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Honoring a Madison soccer legend: Binns memorial event Saturday

05/06/2016, 1:45am CDT
Keith Binns

Keith Binns wasn't planning to move to Madison.

It was 1955, and the 22-year-old from Leeds, England, actually had his sights set on a location half a world away from Wisconsin.

"This was England when it was pretty gritty, it was still post-war, still had restrictions – still had some food rationing and clothes rationing," he explained in a wide-ranging interview in 2013. "I was one of the 'angry young men.' There was a generation of guys like me. We were well educated, but we had working-class accents. It was a very class-conscious society, so your chances of getting to the top were rather slim. They called it the 'brain drain.'

"Mostly they went to Australia, and I was going to go there, too. My best buddy did. I wrote to my sister (Barbara), she was here (in Madison), she came over in '48, married a guy from Sun Prairie. She said, 'You'd better come check this out first.' I said, 'OK, it's on the way to Australia.' "

Binns ended up living with his sister and brother-in-law for a month or so, then got a construction job – despite being educated as an accountant – and Madison quickly became his home. A trip back to West Yorkshire a few years later confirmed that.

"I took what was called the $1,000 cure," Binns recalled. "I quit my job and went back to England in 1958, to see if it was as good as I remembered it. I stayed three months.

"I said to my mother one day, 'Well, I think it's time for me to go home,' and she said, 'This is your home.' I said, 'No, I think I'm better off over there. There's much more opportunities, they don't care what the hell you speak like, there's no class-consciousness.' So I came back. It cost $1,000 for you to fly there and back, so they called it the $1,000 cure."

About the only thing Binns missed was that his new home had no football, or soccer as he would learn to call it. Over the next six decades, he would play a vital role in the game's growth in the capital city, playing the sport he loved into his 80s.

On Saturday, the Madison soccer community will gather at Hoyt Park on Madison's near west side to celebrate Binns, who died Jan. 7 at age 83. The event starts at 4 p.m. and figures to include stories, soccer, a pig roast and surely a pint or two raised in honor of the Englishman.


Binns had enough stories about the early years and development of modern soccer in Madison, the state and beyond to write a book – and he did just that, publishing "Alive and Kicking: The Story of America's Love Affair With Soccer" in 2007. (Available on Amazon and at Stefans Soccer in Madison)

He loved to tell those stories. Like the one about how he went to Badger Sporting Goods on State St. in May 1955 and wanted to buy a soccer ball, only to get a shocking reply from the employee: "I don't even know what they look like." Or how he had to write a letter to the U.S. Soccer Federation to find out where the closest soccer club was.

Someone from Bavarian SC in the Milwaukee area eventually made the drive west to see if Binns was good enough to join their club, showing up at his work. "I said, 'I don't know how good I am right now. I can't practice, I don't even have a ball,' " he recalled.

The Bavarians ended up signing Binns, buying the winger a pair of cleats at Stefan's Soccer Shop in Milwaukee. But a match against Milwaukee Sport Club changed everything.

"This guy comes up to me and says, 'Keith, you're from Madison?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'So am I.' This was Peter Bostanescu," Binns said. "He says, 'We should start a team in Madison, there's two other guys, two students from (UW-)Madison who come down here to play as well."

Madison SC founding members Peter Bostanescu and Keith Binns in March 2015

Madison SC founding members Peter Bostanescu and Keith Binns in March 2015

They placed an ad in the Wisconsin State Journal in spring 1956, announcing the formation of Madison Soccer Club. Binns' wife, Betty, documented the announcement just like she did for years and years, clipping newspaper articles that filled scrapbooks and folders.

Binns said the club's initial meeting at Tenney Park included seven or eight players. Eventually, they put together a roster of 14. Madison SC started play in the Wisconsin State Soccer League First Division, beating Sport Club Reserves 3-0 in a friendly in their inaugural match – Binns had one of the goals on the day.

Of course, first they needed to secure a home field, which was a bit challenging considering there were no soccer fields in Madison. Binns credited Ray Keller of the City of Madison Parks Department for his work creating the first soccer field, which was at Franklin Field (now the location of Goodman Park and Pool).

"A soccer field? How big is that?" Binns recalled Keller asking him. "But he was really good, really cooperative. He said, 'We can fit you in down at Franklin Field,' so we were happy. There was a big oak tree that overhung one goal. We got them to trim it somewhat, but the ball would still land in the tree sometimes."

Two years later, Madison SC played host to the Sport Club Reserves in a playoff match late in the fall, with the winner earning promotion to the Major Division for the following spring. It was tied after regulation, so the teams went into overtime.

