, I think the most talent comes out of Texas and California. One of the reasons is the weather. They get to play outside all year around. We are getting to the point where we are developing enough turf fields in this part of the country where you can play outside all year. Also, it has to do with sheer numbers Ė those are two huge states. Some of the clubs in Texas have 100 teams.
LIH: When kids reach a certain skill level they often have to choose between playing for their high school and club/travel team. How do you feel about that?
TR: With our club being a U.S. Soccer Development Academy we encourage our kids to play high school. Not for the soccer part of it, but because of the social side. I think itís important for kids to have that confidence and be part of something in their school. Itís more for their confidence socially than anything else. Itís easier to fit in; you have a group you associate yourself with. There are many benefits to playing sports in high school and thatís what we believe in.
LIH: How did the Tab Ramos Sports Center come about?
TR: The complex is just four Holmdel guys who came together and wanted to find a place for their kids to play sports in the winter.We made it happen. I am very fortunate to be involved with three partners who, above all else, are just very nice people. They love the kids, they love the games, and they love soccer. Itís worked out all the way around.
LIH: What made you choose the location in Aberdeen as the right spot?
TR: It was for sale. Everything was here. We just cleaned it up.We made the programs better. We made the facilities better. Weíve replaced everything in here. Weíve made it a nice place for people to go.
LIH: What kind of involvement do you have on a day-to-day basis?
TR: As far as the operations go I am not involved at all. We have the right people. We have great managers who report to all the partners. We also have two of the partners here full time. Thereís myself running the soccer programs and Jay Teitelbaum running the business upstairs. I think that helps, being around.
LIH: You are involved, however, with coaching and running NJSA04 (New Jersey Soccer Academy), which was founded in 2004 to offer players from the New Jersey/New York Metropolitan area an opportunity to play a national schedule, and to provide them with wide exposure to higher levels of youth soccer. What teams do you coach?
TR: The 1993Ė1994 boys
LIH: What do you get out of coaching?
TR: The satisfaction of seeing kids succeed and improving their relationship with the ball. Thatís what soccer is about. One of the things we pride ourselves in at our academy is to try not to interfere with the playersí relationship with the ball. Itís important that they use what their creativity asks them to do.We put them in an environment that will allow them to be the best they can be, and weíve been successful.
LIH: How would you describe your coaching and player development philosophy?
TR: One of the things you will hear about our club is that we play the game we think is the right way, where every kid feels comfortable with the ball. When you watch our teams play, you will see that we have the ball most of the time; we are a very good passing team.We focus on the basic skills of the game and let the creative kids do whatever they can.
LIH: Career-wise, do you have a particular coaching goal?
TR: I want to be involved with coaching for as long as it takes to get this academy to the highest level possible, which weíve accomplished part of now. NJSA 04 was recently admitted to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy for the 2009Ė2010 season. [We are] one of 79 total clubs slated to participate in the national team training program next year. I have no aspirations of coaching professionally or anything else.
LIH: What advice would you give to parents about involvement in their childrenís sports activities?
TR: At our club we believe the parentsí only job is to drive their kids here and not say anything else. We know what we are doing. We have the right soccer people involved with our teams. The parents need to drop the kids off hereÖno different than when they drop them off at horseback riding. We give out papers for one team that says, ďYour input is not needed or welcome here.Ē We started our club off that way. In some of the town clubs parents have too much influence on what happens. In this club, we run things a certain way and if the parents donít like it they are welcome to go. Thereís no negotiating how things work.
LIH: What advice would you give to a kid who likes playing soccer?
TR: The advice would be to not let anyone stop them from being creative, and to put themselves in an environment with others who love the game like they love the game.
LIH: If you werenít involved with soccer what would you be doing?
TR: I donít think there is anything else.
LIH: Do you miss anything about playing?
TR: The only things I miss are the big national team games, whether it be a big qualifying game or a World Cup game. To be honest, I donít miss the everyday practice. I am too old to be out there every day. You need such a drive to be at that level.
LIH: You had a couple ofACL tears and an assortment of other injuries.Did you ever feel like you were injury plagued?
TR: Being 5í7Ē I was a shorter guy. I was a playmaker on most teams, so I always had a target on my back. When you get older and into your early 30ís, and youíve been taking a beating for 10 to 12 years, it starts to get to you. Itís unfortunate [that] over the last 4 or 5 years I had so many injuries. Thatís just the body wearing down. Thatís when you have to retire.
LIH: How do you look back at your career?
TR: I think it was a good one. I can look back and correct so many things, change so many things, wish I would have done things a different way, wish I could have played better at certain times. I can always look at the things I could have done better if I had to do it all over again. But I was totally dedicated to the game and I didnít cheat myself. I gave myself every opportunity to succeed.
LIH: What do you do when you are not involved with soccer?
TR: I like to travel. Anytime I get chance I go to EuropeÖ I like the Mediterranean a lot, whether itís Spain or France or Italy. They are beautiful countries to travel to.
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