Though Stankovic's hair is gray, his fierce game hasn't begun to mellow At 40, Spirit player/coach "just keeps getting better"

November 13, 1996|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,SUN STAFF

Mention Mike Stankovic and the names of sports heroes come rolling off tongues.

His old teammate with the Blast, current Harrisburg Heat coach Jim Pollihan, thinks of Stan Musial and Walter Payton.

His old coach with the Blast and Spirit, Tampa Bay Terror coach Kenny Cooper, thinks of Joe Montana and George Foreman.

"There are certain special athletes, who exude confidence, who have the reputation as winners, who retain that desire to be the best in the world," Cooper said. "Mike is one of them. He's like a fine wine -- just keeps getting better."

Stankovic, who turned 40 on Monday, is the oldest player in the National Professional Soccer League. Also the Spirit's coach, He became the oldest player in league history to score more than 100 points last season and leads the Spirit now with 11 points in the team's first five games this season.

"Like a Walter Payton or a Stan Musial, Mike has always had the ability to get the best out of himself," Pollihan said. "He's a fierce competitor with exceptional skills."

The hair is gray, and friends like to kid him about his age ("I went to his 40th birthday party 10 years ago," Cooper said jokingly), but the legs are still there and the body is lean and hard. He still likes to push opponents around and knock them over, and outrace them to the ball.

"In our games with Baltimore this season, Mike was the difference," Cooper said, referring to the Terror's two losses to the Spirit. "You can see it in a player's eyes, a fear that when Mike has the ball something is going to happen."

Now in his 16th year as a pro, Stankovic has played in 486 indoor games, counting the old Major Soccer League as well as the NPSL. The total is at least 500, including outdoors many years ago with the Dallas Tornado and Memphis Rogues.

Stankovic is playing this season only at the request of Spirit owner Bill Stealey and general manager Drew Forrester. They prevailed on him because the team lost a lot of players from last season, including five of its top seven scorers, and he was the No. 3 scorer and leading shot-blocker.

"This may be my last season," Stankovic said. "Maybe then I'll move into coaching full time."

Stankovic came to the United States from Yugoslavia in 1977 and plunged into music as a piano and accordion player in a Chicago restaurant. He was only a weekend soccer player when a pro scout discovered him. Four years later, he was a member of the Blast.

"He might have lost a step since then, but he's a better player because of his experience and knowledge of the game," said goalie-assistant coach Cris Vaccaro, who first played against Stankovic in 1982.

The only thing Stankovic has lost, according to Forrester, is the tendency to lose his temper. The book on him used to be that if you were able to get him angry, it took him off his game and affected the entire team.

"Now nothing rattles Mike's cage, except bad calls by officials," Forrester said. "Opponents can't."

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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