"I got this ball, I was about 30 yards out – it probably gets longer with time," Binns said. "I hit it and it went right in the top corner, under the tree. So we won, and we won promotion to the Major League."

A few years later, Binns worked with Keller again to establish the soccer field at Warner Park. Another was created at Van Hise Elementary School.

"Now, you can see soccer fields everywhere," Binns said.

Listen: A wild afternoon at Croatian Park

A unique career

In the early 1970s, disagreements over Madison SC's two teams (named 56ers and United) led to Binns founding Wisconsin United SC in 1974 – it would later change its name to Madison United, while Madison SC changed its name to the Madison 56ers.

The clubs quickly developed a fierce, bitter rivalry that lasted decades, diminishing only because the 56ers' adult program faded away in the 1990s as the club's focus switched to the youth side. Meanwhile, under Binns' direction, Madison United built the city's most extensive adult program.

That's not to minimize Binns' impact on youth soccer.

He was involved in the creation of the Madison Area Youth Soccer Association in 1966 and the Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association in 1976, coached the city's first prep girls soccer team at Madison Memorial in 1974 and was a coach at Yahara United SC in Middleton from 1990 to '95.

In February 1994, he and some other Madison United players created the popular Presidents Cup indoor tournament, which has become a staple on the schedules for the state's top clubs, teams and players.

Meanwhile, he never stopped playing. Binns scored more than 100 goals in his 15-year career with the Madison United first team, and was still a registered player for the club's reserve team in 1994 – at the age of 61.

"Actually, I was going to quit when I got to 80," said Binns, who was 81 at the time of the interview and was still playing occasionally in an Over-50 league at Keva Sports Center in Middleton. "I say, 'Give it to my feet and I promise I'll give it back to you.' And I score every once in a while.

"I scored one a few weeks ago and the guys said, 'Keith, you've still got it.' I was about 20 yards out and I looked up and I was going to shoot, but I can't hit it that hard anymore. So I took it down to about 10 yards and slotted it in the corner. Which was kind of fun, because I can remember how I used to do it."

And, soccer saved his life. Seriously.

In 2009, Binns was feeling short of breath and was diagnosed with pneumonia. A few days later, on April 15, he wasn't feeling well and returned to the hospital.

"I woke up, looked at the calendar it said April 29. I thought that was wrong. No, they said, it's right. For two weeks, I was in an induced coma," Binns said. "My doctor (cardiologist Joseph Bellissimo) said 'You had a narrow escape there. If you hadn't been in such good overall physical condition, we might not be having this conversation. You have some muscle mass, that's what pulled you through. So you can tell people soccer saved your life.' "

Listen: Always another reason to keep playing

Hall of Famer

Binns was a charter member of the Madison Area Soccer Hall of Fame in 2009, and was inducted into the Wisconsin Soccer Association Hall of Fame in 2013 – one might have expected him to join the WSA Hall much earlier; he believed that the decades-long delay stemmed from the long-standing feud between United and the 56ers.

While he definitely was frustrated to not be enshrined earlier, Binns thoroughly enjoyed the induction ceremony.

"The biggest thrill of the Hall of Fame banquet was afterwards, talking to people who remembered playing against me. And the biggest thrill was (former U.S. national team player and coach) Bob Gansler. He was a great center back (for the Bavarians)," Binns said. "I told him, 'The biggest mistake I ever made was trying to dribble around you.' I tried to make my famous cut – I only had one move, fake to the right, then make this sharp cut back. Usually, it always got people going the wrong way. So I tried it on Gansler, you know, and he was right there.

"So when he came up afterwards and shook my hand and congratulated me, I felt pretty good."

The best player Binns ever saw in Madison? Midfielder Ola Dybwad-Olsen, who earned 24 caps for the Norwegian national team and played professionally at Lyn Oslo. "Either he was going to school here or his wife was. Just an incredible player. He was only here half a season and he scored like 40 goals," Binns said, noting that Dybwad-Olsen played against his beloved Leeds United in the teams' European Cup series in 1969.

Second on Binns' list was Agustin "Augie" Martinez, who first came to Madison with a team from his native Monterrey, Mexico, for a friendly against United and ended up moving to the city. "So many terrific players have come through this city," Binns said.

It is inevitably true that soccer would have developed in Madison even had Binns not taken his sister's advice and stopped to see her on the way to Australia in 1955. But at the same time, there is no doubting the massive impact he had on soccer in the city and area.

"We started the first team and we had 14 guys. Now we've got 24,000 kids and adults playing in the Madison area," Binns said. "That's incredible, really."

Learn more about Keith Binns: XI Questions, from 2006

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