Priest gets ball rolling in Oklahoma

Saturday, January 29th 2005, 3:00 pm
By: News On 6

SHAWNEE, Okla. (AP) _ Paul Zahler is being recognized by the Oklahoma Soccer Association as the godfather of soccer in the state.

The Benedictine priest will be inducted into the Oklahoma Soccer Association Hall of Fame for being at the forefront of organizing the association and establishing youth soccer in Oklahoma.

He will join seven existing Hall of Fame members, along with three other 2005 inductees.

A 1955 alumni of St. Gregory's College, now St. Gregory's University, Zahler returned to the campus in 1962 to teach physical education, psychology and child development.

Zahler said the large number of international students on campus wanting to play soccer encouraged him in 1964 to organize a team. Their first matches were with foreign students at Oklahoma Baptist University less than a mile away.

He later began scheduling games with teams at Southeastern State University in Durant, Oklahoma City University and Phillips University in Enid, which since has closed. He said those teams, like his, consisted mostly of international students.

``Persians, Asians, Germans, Latinos, Italians _ you name it,'' Zahler said. ``It was like the United Nations. Every culture had its own style of play, but the game itself was like a universal language that brought them all together.''

Even though he had never played the game, Zahler was a successful coach. The team's first season ended with a 4-1-1 record. The 1971-72 and 1972-73 teams were national playoff champions.

Zahler said soccer gained popularity in the collegiate system, despite the roadblocks to prevent it. Funds for athletic programs were stretched thin and football coaches were concerned soccer would recruit their best kickers, he said.

Oklahoma Soccer Association spokesman Dale Watts said a rogue league of adult teams formed the Oklahoma Soccer League in 1967. Zahler was elected its first president.

``He is truly the godfather of organized soccer in Oklahoma,'' Watts said. ``He not only was instrumental in its establishment, he broke social barriers with it, too.''

Watts said during Zahler's nine years as association president, he pushed for the organization to join the Federation of International Football Association and take on its regulations, as well as change its name to the Oklahoma Soccer Football Association.

He is credited for significant changes in the way soccer was played in Oklahoma, such as allowing for unlimited substitutions rather than having the same players start and finish the game. He also was an advocate for training coaches and referees, Watts said.

By 1975, youth soccer was gaining popularity in several cities and Zahler aspired to include their programs in the state association.

Watts said he helped bring them all to the table and agree to establish new bylaws. The association was renamed the Oklahoma Soccer Association and Zahler appointed the state's first youth soccer commissioners.

All children playing soccer would step onto an even playing field under the new association's guidelines.

Zahler said they relied on mothers, rather than fathers, to be coaches and referees. Females in most instances are less competitive and more cooperative about children's sports, he said.

The state organization under Zahler's direction also established a long-standing rule that has ensured all children are allowed to play at least 30 minutes of the match.

Zahler said children who warmed the bench in other sports because they lacked the abilities of other players grew confident as their athletic skills increased on the soccer field.

The rule was tested in a 1999 court action that ended with a judge's order allowing a 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy to use his walker in a game.

Zahler had little to say about the case. He merely shook his head to reiterate the words he told concerned parents _ ``No player was ever in danger of being hurt by that child's walker.''

Zahler's office at St. Gregory's is a depository for about 40 years of teaching, research and coaching, as well as his effort to enhance the development of children.

Even though its been decades since he's coached a soccer team, evidence of the game's influence emerge in his unusual child development program that he promotes worldwide.

His book, ``Experience Quotient Functional Approach,'' outlines his program of sensory-motor stimulation that uses recreation as a basis for social achievement.

It's a concept put into a more simplistic light by a picture in Zahler's book of happy children playing soccer.