Nov. 12, 2016
By Denise Skwarcan
Joe Echelle's childhood wasn’t filled with summer camp, Little League baseball games and outings to the playground.
Instead, at age 5, he and his family escaped from their home when Russia invaded Yugoslavia during World War II. He remembers packing a bag for himself, not of clothes or of other necessities, but of wires because those were the items laying around with which he played. He eventually landed in a refugee camp in Austria where he spent eight years. Initially, there was no heat or water and the bathroom was down the hall. There was little food and the family--Echelle's parents, his grandmother and two younger sisters--all slept on a blanket on the floor in one room.
“I can briefly remember the commotion that was taking place,” Echelle says. “I understood that we had to leave. We boarded a truck that fled across the Danube River."
But Echelle had resiliency … and a ball of rags with which he learned how to play soccer. He played with kids and adults alike, often without shoes, all day long. It gave him hope and made him feel like less of an outsider.
“It was nothing special,” Echelle says of the ball with which they played. “I became very good at dribbling and moving around things, and I loved the goal-scoring part. We would put up two little goals, and I loved to shoot. I developed the ability to shoot left or right. Even though German was our native tongue and the Austrians spoke German, we were still foreigners. We were still invading their territory, but soccer was something we had in common.”
Out of those days grew a lifelong passion for a sport which would become a big part of Echelle’s life. It eventually also meant the birth of Notre Dame soccer after Echelle established, organized, captained and coached the first Irish soccer team. For his pioneering spirit and accomplishments in soccer, Echelle was awarded the Harvey G. Foster Award in September 2016, given to a Notre Dame alumnus who has distinguished himself or herself through civic or University activities.
“I am grateful to Notre Dame for giving me the pathway,” Echelle says. “Receiving this award was such an amazing honor, but I also had great teammates and the support of the University. That helped make all of it possible.”
Echelle's journey to South Bend started in postwar Europe when people began to immigrate. The United States passed an act through Congress which allowed ethnic Germans who had been pushed out of their homes and couldn't return to their homeland to come to America. So, after a very detailed vetting process, the Echelles were matched with a sponsor and landed in Mansfield, Ohio.
"We were admitted to the United States as permanent residents,” Echelle says. “When I look back on those years we were refugees, we were expatriates, we were misplaced persons, we were stateless and then we were immigrants. We had all types of titles. But we also had opportunity.”
Echelle’s parents went to work for Tappan, a company which made stoves, and Echelle concentrated on school. Soccer was not a mainstream sport in America at the time, but Echelle did play for a team in Mansfield. It was Notre Dame football, however, that altered the course of Echelle’s life.
“A priest took us to the Notre Dame campus for a football game during my junior year in high school,” Echelle says. “It was a great, great time for me. It was the only university I applied to and luckily I was accepted. I chose Notre Dame because of the education and the discipline. I was involved with student government and I had to balance studies with these activities.”
And if all that wasn't enough, Echelle also became a U.S. citizen as a freshman and then joined ROTC. Still, soccer was missing. But that changed when Echelle went to a Midwestern soccer conference during his third year at Notre Dame. It was there that he mentioned the school's interest in fielding a soccer team and, suddenly, he was swamped with requests from other schools who wanted to play the Irish.
"There were about 200 letters that came," Echelle says. "At that point, I dropped all my other extracurricular activities my junior and senior year to focus on soccer. I was interested in the sport, but I also kind of took it on as a start-up with a leadership role, and I saw it as a great opportunity. I remember not only trying to get the foreign students to play but also to get the Americans involved, too. It worked out pretty well."
The year was 1961 and thanks to Echelle's hard work, the inaugural soccer team--albeit just a club sport at first--was off and running ... and with a very eclectic group of team members.
"I had great teammates, and it was a great feeling to represent Notre Dame during that first year," Echelle says. "We had somebody from Nigeria on the team. We had two Chileans from South America. We had a player from Hong Kong. We had a player with a Chinese background who lived in India who came to study at Notre Dame through the influence of Mother Teresa. We had a goalkeeper who had a Dutch background, and we had Americans who were really the backbone of the team. And club sport or not, people still wanted to beat Notre Dame."
Two years later, Echelle graduated and left behind a soccer program that would continue to thrive. Echelle, however, had a commission in the Army waiting for him and thoughts of the Cold War and anti-Communism on his mind. He was somewhat disappointed, then, that he never left American soil.
"I was hoping to be sent to Berlin... I got as far as the Atlantic Ocean," says Echelle who was stationed at Camp Eustis in Virginia. "I was the platoon leader of 95 men, and I think they respected my military skills and training and the way I treated the troops. I had a good stay there, and my troop left for Vietnam after I left. We got them ready for it so I was proud of that."
While in the Army, Echelle also became a kicker for the Fort Eustis football team and was subsequently offered an NFL contract with the Houston Oilers. The head coach of the Oilers at the time was Lou Rymkus, a Notre Dame All-American under Frank Leahy. But Echelle eventually was cut from the team that had another guy on the roster by the name of George Blanda, a future NFL Hall of Famer. Lou Groza, another Hall of Fame kicker, also thwarted a tryout Echelle had in Cleveland.
His NFL career over before it even started, Echelle eventually moved on to professional soccer and carved out a distinguished career as an executive. He was the general manager of the Dallas Tornado, the Denver Dynamos and the Caribous of Colorado. Echelle also oversaw sales for the Bicentennial Soccer Cup, a mini-world cup which played in six cities, and he was named president of the American Soccer League Management.
Along the way Echelle earned his MBA from Pepperdine. He worked for Roy Hofheinz, who pioneered FM radio and built the Astrodome, and Lamar Hunt, who was the principal founder of Major League Soccer (MLS). the American Football League and the North American Soccer League (NASL, the predecessor to the MLS). He conversed with Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner of the NFL who was a lawyer for the NASL, and compared notes with David Stern, who worked in business management before serving as commissioner of the NBA.
"I heard somebody say the other day that if you want to know America you should know football and baseball, and that was my process," Echelle says. "But if you want to know the world you have to know soccer."
Not to be forgotten is the Irish soccer team which Echelle has followed along the way. Celebrating 40 years as a varsity sport this year, the team has been in good hands with Bobby Clark at the helm for the last 16 seasons. That included the program's first national title in 2013.
"He has a tremendous legacy going," Echelle says. "I can see that he's a transformational kind of guy that changes lives and really develops young men."
Now 76, Echelle owns a consulting business and lives in New Jersey with his wife Sandi. With no plans to travel to Texas for today's game versus Army, Echelle will most likely be listening to classmate Don Criqui on the radio. Will he be torn between cheering for the two teams?
"Oh no, no... it's Notre Dame," Echelle says with a laugh. "If I were on (the Notre Dame) campus I'd go to the Grotto and pray that Notre Dame wins."
Denise Skwarcan is a freelance writer from Elkhart, Indiana.