Jan. 12, 2007
By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine
He lived in the toughest section of Brooklyn, an unforgiving sinkhole of poverty known as Bed-Stuy. Being a black Elvis and speaking with a decidedly English accent called "Brizzle" did not help.
"Coming to America at 12--Bed-Stuy was culturally shocking. I tried to camouflage my British accent. The neighborhood was predominantly black, but kids still mocked me, refusing to use my name and calling me `Cocoa' after the cereal (Cocoa Krispies). I got a lot of stick," recalls Elvis Comrie, the reigning Holy Cross men's soccer coach for 16 past seasons.
Comrie's father had immigrated to Brooklyn two years earlier than his wife and their four kids. Rupert Comrie came to get a foothold in America. "Dad wanted to put food on the table, clothes on our backs and a roof over our heads. We didn't have much, but we had each other and never craved for anything else," Comrie says.
Working as a day laborer, a truck driver and a heavy equipment operator, his father would do anything to make a buck. Elvis' mom, Mazie, stayed home to nurture her two boys and two girls.
Born in Jamaica, his parents had migrated separately to England where they met, married and had children. In the city of Bristol, his dad eked out a living, driving a bus and doing odd jobs.
"I can remember him blocking those narrow streets with his double-decker just so he could dash up our tenement stairs, tuck us kids in and kiss us goodnight,'' Comrie recounts. "He was my best mate. His family was his jewels."
Growing up, Elvis--named in 1959 by his mom after rock legend Elvis Aaron Presley--was king of nothing. He had little going for him except a slight swagger that emerged from his one distinctive talent--an uncanny knack for dribbling a soccer ball. Soccer seemed to be part of his DNA, a genetic factor that he hoped would save him from a robotic life as a factory worker.
To Elvis, soccer was a magnificent obsession. On Saturday mornings, he would play for his school team, the Bristol Boys, then for a club team. On Sundays, he would perform for the Kingswood Rangers, a farm team that fed prospects to the professional Bristol City Robins. His Rangers' coach, Cliff Morgan, would give young Elvis 50 pence to take the bus home and back for the next game. "I'd have enough change to buy a few biscuits, which I'd hide away to have with my tea," Comrie says.
Many evenings were spent on the streets, playing one-on-one soccer with neighborhood kids. On the telly, he would watch Match of the Day. In his dreams, Elvis would replay his games and imagine himself as the second coming of Pele. His choices for the future seemed clear: pro soccer or the factories--or worse. Soccer gave him a reason to do well enough in school and instilled enough discipline to keep him out of trouble.
The Bristol City Robins took notice on afternoons when Elvis would flash through defenses and score three goals "to bring a smile to my father's face."
Elvis had speed, quickness and the cockiness of a winner. When he was not quite 13, Bristol City put a six-page contract in front of him, an offer to sign onto its apprentice program. "My father said `no.' He took away my dreams. He demanded I finish my education first. I was furious," says Elvis, now 47, and appreciative of his father's wisdom.
With the Comrie family reunited in Brooklyn, Elvis' parents understood they had to get him away from Bed-Stuy for high school. So Elvis found himself getting on a bus at six each morning and taking the long ride to Fort Hamilton High in Bay Ridge. On soccer-practice days, Elvis wouldn't get home until eight. He'd always be holding down some sort of part-time job. Elvis recalls working at Willie Mitchell's grocery, until the store was stuck up, and Willie ran out firing his pistol at the fleeing robbers. "I never went back there," Elvis says with a grin. He also remembers the time that a Good Humor man driving an ice cream truck on his street was shot dead.
"The fear of failure motivated me to work harder and get out," says Comrie.
In soccer, Elvis' talents flourished, drawing interest from the likes of Penn State and Connecticut, coached by Joe Morrone, a legend-in-waiting and The Pride of Worcester.
"We met Coach Morrone at my uncle's house in Queens. We didn't want him to know where I lived. I was a pretty cocky kid. I told Coach Morrone I didn't like UConn that much and was still waiting word from Penn State. I wouldn't sign the letter of intent from UConn," explains Elvis.
Indeed Penn State rejected Elvis. Morrone returned. And Elvis signed.
"I told Coach I would win a national championship for him," he says.
Comrie looks back today and knows that Coach Morrone had taken a chance on the brash youngster from Bed-Stuy.
Elvis slipped into UConn's department of home economics, becoming the only male blue-chip athlete in the nation majoring in fashion design.
He did not fit comfortably into the mold of Morrone's old-school style. Elvis did not want to subdue his flair, his daring. "I told Coach I was a creator and needed my freedom," Comrie recounts. Morrone pretty much told him there was only one Creator and He wasn't named Elvis.
Morrone insisted his team play hardnosed defense. He drilled his players on every detail, every nuance of the game. Though their relationship would be testy, he corralled Elvis and got him to stop trying to get by six opponents in his own end. "We compromised. I wouldn't do anything risky until I got to midfield!" Elvis recalls.
Elvis delivered as promised. On Dec. 6, 1981, UConn defeated Alabama A&M, 2-1, in overtime at Stanford Stadium to win the NCAA crown. Elvis had scored the game-winner in the semifinal victory over Eastern Illinois. Elvis and teammate Pedro DeBrito were selected to the All-America team for the 20-3-2 Huskies. Elvis stood alone, No.1 on the charts, named "Player of the Year" by Soccer America.
Now Coach Comrie--still ranked second in UConn career points scored (145)--echoes the sentiments of Morrone, a mentor he always "respected and trusted." Comrie preaches self-discipline, teamwork and selflessness. And he searches always for a diamond in the rough, that borderline student who just needs to be given a chance to shine.
