Soccer legend Pelé, who died on Thursday, was one of the greatest ever to play the game. But his lasting legacy has more to do with how he elevated soccer into a sport that could be loved and played by all.
The great ones in sports are capable of delivering a memorable moment that can stand the test of time.
But there are some whose career transcends any momentary achievement.
So instead of the singular moment, their greatness is defined by a single word.
You don't need to be a soccer aficionado or historian of the game, to know the name and immediately associate it with greatness.
That greatness will be appreciated and dearly missed with the passing of the soccer legend on Thursday.
He was 82.
The Brazilian fútbol star was more than just an exceptional soccer player.
He was soccer, leading the charge from it being a fringe sport to a global force whose impact can be felt at every level of the sport to this day.
And what really made him so loved and revered by so many was how he connected with folks of all walks of life: young and old, Black and white, as well as everyone along the soci-economic spectrum, from the very poor to the most affluent.
He brought a level of humanization and storytelling to the sports world in ways we had rarely seen from someone who at that time, was the best at his sport.
Pelé told a story in 2014 to FIFA, the governing body for International soccer, a story about when he was a little boy and witnessed the impact of Brazil losing the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay.
“It was the first time I ever saw my father cry, and all because of that defeat,” he told FIFA. “I remember saying to him: ‘Don’t cry, Papa. I’ll win the World Cup for you.’”
True to his word, Pelé led Brazil to a World Cup victory over Sweden just eight years later as a 17-year-old.
“After the fifth goal I didn’t want to mark Pelé anymore. I wanted to applaud him,” said Swiss midfielder Sigge Parling.
At the time of the victory, Pelé said there were no telephones so he could not immediately share the good news that Brazil had won the World Cup. Eventually, father and son were reunited in what was an emotional moment. “I saw my father cry again,” Pelé recalled. “This time with happiness.”
For many, Pelé was the first true international star of color whose play was so dynamic, the racist powers-that-be during that time could not hold him back or legislate the game to minimize his impact.
We saw this play out in other sports like college basketball with the short-lived rule of no dunking, which was designed to limit the impact of Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), who was a standout at UCLA and would later go on to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
In football, Blacks were rarely afforded opportunities to compete at the quarterback position let alone play it. And for those who did and stood out at the college level, they were often bypassed or expected to play another position in the NFL, rather than have teams look to develop their multifaceted talents as a passer and runner which we have seen in recent years with Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in recent years.
Pelé’s otherworldly talent would not allow for any rules to limit his growth or that of the game on a larger scale.
Having grown up in a Brazilian neighborhood where he began playing barefoot and would use balled-up rags as a makeshift soccer ball, Pelé parlayed his soccer success not just to elevate his own status, but do it in a way that provided a blueprint for success that has been followed by generations of youngsters across the globe.
There were world championships and soccer titles and all the tangible accolades we attribute as part of the package when we talk about being one of the all-time greats.
But Pelé was so much more than that.
It’s not a coincidence that Pele’s rise coincided with the technological advancements that allowed his soccer exploits to be seen on a much grander scale than the arenas and stadiums he played in front of.
That access paired images to the impact he was making on the field as well as in various communities across the world whose impressions and early thoughts about soccer were often summed up in one word: Pelé.
And as the sunset of his career and life began to take shape, he made a point of being an ambassador of the game, making sure his imprint on soccer would live on well past his own mortality.