For 44 years—44!—they’ve been returning to Western Carolina University to catch up with old teammates, match skills against a younger generation’s and generally relive their glory days, despite their aging bodies, rarely used cleats and the subsequent fact their former team no longer exists. It’s for the love of the game, after all, regardless of who plays it, that former members of WCU’s men’s soccer program turned their Old-Timers Soccer Reunion – complete with full-out scrimmage—into a full-fledged fundraising event for the WCU women’s soccer program.
“I think we’re the only alumni group that comes back every year and does it,” said Brad Bradshaw, 64, who was a member of WCU’s men’s soccer team from 1972-76 and played against one of the first alumni teams brought back by former coach Charles Schrader to test his younger team. “We’ve talked about the wisdom of that. Maybe we should come back every two years, but everybody still likes playing the game, which is crazy.”
Crazy or not, the Old-Timers Soccer Reunion, held each spring in Cullowhee, continues to be highly successful in attendance numbers and money raised for three scholarships, two of which are endowed, for the women’s soccer team. The reunion, which started before WCU’s women’s soccer program existed, has expanded to include alumnae from the women’s team, coaches’ spouses, assistant coaches, friends of the program and even parents of former players, who have since graduated. It draws between 50 to 100 participants for a weekend of golf, fellowship and, of course, soccer. “It’s fun for us, too,” Bradshaw said. “It’s a whole weekend. We play golf on Friday and the game is on Saturday.”
Since 2009, when the alumni “got serious” about fundraising, Bradshaw said, the event has raised nearly $100,000 for three scholarships: the Charles W. Schrader Scholarship ($59,600); the Malcolm Loughlin Soccer Scholarship ($30,270); and the KKSB Legacy Foundational Scholarship ($6,370). Schrader was the first men’s soccer coach at WCU and Loughlin was the second. Both men died of cancer. The KKSB Scholarship was started by alumnae of the women’s soccer team, which began in 1999 and is celebrating its 20th season this year.
WCU ended its men’s soccer program more than 30 years ago because of Title IX requirements. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 required institutions receiving public funds to offer equal opportunities to men and women athletes. Men’s soccer was canceled in 1984 to make room for more women’s opportunities, one of which was women’s soccer. Through its first 20 seasons, WCU’s women’s soccer team has won three Southern Conference championships, including a share of the regular season crown in 2001 and the tournament title in 2005 and 2008, and a runner-up finish in the 2017 SoCon Tournament.
Initially, Bradshaw said, he and other alumni had hoped to raise enough money to restore the men’s program.” We did raise as much as $4,000 and we talked to the AD who finally just said, ‘look, you’re going to have to add two women’s sports and you’re going to have to fund them in order for us to add back soccer. That’s just the way the numbers work,’” Bradshaw said. “It took us a couple of years to get over ourselves and get behind doing the right thing by supporting the women’s program and pursuing the betterment of the sport at Western. It’s been great because now, I think as of last year’s reunion, the women have had as many teams as we had. So, there are as many potential women alumnae as there are men.”
Myrtle Schrader, Charles Schrader’s widow, said next year’s reunion, scheduled for April 27, 2019, will also be a birthday celebration for her. “I will be 80 years old on April 14,” she said. “I’m telling all of them they need to come back because I may not be here much longer. We’re going to have a nice celebration, a big, catered dinner and I’m going to have a big birthday cake made for the soccer team and me.”
Schrader thinks of the old-timers group as more than just her late husband’s former soccer players. For the first few years of the program’s meager beginning in 1969 – he coached for free and there were no scholarships during his tenure—she would wash the players’ uniforms at home. “There’s a nuclear group of the old-timers, the men, they’re my family,” she said. “They invite us to their weddings, we get the birth announcements and graduation announcements.”
Chad Miller, head coach of the women’s team since 2010, said the reunion is a great time for everyone because it brings together different generations of soccer players and offers a great networking opportunity for his student-athletes who also see men more than twice their age still playing a sport they love. “It’s a great opportunity for our girls to meet some guys who have been very successful in life and see them relive that passion for soccer,” he said. “The girls are taken aback by these guys who have been out of the sport for so long but still care so much.”
The reunion has certainly evolved, Bradshaw acknowledged. “The thread that is common throughout the whole 44 years has been coming back to Cullowhee to renew and revisit old friendships with players and friends of the soccer programs and eventually make new ones with recent women’s soccer alumnae,” Bradshaw said. “I feel like given the hectic pace of modern life and the fact that many of the relationships of the college years are formative, we are always looking for some constants that we can hang onto. I am certain that none of the men’s soccer alumni ever envisioned how the reunion would evolve, and it seems like the women’s alumnae think it is pretty neat that it has been going on so long and want to continue it into the future.”
Myrtle Schrader agrees. She waxes nostalgic for the days when kids played sports for the love of the game—no scholarships were available to WCU soccer players then—and when her husband was there to lead them on. “These boys, I think they had a camaraderie that would be very hard to duplicate,” she said. “Charlie was a Marine and I think he was like a father figure for a lot of those young men. They just knew they were swimming against the tide as soccer players. They were all volunteers and they loved the game and they liked being together.”