For two years, Darryl Gee sat on the Cosmos' bench, always hoping to break into the lineup of the most glamorous team in American soccer.
Then, two months ago, two regulars were injured. Gee was called on to start and played superbly. For seven straight games, starting at right fullback, Darryl Gee, the one-time prodigy from Columbia, Md., played as well as any of the worldclass Cosmos. It could have cosmic significance.
Gee, 20, is the only black American playing in the North American Soccer League and only the third to ever play in the league. He missed Wednesday's game with a groin injury, but is expected back in time to help in the Cosmos' drive to regain the NASL championship title they lost last year.
It would be nice if Gee could just concentrate on improving his game. But in a league full of clubs not sure they can meet their payrolls from week to week, the presence of a personable young (black) American could be one of the best promotions the league has had.
"This is nothing but good for the league," said Gordon Bradley, former coach of the Washington Diplomats. "The league and the Cosmos must promote him properly, on and off the field. The league needs this."
Says Gee: "I realize this is a heavy responsibility."
When he was with the Diplomats, Bradley tried to acquire Gee out of high school in 1980. "We could have promoted him to death two years ago," Bradley said.
"I thought he was the best player on the field one Sunday night against San Diego," said Howard Samuels, the league's new chief executive. "He's just phenomenal. So fast and strong. I could go on and on."
"Nobody is carrying this kid," said Bradley. "He's good."
The problem is that playing with the Cosmos is somewhat equivalent to playing with the Yankees of the 1920s; the Cosmos have had bench warmers who could have been all-stars with other teams. Gee had already moved from forward -- where, chances are, he would have seldom played -- to fullback. But with a back line of Jeff Durgan, Eskandarian and Carlos Alberto, there seemed to be little opportunity for playing time there, too.
Then Eskandarian was hurt.His replacement, Ricky Davis, was hurt, too.
Coach Julio Mazzei decided to play Gee in an exhibition June 8 against A. C. Milan at the Meadowlands. In that game, he made a play to preserve the Cosmos' 1-0 victory that impressed even the most skeptical observers.
A Milan player took a hard shot from the right side that hit the left post. The ball rebounded to the middle of the field toward Gee, with two Milan players charging at it from each side.
Gee knew he didn't have enough time or room to gain control of the ball and send it back to the goaltender. So he ran straight toward it, then let it roll through his legs as the Milan forwards kept running. Gee then turned around, caught up with the ball and sprinted upfield.
"I didn't think I'd dare do it until the very last second," Gee said. "In the locker room afterward, all the guys kept coming up to me and saying, 'Hey Darryl, you can really play.'
"A lot of them were really surprised. For once, I felt like I belonged. I'd always felt like an outcast, just somebody hanging around the locker room with a Cosmos uniform. But now, after starting a few games, I feel good about my future."
"That one play showed his creativity and his future," Mazzei said.
In his first league start -- against defending-champion Chicago -- Gee marked Gordon Hill, the Sting's high-scoring forward. After being guarded tightly all evening, Hill reportedly turned to one of the Cosmos and said, "Who is that kid? He's tough."
Gee has had to be tough. After an illustrious career at Oakland Mills High School, Gee was drafted in 1980 by the Minnesota Kicks in the first round, the second pick overall. The Cosmos, who passed over him with the No. 1 pick, later acquired the rights to him. Gee decided to skip college -- he had a scholarship at North Carolina -- to play with the then-NASL champions, and had plenty of time to second-guess that decision while sitting on the bench for more than two years.
"There have been some really depressing times -- at least once a week when I had to call my parents," Gee said. "I kept thinking that if I didn't play this year, I might be in bad shape."
Gee might still be sitting if it handn't been for Alberto, the veteran Brazilian sweeper, who convinced him in preseason to switch from forward to fullback.
"He has speed, the physique and the attitude to play the position well," said Mazzei. "Once in a while, he looks lost, like he's trying to find his girl friend in the stands. But he'll steady with experience. He's very coachable, very humble."
Gee's success has resulted in more popularity than at any time since his days at Oakland Mills. Many of the questions he gets concern being the only black American in the NASL.
"I feel proud," Gee said, "but I don't like any Jackie Robinson comparisons. I'm a pioneer of sorts, but it shouldn't be taken too far.
"I've done several black talk shows and I'd like to come back to Washington and talk to some of the city kids who might be interested in soccer. I realize I have a responsibility to promote the game, and I realize the significance of my playing."
Gee's success may influence more black teen-agers to play soccer, as Arthur Ashe's success in tennis a decade ago encouraged black youngsters to try the game.
Soccer in America still is largely a middle- to upper-middle-class sport played in the suburbs. Columbia's traveling team for boys 16 years old and under has seven blacks who play regularly. But soccer is painfully slow in gaining acceptance in the black communities.
"It's important for any American, especially a black American, to do well now in the league," said former Diplomat Gary Darrell, who is from Bermuda, "because we don't know whether the league will fizzle or not. But it may be asking too much of Darryl, at this important stage of his development as a player, to be that kind of role model."
Said Mazzei: "Everybody's cheering for Darryl. It is a very important mission."