Article appeared in the CYSA Soccer California Magazine – August 2004
Written by Lisa Ormond
Every California soccer community probably has one of these – that one person who started the soccer ball rolling in their area. In Santa Rosa, that person is 84 year old Joe Belluzzo. Belluzzo calls himself a “soccer nut” but people who know him call this soccer enthusiast and pioneer the “father of soccer.” Belluzzo’s story may sound similar to other soccer pioneers across this state and even in this country but it’s important to remember these soccer stories and pass them onto others because local soccer continues to be the foundation for this growing sport.
For more than 50 years, Belluzzo’s passion and love for soccer has created playing opportunities for adults and youth in this community. Belluzzo has received many honors for his years of devotion to soccer and for his lifelong community contributions. Some of his honors include his 1980 California Youth Soccer Association Hall of Fame induction and his Santa Rosa Citizen of the Year Award in 1975. But his most cherished accomplishment is a very simple one that just makes him feel good inside.
“I get so much joy from just seeing soccer being played where I live,” Belluzzo smiled. “Every time I go down the street and see a little kid kicking a soccer ball, that makes me feel wonderful.” For Belluzzo, life has always revolved around his favorite sport and passion: soccer.
Belluzzo’s love for the game of soccer began in the streets of Verano, Italy, where he lived until age 20.
“As a kid growing up in Verano, you played soccer. It was organized by ourselves; you tossed a coin in the air, chose teams and played,” Belluzzo recalled. “Soccer is a religion over there (in Italy). It’s fun.”
Belluzzo’s “fun” was usurped by reality when he was drafted into the Italian army during World War II. He was captured in Northern Africa by the United States during the war and was sent to a POW camp in Arizona. After the war ended, he took a machinist job in San Francisco and that’s where he met his wife, Doris. They’ve been married almost 57 years. In San Francisco, Belluzzo spent every Sunday watching live soccer games played in the San Francisco Men’s Soccer League. Soccer on Sundays was a tradition and a part of his Italian culture.
Belluzzo eventually moved to Santa Rosa in 1956 and quickly realized he couldn’t find any soccer to watch. That bothered him. There was nothing here (Santa Rosa). I was used to Europe where every Sunday you’d see a soccer game. But here you couldn’t find any soccer, so I had to create something,” he said. And that’s exactly what he did.
“A bunch of us foreigners started kicking the ball around at Monroe school every Tuesday. The “other soccer players” heard the news and they came and played too. Word spread and eventually a team was formed,” Belluzzo reminisced.
These “drop in” players, the Santa Rosa Kickers, were the area’s first men’s adult soccer team. Belluzzo started the team in 1957 and was the coach. The Kickers played against seven other teams in the San Francisco Men’s Soccer League. The team stayed together for about four years until the players “got old and got families and didn’t want to travel anymore,” Belluzzo said. Despite its break up, Belluzzo’s Kickers helped set the field for more organized soccer in Santa Rosa.
As the years passed, Belluzzo lived his adult life in Santa Rosa, becoming a father of three children and working fulltime as a machinist. Soccer remained in his heart and mind just like a “religion.” He worshipped it, followed it and shared it with others.
His love is soccer and always has been – no other sports,” Doris said. “Just soccer, soccer, soccer – he has a one-track mind.
Eventually the time came when Belluzzo wanted to share his passion for soccer with his son Rick. In 1965, he looked for a youth soccer league for his son to play in and found none. Again, Belluzzo chose to be a creator instead of a sideline spectator.
That year, Belluzzo and an Englishman formed two organized soccer teams, an Under 12 and an Under 10 boys team. The two men signed up 33 boys and, on Sundays, they informally played other boys teams in neighboring cities. One of Belluzzo’s favorite soccer memories involved a playing field.
“After we formed these two boys’ teams, I remember we went to the Santa Rosa Park and Recreation Department and asked for a practice field. They gave us a field with an oak tree right in the middle. I looked at that field and though, “This is a soccer field?!”” Belluzzo laughed.
Four years later, organized youth soccer in Santa Rosa took another step forward in its development. In 1969, Belluzzo and a small group of parents formed the Santa Rosa Youth Soccer League (SRYSL). According to Belluzzo, about 200 boys and 18 girls signed up to player soccer that year. The cost to join was just $3. By 1972, the SRYSL numbers exploded and about 1,500 boys and girls joined and played soccer that year. Soccer’s increased popularity in this community and in the United States hasn’t surprised Belluzzo. “It’s a fun game. It’s a GREAT game. It’s attractive to kids.”
A lifetime SRYSL board member, Belluzzo still attends the monthly meetings. Current SRYSL President Cindy Toran drives him to those meetings. “He’s definitely considered the father of soccer in this area,” she said. “Joe was the one who organized both adult and youth soccer in Santa Rosa. It was hard in the beginning. Of course, other people have helped along the way but all of ‘this’ is because of his efforts,” she said.
