Central Texas will soon enjoy first division professional soccer when Austin FC joins Major League Soccer at the beginning of the 2021 MLS season. Amid all the excitement the new club is generating in Austin, most soccer fans in the Austin-San Antonio corridor are unaware (or only vaguely aware) that another team played here in the top United States domestic soccer league in the 1970’s.
This week marks the 45th anniversary of the first season of this long-departed team, the San Antonio Thunder of the original North American Soccer League (NASL). The Thunder lasted just two seasons before the club moved to Hawaii in late 1976. Despite their limited time in Central Texas, the Thunder assembled a talented collection of players who delivered a level of soccer quality the area had never seen and would not experience again until professional soccer returned in the current decade with the Scorpions and now both San Antonio FC (SAFC) and Austin Bold.
The Thunder’s unfortunate departure left virtually no trace, but their legacy did yield a long-lasting bonus for the area because of their community outreach programs and significant involvement in the early years of the San Antonio Youth Soccer Organization (SAYSO). The Thunder even had impact in the Austin area through preseason matches they played in Austin against a selection of the best local amateur players.
Texas Soccer Journal plans to spend the next few months shedding light on the story of the San Antonio Thunder, its players, coaches and community impact in the years they competed in NASL (1975-76).
The impetus for this project flows from an email I recently received from Stewart McKernan, the brother of the 1975 Thunder team captain, John McKernan. From his home in Scotland, Stewart read an article I wrote about the Thunder when San Antonio FC held a 2018 throwback charity auction for game worn Thunder jerseys. He sent a handful of pictures from his brother’s possessions and shared details about John’s background and his time in San Antonio. Unfortunately, John McKernan, who moved to Sacramento and established roots there shortly after his time in San Antonio ended, passed away at 45 years old in 1997 after a three-year battle with cancer.
Learning more about John McKernan reminded me how much Thunder history has been lost to time and I intend to resurrect some of the club’s stories and history before we move into a new era of first division professional soccer in Central Texas with Austin FC.
Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Thunder’s head coach for the second half of the 1975 and full 1976 seasons. Don Batie, who currently lives in Northern California, shared fascinating stories about legendary soccer players Bobby Moore and George Best and other details about his time in San Antonio that I hope others will find interesting. I was also able to connect and talk with one of the original players, Mark Stahl, who joined the team after being selected in the 1975 NASL College Draft. Today I had the chance to speak with a local attorney, Ken Cooper, who was intimately involved in the local soccer community back in that era and was the winner of the club’s Name-the-Team contest. Locating other individuals living in San Antonio and Central Texas who remember the Thunder and have memories to share would provide additional flavor to the stories.
The first article on TSJ, starting with a discussion of the Thunder’s arrival in San Antonio, will be posted in the next few days and additional longer feature story articles will follow between now and the end of August, the timeframe when the NASL regular seasons ended back then.
I also intend to share highlights from the 1975 and 1976 Thunder seasons as the schedule plays out, with support from Don Batie and Mark Stahl, on the website and TSJ’s Twitter page @txsoccerjournal.
I don’t have a complete picture of where this project will lead, but look forward to spending the next few months, in some small way, putting the Thunder back on the local soccer map. Because he was back in California when the franchise moved to Hawaii, Don Batie, who is now 77 years old, expressed regrets during our conversation that he never had an opportunity to say goodbye when he left San Antonio. He welcomes the chance to share his memories and our work this summer will hopefully achieve this goal.
Anybody who has thoughts on this project or has Thunder memories they would like to share, please let me know through DM on Twitter or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thunder Logo Credit: Chris Creamer’s Sports Logos and San Antonio FC