The curious, inspirational story of Dieter “Dee” Schmidt first came to the soccer world’s attention some four ago when his frozen but otherwise well preserved body — clad in nothing but a vintage Paul Breitner Bayern Munich jersey, impossibly bell-bottomed jeans and a pair of antique adidas Sambas — was recovered, thanks to a freakish January thaw, from a towering ice and garbage heap on the outskirts of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
Still encased in a sarcophagus of blue ice, Schmidt’s corpus crystalline was quickly air-lifted by provincial authorities to St. Anne’s Medical Center in Winnipeg, where doctors discovered his heart still functioning at some 3 beats per minute — less than half that of a black bear in hibernation. Incrementally, over course of two weeks, Schmidt’s body temperature was increased. Intravenous nourishment was introduced on Day 10, and for another week thereafter he was placed in a medically induced coma to avoid further metabolic complications.
Schmidt awoke from his coma Feb. 6, 2006, and later that day was chatting amiably with doctors — about his admiration for Johann Neeskens, his plans to attend the upcoming World Cup in Germany, and his regret that England had not qualified. When told by a soccer-informed orderly at St. Anne’s that England had indeed qualified for that summer’s World Cup, besting Poland to win its group, Schmidt pointedly differed. “Dude, you’ve got it backwards,” he was reported as saying. “Poland qualified at England’s expense. I listened to the BBC broadcast myself, on my bud’s ham radio.”
Of course, Poland had qualified instead of England for the World Cup — the 1974 World Cup.
The tale Schmidt eventually told of his postponed demise continues, some four years on, to stun the North American medical community while fascinating hardcore football fans worldwide. Schmidt claims to have traveled to northern Manitoba from his native San Diego in December 1973, via Toronto, to attend the Inuit Futsal Invitational, an obscure event on Canada’s indoor soccer calendar during the mid-1970s; the event was last held in 1978.
According to reports in the Winnipeg Star-Journal, Schmidt recalls venturing out of doors one evening to “smoke some grass” with members of a visiting club from Vancouver following Burnaby FC’s win in the tournament semifinal. That’s the last thing he remembers, though Schmidt claims the cannabis to have been “wicked potent” — potent enough, he surmises, to have put him to sleep in a nearby snow bank.
Star-Journal research on the Inuit Futsal Invitation shows the ‘73 final to have been postponed 24 hours due to a heavy winter storm that dropped more than two meters of snow on Churchill in less than 18 hours.
Schmidt would be reported missing in January 1974; archival records kept at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office show a series of inquiries and all-points bulletins related to Dieter’s disappearance — including a formal provincial inquest conducted in Toronto, his last known whereabouts — but the case was officially abandoned, unsolved, on July 11, 1982, the same day Paolo Rossi scored the last of his Golden Boot-winning six goals in a 3-1 win over West Germany, earning the Italians their first World Cup.
Schmidt asserts (and Star-Journal investigations have confirmed) that he was born on July 12, 1952 in Long Beach, Calif., the only child of Franz Schmidt (an Austrian national and president of the Hubert Vogelsinger Fan Club/Encinitas Chapter, 1972-81) and Helen Fahey Schmidt, a novelist and native of Long Beach.
Mr. Schmidt died of a heart attack following Austria’s elimination from World Cup qualifying, 0-3 to Hungary, on April 17, 1985. Mrs. Schmidt passed away in 1992, of natural causes.
By his telling, the first 21 years of Dee’s life reveal him to be his father’s son, a middling player but an enormously committed fan who, despite the underdeveloped state of American soccer in the 1960s and ‘70s, lived and breathed the beautiful game and traveled the breadth of North America to see it. He claims:
• to have attended, with his dad, the 1967 United Soccer Association final at L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum (“A classico, man. Wolves [Los Angeles] beat the Whips [Washington] in OT, 6-5, on Ally Shewan’s own goal”);
• to have witnessed Pele’s U.S. soccer debut (a 1-0 Santos victory over A.C. Milan, in Boston, part the Rossinieri’s four-match tour of the U.S. in June 1970 — “Milan lost all four games of that tour, dude. It was sad.”);
• to have traveled to St. Louis in May 1972 to watch the U.S. Olympic team beat Jamaica, 2-1, earning the Yanks’ first Olympic berth since 1960.
Then a sophomore at San Diego State University and completely tapped out, Dieter couldn’t swing a trip to Munich for the 1972 Olympic finals — a fact that made him all the more determined to attend the World Cup finals, in West Germany, two years later.
In the end, Dee’s grand plans were foiled by a perfect storm of ill-fated events:
• his trip to Toronto in December 1973, where he failed to convince Metros striker Bruno Pilas to sign the no. 9 jersey Schmidt had nicked the previous July from a visitors’ locker room in Rochester (“Total waste of time. He was back in Croatia.”);
• his spontaneous decision to attend the Inuit tournament with a group of indigenous Canadians he befriended in a Bloor Street pub;
• his longstanding weakness for the kind bud;
• and his Southern Californian ignorance of just how dangerous it can be to nap outdoors so close to the Arctic Circle.
Still, it’s difficult not applaud and marvel at Dee Schmidt’s extraordinary metabolism, his love of football and his time-capsule knowledge of the soccer world leading up to the German’s first turn as World Cup host.
Four years ago, when doctors indicated a full recovery was expected, I resolved to confirm his extraordinary story and get to know this real-life, football-loving Encinitas Man. That began in 2007, and I’ve spent the last three years in fairly regular contact with Dee, helping him interpret the modern world as best I can and marveling at his singular outlook on and impressions of modern soccer.
Dee is now a friend, but this chummy association does not hide the fact that his is a keen, bristling soccer mind by any measure. He’s not a bad writer either. Accordingly, I’ve asked our own Miles Monroe to blog on this year’s World Cup from his singular perspective, and I will share his musings, alongside my own, in this space going forward.
Stay tuned to this space for Dee’s introductory effort, and please excuse his Ricky Henderson-like habit of referring to himself in the third person. Trust me, it’s not any sort of megalomania. After all he’s been through, we can hardly blame him for stepping back and observing his own life with a genuine and quite wondrous sense of detachment. Welcome back, Dee.
Hal Phillips, 26 May 2010