Language of sports helps break barrier for writer, Polish youth soccer team

The e-mail from the head of the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Las Vegas — or Konsulat Honorowy Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej w Las Vegas, if you’re scoring in Warsaw or Lodz or Wroclaw — said one of the top boys under-19 soccer teams had traveled 6,000 miles to play in the Las Vegas Mayor’s Cup. And asked if, with me being Polish and all, I would be interested in devoting a column to the kids from Wisla Krakow, who had traveled 22 hours in an airplane to get here, with layovers in Munich and San Francisco.

Were there visa problems? Of course there were visa problems. There are always visa problems when planning junkets of this magnitude.

My response was Jak sie masz? — Polish for “How are you?” — and John Petkus, head of the Polish Consulate Las Vegas (by way of Detroit), knew he had come to the right place. He could not have known that is the one and only phrase of Polish I know.

But, yes, I would come out to the Bettye Wilson complex — a junket of magnitude unto itself — to watch the Polish kids play. And whereas I doubted that meeting an American sports writer with a Polish surname would add to the benefit of educational visas, perhaps, after lots of discourse and wild hand-gesturing, I might learn something from them, too.

This is another great thing about sports. They build bridges and, to use Rocky Balboa’s expression, they fill gaps (although if memory serves, The Stallion was referring only to taking Adrian ice skating.)

The entirety of what I know about my dad’s people comes from the Bible my mom keeps in the top drawer of a bureau in Albuquerque, N.M. That my dad’s dad’s mother and father were named Lewis and Josephine. And that they seem to have been born in Chicago, which is sort of like Poland, only colder, at least when the wind is blowing off Lake Michigan.

But I suppose there’s at least a small chance that some remote twig of the family tree might point to one of my relations, or at least the relations of a former Notre Dame fullback, being from Krakow. So I took a notebook out to Field 9, where the Polish kids were kicking around the soccer ball with 11 contemporaries from Northern California, and began asking questions and writing stuff down.

I learned that Krakow is Poland’s second-largest city, with a population of about 750,000. It is situated on the Wisla River in southern Poland and dates to the seventh century.

One can tell that Krakow is very old, too; unlike Warsaw, it wasn’t leveled by the Nazis at the outset of World War II. Instead, Hitler’s men turned it into the capital of the General Government, and one doesn’t like circumventing rubble in the streets during the morning commute, if one can possibly avoid it. Thus, Krakow was spared.

Krakow is where Oskar Schindler, the German businessman, drafted his list; where Roman Polanski, the film director, survived the Krakow Ghetto; where in happier times, in 1978, the archbishop of Krakow — you probably know him better as John Paul II — became the first non-Italian pope of the Catholic church in 455 years.

The Wisla Krakow football club was formed in 1906 and has won 12 Polish league championships in modern times, including seven since 1999. More success, judging from the performance of its U-19 team in Las Vegas, might be just around the corner: The team made it all the way to the finals of the 350-team Mayor’s Cup despite going swimming in 50-degree weather in the hotel swimming pool following a friendly match with friendly Canadians and taking tours of Hoover Dam and Best Buy, where the Polish youth marveled at the number of gadgets that begin with “i” — iPod, iPhone, iTablet, iGottahaveit.

And then the Polish kids won their last game, too.

I learned there are 12,000 native Poles and 60,000 Polish-Americans who call Southern Nevada home, a healthy contingent of which turned up at the soccer fields to support the Wisla Krakow side. These included 83-year-old George Kielak, who fought in the uprising when Hitler’s tanks rumbled into Warsaw. And Gzregorz Rus, one of 10 Polish acrobats appearing nightly in “Le Reve” at Wynn Las Vegas, who told me the best thing about Poland is its people, although the ancient cathedrals and such are pretty magnificent in their own right.

Rus’ cousin was out on the pitch, playing center back for Wisla Krakow. That got me wondering: Somewhere on the field or watching from the sidelines or selling sausage at the kielbasa stand, did I have like, a 19th cousin, whose whereabouts and origins could not be traced to a Bible in the top drawer of my mom’s bureau in New Mexico?

I noticed a young man wearing a hat that said “POLSKA” and a NASCAR jacket with Dale Earnhardt’s name and number and I held out my hand.

Jak sie masz? Your name Kantowski by any chance?

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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