It was Sep. 21, 1974 and darkness had enveloped the Hartwick College soccer team’s bus as it rolled from Montclair State back to its campus in Oneonta, New York. In the back of the bus, freshman Billy Gazonas sat with tears welling in his eyes and a fire igniting in his gut.
Gazonas had just suited up for his first meaningful scholastic game since the previous November, when he captained St. Anthony’s High School in Hamilton (now Trenton Catholic Academy) to a 4-0 win over Union Catholic in the NJSIAA Parochial A championship game.
What a difference 10 months made.
Despite the fact Hartwick—which in the 1970s was to college soccer what Notre Dame is to college football—took a 1-0 season-opening victory, Gazonas was devastated. He was the only Warrior player not to get in the game, and with his parents in the stands no less.
What could have been the end of one man’s story, was actually the beginning of a compelling book.
No one knew it at the time, but the seeds were planted that Saturday night for the sociology major to become an author. At just 5-foot-3, 132 pounds, Gazonas would eventually have quite a tale to tell, culminating in being named the nation’s best player on the nation’s best team in 1977.
All of that occurred after being told he would never play at Hartwick by its head coach.
The uplifting saga was finally chronicled in print this past spring with the release of Gazonas’ book: “That Little Son of a B**ch!” A Soccer Journey from Tears and Humiliation to National Champions and Hermann Trophy Winner.
“There were several reasons why I wrote it,” said Gazonas, who grew up in the Hamilton Township leagues and has lived in Robbinsville for the past 25 years. “It’s to tell individuals like me who are told ‘You’re not good enough. You’re too small, you’re too slow, you just don’t have it,’ that you don’t have to accept that. You don’t have to let a coach define you as a player. I also wrote it because I want my (seven) grandchildren to understand the value of hard work, focus, discipline. Attributes everybody needs.
“If I can inspire kids to believe in themselves, and that you need that mental strength when the coach tells you you’re not good enough, then hopefully that gives them incentive to work even harder.”
His final words in the book, which was written without a ghostwriter, were “If you are able to feel what I was going through, then I will consider this book a success.”
According to at least one of his children, it was a success.
“One of my (four) daughters called me and said ‘Dad, I couldn’t put the book down, I wanted to know if you would make the varsity or not,’” Gazonas said with a laugh. “I wanted to write it the same way I would talk. I wanted people to feel that pressure and I’m sure there were people saying ‘Yeah I went through that; that coach who hated me or wouldn’t let me play.’”
Gazonas played with and for some of Mercer County’s greatest soccer legends, including the late Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, who took Gazonas under his wing at Hartwick, Bobby Smith, Kevin Welsh, Denny Kinnevy, Tim Murphy, Paul and Ernie Tessein and the late Charlie “Ping Pong” Farrauto, whose tireless private sessions with Gazonas shaped his talents. Those men made Mercer one of the nation’s soccer hotbeds in the 1960s and 70s.
There are also accounts of the Trenton Extension’s memorable wars with the Trenton Italians and other club teams in the state.
“I haven’t met one person who has read the book who hasn’t loved it,” said Rider coach Charlie Inverso, a former Notre Dame High goalie who played against Gazonas in high school. Inverso actually coined the book’s title.
“I told him ‘Billy, you’re the nicest guy in the world off the field, but on the field you were a real p–ck!” Inverso said. “Why don’t you call the book ‘That Small (SOB).’”
“Charlie said I always played with a chip on my shoulder, and I liked that idea for a title,” said Gazonas, who eventually changed “small” to “little” on the advice of a friend.
Gazonas’ career started in the Hamilton Little Bigger League and moved on to Hamilton Post 313, which he helped to a State Cup title. He would also train with Ping Pong at Nottingham Junior High (now the high school) and take part in the legendary Nottingham pick-up games.
“I learned so much playing against the older guys there,” Gazonas said. “They were always willing to help out a younger player.”
During St. Anthony’s championship year, the Iron Mikes tied Steinert, which was the only blemish in the 1973 Spartans 22-0-1 state title run. Steinert’s leading scorer was Art Napolitano, who would be Gazonas’ teammate the next four years at Hartwick.
But while Napolitano was recruited as a high school All-American, Gazonas had to try and walk-on to the Warriors. He had been told outright by head coach Timo Liekoski that he should transfer since he wasn’t good enough to play at Hartwick.
Liekoski eventually said The Greek could stay on varsity and never play, or be a regular on the JV.
Gazonas had one goal—win a national championship with the varsity at the nation’s top program.
He was confident of making an impact but the opening-night embarrassment at Montclair staggered Gazonas. While the rest of the team went out to celebrate, Billy disappeared on campus for what would become a career-long routine—a secret practice by himself.
“That was my thing,” he said. “When you’re alone, you don’t have to share the ball. You can touch the ball 1,000 times to work on things. There’s no shortcut.”
After two games, several circumstances prompted the freshman to march into Liekoski’s office after practice and insist he should not only be playing, but starting.
“My heart was pounding in that shower,” Gazonas recalled. “But when I got out the door, I kind of felt almost mad. Here’s a guy, the best coach in the country, telling you you’re not good enough. We’d just gotten blown out (by Penn State) and now I’m gonna tell him I should be starting.”
Gazonas was a midfielder but Liekoski asked him if he could defend and mark Connecticut standout Tim Hunter all over the field in the next game. Billy said, yes, so Timo said yes.
“I was in shock but I didn’t want to show it,” Gazonas said. “I didn’t know Timmy Hunter or if I could mark him. But what was I gonna say, no? I had nothing to lose.”
Gazonas shut down Hunter, and a career was underway. There were a few bumps in the road and Billy was constantly proving himself to Timo
over the next two years. He continued to start and when Liekoski left for the North American Soccer League, Gazonas was on the search committee for a new coach. They chose Jim Lennox, who moved Billy to his natural position of central midfield.
Hartwick reached the NCAA Final Four his junior year, and won it all the next season. As captain, Gazonas had the honor of hoisting the trophy, which is the photo that adorns the book cover.
The book only featured Gazonas’ four years at Hartwick. He listed his awards and accomplishments at the end, but never wrote about winning the 1977 Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player; or Soccer Monthly Magazine’s College Player of the Year award. Nor did he talk about a professional career which he admits “wasn’t all that great.”
“For me, the story is about my first game in the back of the bus in tears, totally humiliated, to winning the national championship in the last game,” Gazonas said.
His elation he felt over winning the Hermann was more for his dad, who sold The Trentonian at his sweet shop in Trenton.
“George O’Gorman wrote the story on the back page, and I was just thinking about how proud he was showing people that back page when they came in and bought the paper,” Gazonas said. “Obviously I’m super proud that I won the Hermann Trophy but that pales in comparison to winning the championship with my teammates. Winning was why I played sports.”
After a brief professional coaching career, Billy and his brother Andrew opened Michele Lorie Cheesecakes in Trenton. After 21 years of success, they left the business and a year later, a restless Gazonas pondered the book. He started in 2012 and wrote off and on for seven years before the project came to fruition.
While there were numerous subjects broached, what came across more than anything was Billy’s passion and desire for soccer, which he often played from sunrise to sunset.
“That’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I loved it. I loved working on my game; it’s so fulfilling. The better you get, the more you want to practice. The more you practice, the better you get.”
He got so good, in fact, he proved that naysayers wrong.
Correction: This story initially listed the Hartwick College nickname as the Hawks. Hartwick did not go by that until after Gazonas’ time at the college. During his tenure, Hartwick went as the Warriors. The article has been changed to reflect this.