Tom McCabeThe T-shirt proclaims: “New Jersey. The largest country in the world.
Residents of other states (and countries) may differ — just as they argue over who is, say, the greatest soccer player of all time.
But it’s hard to argue about New Jersey’s key role in American football history. From the first factory-based teams to the glory days of players like Ramos Tab, Tony Meola and John Harkesto current young stars such as Brenden and Paxten Aaronsonthe Garden State punched well above its weight.
It’s also hard to argue with McCabe’s role as the greatest New Jersey football chronicler in world history. He wrote and produced a documentary on “Soccertown, United States(Kearny, if you have to ask), and another on the legendary trainer Manny Schellscheidt. His book “Miracle on the High Streettells the story of St. Benedict’s Prep School in Newark, a powerhouse high school (and where McCabe served as an administrator, teacher, and coach for 15 years).
And how about this: The Princeton University (NJ) graduate is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University in Newark, where he teaches courses on Newark, the United States — and football.
In a country that thinks football started with the arrival of Pele in 1975 (and drew the biggest crowds of his Cosmos career two years later, across the Hudson River in New Jersey’s Meadowlands), McCabe researched and wrote about the game a century earlier. These days, the Society for American Football History The deputy completes a manuscript on the long-forgotten American Football Association. Founded in 1884 as the second national football organization outside Britain (Canada was the first), it hosted a Tiffany-designed Challenge Cup competition that for 40 years drew teams from homes football like Philadelphia and Fall River, Massachusetts.
Between them is New Jersey. This is where Scottish immigrants played the game and created the Thistle United Soccer Club which produced stars like Ramos, Meola and Harkes.
McCabe tells their remarkable story in “Soccertown, USA”. He wrote and produced it with his former classmate from Princeton Kirk Rudell, whose Hollywood credits include “American Dad!” and “Will and Grace”.
McCabe – a college history major, who later earned a Ph.D. in Rutgers History – found previously unseen home photos and videos for the project. It was harder than he imagined: Ramos, Meola, and Harkes had been interviewed so many times, and loaned mementos that had never been returned, that few remained in their homes.
The documentary skips from Kearny to the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, when the three Jersey players formed the backbone of highly successful American teams. The film won the Audience Award at the Kicking + Screening Football Film Festival. Covid canceled plans for other festivals, so the producers made a free educational cut for YouTube. It’s available here:
McCabe’s second film is as New Jersey-centric — and story-driven — as his first. “Voice of the Game” tells the story of Schellscheidt, the German-American former professional player and coach (pro, US national team and Seton Hall University).
McCabe calls him “one of the lesser-known but most important coaches in American football history.” He coached or coached with men like Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena, Jesse Marsch and Gregg Berhalter. He is “literally, the very first A-licensed coach in the United States Soccer Federation”.
The 1988 Union Lancers National U-19 Champions. Standing (left to right): Sal Rapaglia, Manny Schellscheidt, Danny Gil, Tim Foley, John Dziadzio, Patrick White, Lino DiCuollo, Jim Roberti, Tom Agesen, Craig Kaisand, Glen VanDeventer, George Keogh, Bob Bradley. Seated: Pete DiMaggio, Richie Williams, David Gross, Tom McCabe, Scott Pizzi, Michael Bradley (on lap), Kenny Santos, Jim Barlow.
McCabe and Rudell knew him as teenagers. “We were all followers of Manny,” says McCabe, a member of the Schellscheidt-coached Union Lancers who won the national U-19 McGuire Cup in American youth football in 1987 and 1988. “Voice of the Game” calls himself a ‘master class’, with his philosophy of football distilled from hours of interviews with him and his ‘disciples’. The trailer:
McCabe knows a bit about masterclasses. His college football course is “a perfectly legitimate intelligent line of research,” he notes. “It’s the most popular game in the world. We cover everything from its origins to globalization and the influence of money. Students examine topics such as culture, social class, gender, race, and nationalism.
He’s at the perfect institution for such a course, notes McCabe. “Rutgers-Newark is one of the most diverse campuses in the world.”
This description is not surprising, coming from a man whose T-shirt proclaims that his state is the greatest country in the world. So, what’s the state of New Jersey these days, football-wise?
“Historically, it’s had a disproportionate impact on American football, for so long,” McCabe says. “He still has a lot of punching power. But there are so many other football cities now. Together, this makes us a stronger footballing nation.
“I was lucky, and lucky, to grow up here. And I’m proud of New Jersey’s history and power in the game.”