The Legacy Series spotlights individuals who have had a hand (and foot) in shaping St. Louis into America’s first soccer capital.
Jim Leeker: A Leader Among Legends
Written by Michael Haffner
The Humble Man in the Green Jacket
I will make sure to wear my green jacket.”
Wearing a green blazer to a soccer match might seem out of place or not mean much to some, but for one leader and the 950 people that carry the same honor that the jacket signifies, it’s much more than a flashy fashion choice.
“I was at the SIUE game over the weekend and a couple came up to me and asked while gesturing to my jacket, ‘Are you in the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame? My uncle is in it.’”
It’s a moment that Jim Leeker shares with great pride. Since being chosen as president of the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010, Leeker has been making an impact in building awareness about the organization. Not only does he promote inclusivity regarding board members and new inductees, but he also serves as a metaphorical torchbearer for the entire history of soccer in St. Louis.
“I love when kids and people approach me at games and ask about the jacket. It represents 950 people, and that legacy needs to be remembered and to keep on going.”
Leeker is a man who doesn’t like to talk about himself. He would much rather talk about the countless talented players that have come before and after him. However, Leeker’s history as a soccer player is one for conversation — there’s a reason why he was inducted into the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame in 1998. Even if he originally wanted to be a baseball player at a young age.
The 6’2” midfielder played for St. Louis University from 1966-69. He’s able to recount details of the players he played with and individual games as if they happened yesterday.
“In 1966, we [St. Louis University] lost in the post-season to San Francisco in a mud game. They scored in overtime cause the ball stopped in the mud in front of our keeper.”
It was in Leeker’s final year that he helped the team win the coveted 1969 NCAA championship title. After graduating, he went on to play for the St. Louis Stars in the North American Soccer League for three years. He was recognized as the NASL Rookie of the Year in 1970 when he logged five goals and four assists in 22 games. It wasn’t too long after Leeker’s final season with the Stars that the club came to an end in 1977, bringing an end of professional soccer in St. Louis for several years. Unbeknownst to Leeker, it would return one day.
A Gateway for National & International Talent
“In the 1950s and 60s, no one could beat St. Louis.”
Even if they’re not as well-versed in soccer history, many sports fans are familiar with the United States men’s national team in the 1950 World Cup. The underdog story was even brought to life in the film “The Game of Their Lives.” The American team that defeated England in a shock result of the tournament was well represented with five St. Louis natives. According to Leeker, six St. Louis natives were on the team but only five played in the iconic match.
But as Leeker points out, in the 1950s and 60s, there were many moments like this that caught the attention of national and international teams. Teams from all over the United States came to St. Louis to find talent.
“Schools like Michigan, Quincy, Indiana … they were all coming to recruit players. It was the reputation that St. Louis had. They knew they were going to find good players here.”
One of the defining matches of this era that made a big impression on Leeker’s love of soccer took place in 1964 at Public School Stadium. He was one of 7,000 in attendance that day watching the C.Y.C. All-Stars take on the reigning FA Cup Champions, Liverpool.
“I was in the stands that day, and this team entirely made up of local boys was stunning the reigning champs.”
A group of players from local Catholic schools were winning 1-0 until an equalizing goal in the final minutes cemented a hard-fought draw. Nonetheless, it was a proud moment in St. Louis soccer history. It’s clear that this era helped establish the city as a mecca of soccer talent, and yet, while listening to Leeker’s enthusiasm for what is building in St. Louis, you can’t help but wonder if we’re entering a new era of exciting possibilities.
A Future in “City Red” and Green Jackets
When asked about how the game has changed since growing up, Leeker is quick to respond, “It’s much more specialized. I never would have thought young kids could play at this caliber and do what they can with the ball.”
This sentiment includes the St. Louis CITY SC Academy matches he’s attended. Leeker speaks with the same passion for the U16 and U17 teams as he does when talking about the trophy-lifting teams of the past.
“They have unbelievable talent. Their progression so far… those kids are dynamite.”
It’s clear that he wants the legacy of soccer in St. Louis to endure and not only be known for the teams of the past. And St. Louis CITY SC is a huge part of that future.
“I wanna see people waiting to get inside the stadium. Large groups of fans walking down Market Street.” Leeker paused for a moment to take in what he’s about to say next. “I think this is something that St. Louis has never seen before.”
It’s hard to appreciate your own worth when you’re surrounded by legends. But that’s just Leeker’s approach. He’d much rather rave about his 19 grandchildren and going to their many games and events along with many other players he cheers on each weekend around St. Louis. Jim Leeker’s love for the beautiful game is limitless, finding new appreciation year after year for the talent found in the city he calls home. Without question, Leeker’s knowledge matches his love. Hearing him detail stories is like watching a skilled midfielder carry the ball on an attack up the pitch. But in all of his stories, he’s never the one playing. He’s the one celebrating in his green jacket.