“Proud of you, Turk,” one player said, gently rubbing his shoulder.
Stricken by Alzheimer’s disease, Emekli, 88, was in a wheelchair. In these cruel late stages, he cannot converse. A word now and again, his son and caretaker John said, “is a victory.”
A twinkle in his hazel eyes and slight grin conveyed a message of gratitude to those who had come to honor him and several others at Richmond Convention Center.
Before Pele donned a Cosmos jersey, before the World Cup came to America, before MLS launched and David Beckham arrived and U.S. women’s soccer ruled, there were men like Turk Emekli laying the foundation.
A Turkish emigrant, Emekli put more than 60 years into growing the sport in the United States – as a player and coach at Catholic; as a player in amateur leagues; as Washington’s coach in the inaugural North American Soccer League season; as a lecturer, assessor and instructor; and, for 40 years, a referee. His family estimates he officiated at least 7,500 high school, club and college matches in the area.
“He would speak at conventions and he would look out at the hundreds of attendees and say, ‘This is what soccer should be,’” his daughter Mahi said. “He was committed to building soccer. He had a bigger vision for the game.”
Turk was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007. His neurologist encouraged him to keep playing soccer in order to stimulate mind and body – “better than any medicine,” Mahi said. Until a year and a half ago, Turk could still trot onto a field in his blue warm-ups and deliver a precision pass.
He worked his final match as a referee in 2009, at age 83. He was beginning to get lost on the way to parks and lose track of time. “He knew it,” John said. “He knew it was time to step away.”
His slow, steady decline did not keep him from the game. John would take him to most every Catholic home game and they would attend University of Maryland, D.C. United and Washington Spirit matches. They traveled to Pennsylvania in November for Catholic’s NCAA tournament match. Part of the players’ game-day ritual was greeting Turk.
“Guys got to know him. John would talk about his legacy and we’ve connected that with our current group,” said Travis Beauchamp, Catholic’s coach for seven seasons. “Coming here [to Richmond], it was the right thing to do.”
Beauchamp plans to name this fall’s season-opening tournament the “Turk Emekli D.C. Classic.”
Turk was born in Ankara, served three years in the military and played for Genclerbirligi in the Turkish league. He was a cunning attacker who drew high praise from Gunduz Kilic, a star with Istanbul’s Galatasaray and a prominent figure in Turkish soccer history.
Turk moved to New York in 1951, attended Columbia University for a spell and played in the German-American Soccer League, which, like the city itself, was a stew of immigrants and ethnicity. Everyone spoke the language of soccer.
Three years later, at age 28, he enrolled at Catholic. In his sophomore through senior years, older and wiser than his teammates, he served as both player and coach. Before the days of NCAA divisions and elaborate record-keeping, the Cardinals were national titans, scoring goals at dizzying paces. In an unbeaten 1957 season, they averaged more than seven goals per game. They won two Mason-Dixon Conference championships.
Turk played in the National Soccer League and guided traveling all-star teams.
He also worked at the Turkish Embassy in Washington. While attending a party at the Mexican Embassy, he met a woman of Irish descent from Chicago named Dolores, a diplomatic employee herself. They would marry, settle in Bethesda and have three children, all Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduates. John was a left fullback at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. The two daughters collected master’s, doctorates and MBAs.
In his desire to spread the game, Turk ran summer camps at no charge. Children flooded the fields at Catholic and Turkey Thicket Park on Michigan Avenue. Soccer was in its American infancy; Turk helped nourish a generation.
In 1968, on top of his Catholic position and working as a civil engineer for the District, he was named head coach of the Washington Whips in the NASL’s inaugural season. The team finished second in the Atlantic Division. Among his players: Ghanaian forward Joseph “Nana” Gyau, father of future U.S. national team player Philip and grandfather of current German-based pro Joe.
The Whips — predecessors to the NASL’s Darts, Diplomats and Team America — folded after one year.
Turk also took up officiating. Over 40 years, he worked at hundreds of fields in soccer-happy Montgomery County, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia, at RFK Stadium’s auxiliary field. “If there were a soccer field in the area,” John said, “he would have been there at some point.” Turk would often oversee several matches per day.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, parents and players knew Turk was in charge before they arrived at the field: In the parking lot sat his Volkswagen Beetle and later a green Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon with side paneling.
He was a fixture on the college scene until age 77.
“Good referee, good guy. This recognition is deserved and long overdue,” said former Georgetown Coach Keith Tabatznik, who coached John on the B-CC junior varsity team in 1981. Early in his Hoyas career, Tabatznik was prone to ejection. “Turk would remind me before a match to behave appropriately because – and he would say it with a smile — ‘Keith, referees talk, you know.’”
Soccer taught life lessons.
“He would say: ‘What you do on the field is like life: the decisions you make, which way to turn,’” Mahi said. “He would always put the onus on the player to take responsibility and have the confidence to make decisions.”
In recent years, as assignments wound down and illness took grip, John moved in with Turk in Silver Spring. (Turk and Dolores divorced in the 1980s; at 85, she lives down the road from Mahi in Stamford, Conn. The other sibling, Nora, lives nearby, as well.)
John set aside his career to care for his father. He had worked in politics for two decades, serving in the Department of Education during the Clinton administration and as John Kerry’s communications director in Arkansas during the 2004 presidential campaign. John’s work allowed Turk to build friendships with public figures.
Nurses would come and go; John would mind his declining dad. Aside from the soccer rituals, John and Turk bonded on a cross-country drive last fall. Turk got to see his grandson play water polo at Pomona College in Southern California. In all, they traveled 7,049 miles together in a blue Toyota Camry.
“I don’t focus on the long term,” John said. “Every day has meaning. We just try to have fun.”
The apartment they share is filled with memorabilia: a Whips jacket, jerseys and shin guards, photos, newspaper clips, a Turkish league registration card from the 1940s.
A few years ago, Turk wandered off. Hours later, police found him two miles away where he always find comfort: a soccer field.
In December, John received word that Turk had been voted into the Virginia-D.C. Hall of Fame. John drove them to Richmond a day early so Turk would be well-rested for the ceremony. Mahi flew in.
On the afternoon of the event, as John and Mahi recounted their father’s history in a hotel lobby, Turk fell asleep. They worried he would not be awake for the ceremony.
That evening, though, Turk was beaming. John had dressed him in gray pants, a blue shirt, navy jacket and U.S. Soccer Federation tie. As the master of ceremonies listed Turk’s accomplishments, John guided him to the front of the hall. Hundreds rose, saluting a man who first stepped onto a soccer field 80 years ago.
When they returned to their table, John rubbed Turk’s thin forearm.
“He can’t express it, but he is happy,” John said. “He is very happy.”