“This” refers to the almost 500 teams and 6,000 boys and girls between the age of 4 and 18 playing soccer in the Santa Rosa area today. District 5 alone, which includes the city of Santa Rosa, has an estimated 30,000 children playing soccer. SRYSL is the second largest league in the California Youth Soccer Association.
It’s clear Belluzzo started a soccer movement in his hometown that continues to gain momentum. Andrew Ziemer, a Santa Rosa United soccer coach and co-owner of Ziemer Brothers Soccer, was coached by Belluzzo when he was a child. “Joe Belluzzo is without a doubt one of the most influential persons in Sonoma County soccer,” Ziemer said. “He’s volunteered hundreds of thousands of hours for the game. He has a passion for the game second to none, even at his age.
At 84, Belluzzo remains active. Although he no longer forms soccer teams or starts up leagues, he does kick out ceremonial balls at games and cuts ribbons at ground breakings of local fields. He’s become somewhat of a soccer dignitary in the Santa Rosa area.
Belluzzo spends most of his energy operating his renowned shoe bank he started 25 years ago. Hundreds of children visit his garage every year to trade in outgrown cleats for a larger pair. Belluzzo started the shoe bank with one bag of cleats and now has an entire wall full of outdoor and indoor soccer shoes.
“It’s a job I can do well and I’m going to do it as long as I can,” Belluzzo said. “People that came to my shoe bank as kids are now bringing their grandkids here. I’ve met a lot of nice people; a lot of people have come to this garage – all types.” “He talks for hours out there (in the garage),” added Doris.
Soccer has kept Belluzzo young at heart and happy in spirit. And like most people, Belluzzo has a dream too.
“I hope that someday soccer will be as popular as football is in the United States. It’s here to stay (soccer). It makes me fell good to have been a part of that,” Belluzzo said.
Not only has Belluzzo been a part of it, he helped create it. His legacy will live on as long as adults and children play soccer and nothing could make Belluzzo happier.
Obituary from the SR Press Democrat, November 18th, 2009
Joe Belluzzo, the Italian-born immigrant credited with popularizing youth soccer in Sonoma County, died Nov. 11 at the age of 90.
The sport was part religion and all devotion for Belluzzo as he pursued, confidently and aggressively, his passion for the game that is so beloved in Europe and Latin America.
He began in 1965 by signing up 33 boys to play soccer, which led to formation of the Santa Rosa Youth Soccer League in 1969. Today on any weekend, given a dry field, thousands of youngsters and adults can be seen on local soccer pitches.
“My father was my role model and played such a huge role in my career,” said his son, Rick Belluzzo, a software industry executive in San Francisco and former Microsoft president, who was coached by his father. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of great people, but my father established the values, the integrity and the passion that I have tried to follow.”
In 1980, he was inducted into the California Youth Soccer Association Hall of Fame. And in 1975, he received the Santa Rosa Citizen of the Year award.
Andrew Ziemer, a Santa Rosa United soccer coach and co-owner of Ziemer Brothers Soccer, recalled being a youngster and coached by Belluzzo.
“He’s volunteered hundreds of thousands of hours for the game,” Ziemer said. “He has a passion for the game second to none.”
Beluzzo was born in Verona, Italy, one of 10 children raised by his mother. During World War II, he was drafted into the Italian army and was captured by British forces during combat in Africa.
He came to Oakland as a prisoner of war in 1944 and liked the Bay Area so much that he returned after the war ended. He worked as a garbage collector in San Francisco before moving to Santa Rosa in 1956 to work as a machinist for the Bepex Corp. He retired in 1984.
He was a devoted family man who enjoyed watching soccer and sharing his love for the game. Until a couple years ago, he operated a repository for used soccer shoes out of the garage of his Rincon Valley home, making sure no child would lack proper equipment.
He campaigned for better soccer fields in Santa Rosa, and when he retired from Bepex in 1984, the company donated land for the fields on Moorland Avenue in Santa Rosa that now bear his name.
In 1999, Belluzzo secured a spot on The Press Democrat’s list of 50 most influential people in Sonoma County history because of his efforts to promote the game, which now attracts more youngsters than baseball.
“I want to see soccer at the level of football,” he said in a 1995 Press Democrat interview. “It will take a long time, but it will.”
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, Doris Belluzzo, of Santa Rosa; daughters Lorraine Harris of Reno, Nev., and Laura Gish of Santa Rosa, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at Daniels Chapel of the Roses, 1225 Sonoma Ave.
The family requests donations to the Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 1244 St. Francis Rd., Santa Rosa, 95409, or the Santa Rosa Youth Soccer League, P.O. Box 3217, Santa Rosa, 95402.
— Bleys W. Rose