Monday, September 14, 2009

Rodney Marsh Testimonial, 9/14/79

Try and imagine an alternate world in which former Buccaneers LB Derrick Brooks -- rather than being released by the team following the 2008 season -- instead decided to retire. The Buccaneers, in a show of respect and gratitude for his 13 years of service, then would announce they would host a game at Raymond James Stadium in his honor.

The Green Bay Packers, a team tormented by Brooks over the years, would graciously provide the evening's opposition. Former Buc Warren Sapp, in a show of solidarity with his longtime teammate, would even agree to make an appearance in a red and pewter uniform for one last hurrah.

Brooks himself would not only play in the game, but act as the head coach of the Buccaneers as well. To top it all off, all financial proceeds from the game would go directly into his own pocket.

In the parlance of the international soccer world, such a game is called a testimonial. While a game of this sort for Brooks or any other football player seems unthinkable, such an event occurred in honor of Tampa Bay Rowdies great Rodney Marsh at Tampa Stadium on Sept. 14, 1979.

Just over one month earlier, Marsh announced that the 1979 season would be his last as an active player for the Rowdies. He planned on calling it quits to pursue a career in coaching, and per the custom common in his native England, Marsh had a testimonial coming his way for his many contributions to the franchise.

The testimonial also gave Marsh the opportunity to go out on his own terms, something that did not happen during the NASL championship game earlier that week.

On Sept. 8 at Giants Stadium, the Rowdies faced off against the Vancouver Whitecaps in Soccer Bowl '79. For the second straight season, the Rowdies found themselves one win away from a championship, and for the second straight season, came up just short.

For Marsh, it was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Trailing by one goal late in the game, coach Gordon Jago benched Marsh at the 78:32 mark in an effort to bring his team's struggling offense to life. Marsh, for one, didn’t buy the strategy.

"In my opinion, I have played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies for four years," Marsh said after the game," and whenever a clutch play was needed, Rodney Marsh was the one who supplied it. I can't make a clutch play sitting on the bench."

Marsh certainly wouldn't have to worry about being benched by Jago or anyone else in his testimonial game. Jago bowed out of coaching the game, citing his terrible record in "friendlies" and a preference for enjoying the game in the stands with his family. Jago's decision thus left Marsh as the player-coach for the game against Tampa Bay's long-time rivals, the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.

A crowd of 20,655, as well as former teammates joining the action on the field, turned out to say farewell to Marsh in the first-ever testimonial game to be played in America. Fittingly, the night belonged to Marsh both in spirit and on the field.

He tallied the game's first goal in the 9th minute on a nifty setup by Jan Van Der Veen to give the Rowdies a 1-0 lead.

NASL scoring leader Oscar Fabbiani set up Marsh's second goal in the 39th minute and Perry Van Der Beck added a goal in the second half to round out the scoring for Tampa Bay. Ft. Lauderdale failed to get on the board, and Marsh's playing career in Tampa came to an end with a shutout victory.

A night for Marsh that included two goals, gifts from team sponsors, a plaque from a local 11-year-old and a payday of roughly $50,000 concluded with a gift from Marsh to the fans: his thanks.

Following the game, Marsh retired to Tampa Stadium's press box where he got on the mic to address the crowd.

"I would like to thank the magnificent players of the Tampa Bay Rowdies for four wonderful years," he said. "The spirit on the club is magnificent. There is only one thing better in my mind and that is the spirit of you fans. You have given me four years that I will never forget."

Marsh made one final promise on his way out.

"I'll be back," he said.

True to his word, Marsh returned to coach the Rowdies beginning in 1984 and stayed with the organization as an executive until its dissolution in 1993.

Although 30 years have passed since the testimonial game, Marsh has endured as one of Tampa's most iconic sports figures. Former Rowdies play-by-play announcer Jack Harris recalls what Marsh meant to the community.

"Rodney Marsh made the Tampa Bay Rowdies part of soccer lore," Harris says. "He was the heart and soul of the team and the catalyst for its near- greatness. It was Rodney that people came to see, and he seldom disappointed."

His legacy, however, is perhaps best summarized in his own words.

"I think you won't notice how good Rodney Marsh was for Tampa until he is gone," he once said. "Good for Tampa, good for the Rowdies, on and off the field."

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