Comrie did not finish his degree in fashion design until 1986. The Montreal Manics drafted him as a senior to play in the North American Soccer League. Elvis emerged as an immediate star, earning runner-up honors in the league's Rookie of the Year voting.
With indoor and outdoor soccer leagues and franchises popping up and down, Comrie took his all-star act on the road. In Chicago, for the Sting. In Maryland, for the Bays. Even to France. Finally, he tried to settle into becoming a stockbroker. That foray ended with a thud on Black Monday, that September day in 1987 when the market plummeted.
Finally, Comrie sat down to write a candid self-evaluation. He thought about things he might be good at. On the top of the page, he scrawled "helping kids who need a chance."
Opportunity knocked when his friend Shaun Green, head coach at Central Connecticut, needed an assistant. With Comrie aboard, Central Connecticut went 15-3, earning a Top 5 ranking in New England. In 1991, Comrie applied for the head Holy Cross spot, then a part-time position. He was hired by Athletics Director Ron Perry '54--himself a championship-caliber, All-American athlete who had been an outstanding coach.
Comrie's 1993 team climbed into the New England's Top 10 ranking. In 1995, Comrie was named Patriot League Coach of the Year, an award he received again in 1999 and 2001.
Then came the men's soccer team's finest hour in its 39-year history. The 2002 Crusaders, stocked with 17 seniors in Comrie's best recruiting class, attained a Top 25 national ranking. Holy Cross posted a record 13 victories and made its first NCAA tournament before bowing to Fairleigh Dickinson on penalty kicks in the opening round.
To build a program dotted with success, Elvis paid a price. His job didn't become designated as full time until 1996. Before that, he earned a meager salary, which he supplemented by running his own soccer clinics and driving throughout the Northeast and beyond to work at others. He operated more like a jazz musician seeking out gigs. On his own dime, in his own car, Elvis went on scouting forays, volunteering at talent jamborees such as the South Florida Showcase, using his charm and reputation to make soccer contacts, hoping to hook a hot recruit.
He laughs, recalling Bill Bellerose '77, associate athletics director, once calling him on the carpet to question why his phone bills were more than the tab for football and basketball combined. With a pittance in his recruiting budget and no full-time staff, Elvis had only one way to recruit: chatting prospects up for hours on the phone.
He sells the Holy Cross experience. "You can feel connected here. It's a place where you can make a difference. Professors know you by name and promote dialogue ..." are the lyrics in every Elvis recruiting song. "What will separate you from millions of other students is the quality of the school you attend. Holy Cross is the top of the line," he tells prospects.
Elvis knows his soccer recruits are a different breed than the kids from the streets of Bristol and Bed-Stuy. He tells stories to demonstrate. One player came to him to ask to take the season off, calling it a "sabbatical." Why? He wanted more time to campaign for class president. Often, Comrie says, bus-trip conversations center on the environment and politics, not the timing of corner-kicks.
He remains the only full-timer in the men's soccer program. Now he has his own office, at the end of a second floor runway from the lineup of football offices in the Fieldhouse.
Elvis arrived in Worcester as a newlywed. With his bride, Yana, and their kids, the couple moved into a two-bedroom flat above a store. Now residing in Bloomfield, Conn., they have worked hard bringing up their children the right way. Yana has risen to become a regional manager of the clothing boutique chain Jasmine Sola, where Elvis' stepdaughter, Chanelle, serves as director of marketing. His other stepdaughter, Misty Ray, is a sophomore at Loyola-Maryland. Their son, Omari, is a sophomore at Northwest Catholic in West Hartford and a budding left wing. Elvis' mom lives in Orlando, Fla. His dad died of cancer six years ago.
This year Comrie finally got his field of dreams.
For years, soccer has been a campus vagabond. Men's and women's teams have played on the outfields of Fitton, and on the pastures, the football practice fields and the multipurpose AstroTurf behind the Hart Center.
This season, Comrie and women's coach, Deb Flaherty, had a first-rate field to call their own. The new Linda Johnson Smith Soccer Stadium is magnificent by all standards. The $3 million, 1,320-seat illuminated field is graced by the Greene Family Plaza, donated by Mike Greene '84. It is naturally seeded and outfitted with pro-style nets, a press box, a striking scoreboard and European-style bench shelters.
The day before the last home game, Elvis toured the campus with nine recruits. Usually the sloped, make-do soccer pasture was the last place Comrie would reveal to prospects. Now the new field is his first and best pitch.
"The word on the street is Holy Cross has the top of the line," Comrie explains.
The facility will help his recruiting efforts. His old promise to recruits--that the new field would be in place before they were seniors--is no longer a running joke.
The College's last home game this fall came against Harvard, a night match in a steady rain. About 35 umbrellas could be counted. Harvard bolted to a 3-nil advantage on the emerald-green jewel glistening atop a nearly abandoned hilltop.
Suddenly, the Crusaders caught fire. Josh Trott '07 boomed in a goal and then followed with another on a penalty kick. Now it was 3-2 as the excitement sounded like an echo in a hollow. If there had been a band, it would have exploded in sound. If there were a crowd, it would have roared. The Crusaders were on the verge of a stunning upset. Another shot went just wide right. "We showed great heart, desire, passion," exuded Comrie afterwards, ignoring how Harvard stemmed the tide to win 5-2.
Coach Comrie walked off the new pitch with renewed pride. And so did his players, who had a chance to prove themselves. Without much fanfare, the Crusaders did themselves proud.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.