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The Butler Did It: SJU soccer remembers pope meeting

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"It was so surreal. People meet the president-great, People meet the mayor-great. But this was the pope," he said. "It was so empowering. It didn't seem like it was really happening."Acquista and his teammates were part of a 50-person delegation from St. John's to meet the pope that beautiful summer afternoon, spending about 10 minutes with the leader of the Catholic church."He is one of the most prominent people in the world and I was in awe with where I was and with whom I was with, but when he started interacting with us, he was almost like one of us," said Rob Wile, who was a starting defender on that team. "It was man-to-man, not pope-to-college student."The private audience with the pope was the highlight of a whirlwind couple of months for the St. John's soccer team, which defeated Florida International 4-2 to win the first national championship in St. John's history. This little-known group of players, who truly represented the melting pot of New York, were thrust into stardom in December, 1996. All of a sudden, they were doing television and radio interviews, they were on the front page of The New York Times sport section. They were the darlings of New York. As a special thank you to that team, the school arranged a preseason trip to Italy and England that summer. They toured Rome and London, played exhibition games and watched professional soccer games. They were part of the general audience of thousands in the Vatican that July day, sitting in a VIP sections of sorts. Pope John Paul II specifically mentioned the team and their championship accomplishment. A short time later, the team was ushered through a side door that led to the back of the hall, where the pope's car was awaiting. A few minutes later, the pope emerged. "Now I meet the champions, the champions," he said.Pawel Krakowiak, a quiet and sturdy defender, presented the pope with an NCAA championship plaque. Being of Polish decent, Krakowiak and the pope hit it off immediately, having a dialogue that Wile said "seemed like it lasted a lifetime.""(Pawel) thanked me for the opportunity and said it was the dream of every Polish boy to meet the Polish pope," St. John's President Rev. Donald J. Harrington said. "He was so overwhelmed."Perhaps because of his background - a young Karol Wojtya played soccer and hockey in Wadowice, Poland - Pope John Paul II hit it off with the St. John's soccer team. His aides attempted to rush him along, but the pope wouldn't have it. "It was just a special day," said St. John's coach Dave Masur. "I remember the day after I bought a rosary for my daughter Samantha, who was born two weeks earlier. It was just a moment I'll never forget."Added Acquista: "Growing up Catholic, looking at the pope as someone to follow, for me it was big. But it was even bigger for my mom."Harrington said he had four or five private audiences with the pope, the first when he was named president of St. John's in 1989. He also met with him when St. John's added a Rome campus, which sits just outside Vatican City, in 1995.He was back in Rome with Wile, who now serves as a chief of staff to the president, last week. They were there to attend to business at the Rome campus, but soon they in St. Peter's Square with thousands of others Saturday afternoon, just hours before the pope died after 26 years at the helm."Some public people look beyond you when you greet them, but that was never the case with him," Harrington said. "He focused on you, the individual. He really impacted on a personal level hundreds of thousands of people. We were there Saturday afternoon, just before he died. Somehow from a high position he made himself available to people on a personal level."Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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