Issue date: October 07, 1998

Giving kids their kicks: Portola Valley's Karl Bizjak is inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame Giving kids their kicks: Portola Valley's Karl Bizjak is inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame (October 07, 1998)


In 1968, when Karl Bizjak helped found the local American Youth Soccer Organization program in Portola Valley, it was the first expansion for the AYSO out of its Southern California origins.

Only 30 boys played for that program. Today, there are 43,000 boys and girls playing in Northern California, thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of the 72-year-old Portola Valley resident.

For 17 years he promoted and helped organize AYSO youth soccer programs, and for that work was recently inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneanda, New York. Among those who worked with Bizjak was Chris Miller, former physical education specialist for over 25 years in the Portola Valley School District. "Karl was very meticulous," says Miller. "He did a little bit of everything for the AYSO, and he loved kids."

In 1969, a year after founding the local program with Lolek Jasinski and the late Tom O'Sullivan, Bizjak became regional commissioner and, due to the program's rapid growth, he was soon named area director, the first such position in the AYSO. He subsequently served on the national board of directors, then as vice president and executive vice president.

Dick Wilson, executive director of AYSO, has been affiliated with the organization for 32 years, and heartily endorsed Bizjak's nomination to the Hall of Fame.

"When Karl was on the national board of directors, he brought a corporate perspective that helped marketing and fund-raising," he explains. As area director, says Wilson, Bizjak oversaw local community-based programs, where he mediated disputes, scheduled tournaments, and recruited and supervised volunteers. "He was on the ground floor of soccer growth in the Bay Area," says Wilson.

Despite his pivotal contributions, the unassuming, soft-spoken New Jersey native says he was shocked by his induction.

"I've been retired from the AYSO since 1985," he says. "They invited me in June to their annual meeting in Denver. I was thinking, 'What the hell do they want me there for?'" To say thanks, as it turned out. "I didn't even know they had nominated me, which would have been honor enough."

'Everyone plays'

Since the AYSO's 1964 inception in Torrance, California, its credo has been, "Everyone Plays," a precept strictly adhered to through the years, and the strongest of five planks in the AYSO platform. The others are balanced teams, open registration, positive coaching, and good sportsmanship. Today, the AYSO guarantees that each child will play at least half a game.

"Parents find comfort in that," says Bizjak. "'Everyone Plays' is simple, straightforward, and it has worked."

Crash course

Bizjak was first exposed to soccer in Seattle in 1966, when his son Karl volunteered his father's services as coach, even though Bizjak had never played or coached soccer. "I learned with the kids," he says with a chuckle. "I was reading books to stay ahead of them."

When General Electric, for whom Karl had worked since 1951, transferred him to the Bay Area in 1966, it was his son, once again, who drew his father into the local soccer scene. "My kid saw a notice, signed up, then he volunteered me again to be a coach," says Bizjak. "I ended up teaching the two fathers who eventually coached the teams. Sort of coaching the coaches." At that time, the dearth of soccer knowledge locally was such that, even with his limited exposure to the sport, Bizjak was considered a soccer guru. He signed up with the AYSO soon after.

AYSO today

In addition to having programs in 46 states, the AYSO reaches to Russia, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Today the organization boasts 600,000 players worldwide, 47 percent of whom are female. (There were virtually no female players until the early 1970s, according to Bizjak.)

From the top down, AYSO is organized first by section, of which there are 13; then within each section are areas, which break down further into regions. Perhaps most amazing about the AYSO are the 250,000 volunteers who fill the roles of coaches, referees and administrators and create a network of assistance and support that has made soccer the most popular sport among American children. According to Wilson, there are 12 million soccer players, including adults, in the United States.

Dr. Bill Lukensmeyer, current area director of Section 2, which includes the local program, is another busy professional who gives freely of his time to the AYSO. He credits the organization's clear mission and ethical approach to children's sports as being the allure for the many volunteers. "Considering the size of the organization," he says, "there is very little red tape."

He also credits Bizjak with helping to build up the local program, which now includes Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Los Altos, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Ravenswood (Belle Haven and East Palo Alto).

Field of play

While his major contributions fell along administrative lines in the "front office," Bizjak had some onfield experience early on as a referee, and he didn't fail to assert himself.

"I remember one game, the two teams were yelling at each other, not just in the flow of the game. This was egregious." So, he stopped the game, assembled both teams and the coaches in the center of the field and announced, 'Stop the BS, or I'll stop the game.' They behaved themselves after that."

Professional soccer

Despite the popularity of youth soccer, Bizjak expresses disappointment in the lack of talented adult American players who can play at the World Cup level.

"It's going to take time," he says, but he is hopeful. The AYSO currently accepts kids between the ages of 4-1/2 and 18, up from a previous limit of 16. This, he says, could bode well for the sport's future in the United States.

He acknowledges that the lack of glamour and big money could be a deterrent to youngsters, who, at least in this country, tend to choose more high-profile sports. But he has hopes that this may change. "This year was the first time every World Cup game was available, somewhere, on TV. That kind of exposure is great."

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