When I was growing up, to me, and to many of my Black friends, there were three main sports heroes we were obsessed with: Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron and Pelé.
There were others, of course, but for those of us who played soccer, Pelé was a deity. As we mourn his death, and look back at one of the most extraordinary athletes that ever lived, if you're not completely familiar with him, it's difficult to put into words the galactic impact, historical greatness and overall grandness of this magnificent man.
I started following Pelé dutifully when I was around 12, sometime in the late 1970s (yeah, I'm old). I tried to read everything I could about him. When I played in soccer games, I was Pelé. When I headed a ball or got knocked down or scored, I was Pelé. Hell, when I started playing high school football (very badly), I was Pelé, too. When I studied, I was him. When I got into college, got my first internship, got my first job, I was Pelé.
Pelé was a standard of excellence that you wanted to achieve. But of course few people could do what Pelé did, which is why he was Pelé and we're not.
There's a phrase in Brazilian soccer that describes the culture and spirit of the sport, but it also in many ways describes him: it's "jogo bonito" which translates to "beautiful game." Pelé popularized the phrase in his 1977 memoir "My Life and the Beautiful Game."
"I dedicate this book to all the people who have made this great game the Beautiful Game," he wrote.
He won three World Cups and in 1999 was named the IOC's Athlete of the Century. When he came to America in the mid-1970s to play for the New York Cosmos, he was the singular reason for North American Soccer League (NASL) attendance records, and the rise of interest in the sport in this country (for people like me).
Pelé was also ahead of his time when it came to marketing, understanding not just his value and pushing to monetize it, but also encouraging other athletes of color to understand theirs.
He was supportive and an ambassador for the sport in other ways. When American Tim Weah scored a goal in the World Cup and posted about it on Instagram, he was congratulated in the comments … by Pelé.
“Congratulations. It was a beautiful goal,” wrote Pelé. “Keep dreaming, dreams come true.”
“Thank you Papa Pelé,” wrote Weah. “It is such a blessing and an honor to receive such an inspiring message from The King himself. Thank you for everything you’ve done for the world and for us young black men. Grandes Abraços.”
Weah's father, George Weah, who is also the president of Liberia, and is one of the greatest soccer players of all time, counts Pelé as a significant influence.
Pelé's reach went beyond Brazil. It crossed oceans and mindsets and generations, and if you were Black and played soccer in America, he moved you, in ways few other athletes did. Pelé wasn't American but for a lot of young Black soccer players it didn't matter. He was still one of us. He will always be one of us.
He was Ali, Althea Gibson, Jesse Owens, Bill Russell, Jack Johnson, Serena Williams, Simone Biles and a handful of other Black athletes who reached heights that few people who looked like us ever did.
He did it with grace, style and class. He stared down racism while growing up Afro-Brazilian, a racial minority. He would address issues of race even if it wasn't always as much as some people liked.
“He shows no solidarity with the cause, Black people, or even social issues in general,” said Paulo Rogério, executive director of Brazil’s Instituto Mídia Étnica, in 2014 on NewsOne.com, a website devoted to African-American culture. “He has a history of never having publicly spoken in favor of the Black struggle.”
It would be unfair, however, to say that Pelé didn't address racism he and teammates of color faced while playing soccer both in Brazil and abroad. He told CNN in 2020 that Black players were called "apes, chimpanzees, they called all creoles that."
Pelé wasn't Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, who both essentially ignored race. Pelé also wasn't Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who constantly addressed racial issues. Pelé was somewhere in between. He believed he couldn't fight racism all the time. He had to pick and choose his battles.
“If I’d started fighting every time they used the N-word in the United States, Latin America and Brazil," Pelé once said, "I’d still be embroiled in legal cases the world over."
What's undeniable is that Pelé was a gift to the world. It sounds corny but it's true. A gift to a young Black man playing soccer in Maryland. A gift to Black people in need of inspiration. A gift to us all.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Mike Freeman on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pelé a hero to American Black soccer players, gift to NY Cosmos, NASL