Long before Joe Echelle ’62 pioneered Notre Dame’s soccer program as an undergraduate, and long before he set foot on campus, his love affair with the sport began in a refugee camp near Salzburg, Austria.
After the end of the Second World War, Echelle and his family fled what was then Yugoslavia to escape the atrocities the Red Army brought against the local population. They made their way to a camp in an Allied-occupied zone, where they endured crowded conditions, scant food, and frigid winters.
Soccer was a bright spot, a break from the harsh existence Echelle and the other children endured in the camp.
“The spirit of the people just lived on,” Echelle says. “I remember as a youngster our greatest joy was to play soccer there. The first soccer ball I ever saw was a ball we made of rags. As kids, you just devise your own games. We played barefoot and, I remember this very well, it was the place where I learned to shoot with both feet. We would pick up pebbles and kick them down the road. That was our training. We didn’t have any coaches or people organizing the games. It was just us being innovative.”
Echelle brought that passion for soccer with him when he came to the United States with his family as an adolescent. He brought it to the Catholic high school in Mansfield, Ohio in which his parents enrolled him, and he brought it with him when he decided to attend Notre Dame, where he would share it with fellow students and help build the University’s soccer program—one that has evolved over the years to win both men’s and women’s national championships and produce National Team players.
A New Home
For Echelle, Notre Dame felt like the right fit from the start. He visited once before he enrolled, as a junior in high school, and was sold after he attended a football game where he watched the Fighting Irish defeat Pittsburgh in the final seconds.
“ND was my choice,” he says. “It was the only school I applied to, so luckily I got in.”
After he arrived, Echelle quickly plugged in to campus life. He became involved in student government. He joined Army ROTC. And in the spring of his freshman year, just a few years after coming to the United States as a refugee, he became a U.S. citizen.
“That was the most special moment for me; finally knowing I had a home,” he says. “I really made Notre Dame my home.”
An Ambassador for Soccer
During his sophomore year, Echelle grew interested in starting a soccer program at Notre Dame. At the time the sport wasn’t well known in the States, but he was recruited by a local team that played in Chicago.
There, he found other interested players from Notre Dame, and went to a meeting of the Midwestern Soccer Conference, which included teams from Indiana University, Purdue, and Washington University in St. Louis. Members supported his interest in starting a team at Notre Dame.
Echelle approached the athletic department during his junior year, used his student government experience to gain funding, and eventually formed Notre Dame’s first soccer team.
It was a club team with 48 students—mostly Americans, but also a number of international students—a mix that included Chilean, Chinese, Dutch, Eastern European, and African players, he recalls. Together, teammates worked hard during those first few years to establish themselves: “It was really a student effort to get the momentum going; and we all had the same thought—don’t let Notre Dame down.”
One of the highlights came during his senior year, after the team traveled to Sikeston, Missouri and defeated Washington University in St. Louis in a rematch of the previous year’s game. After the exciting victory, the athletic department invited the team to showcase its skills during halftime of the since-retired alumni vs. varsity football game in Notre Dame Stadium.
It was an emotional moment for Echelle. As a child, he had sustained himself by kicking around a rag ball in a refugee camp, and now, he and his friends and teammates had a chance to share their love for the game with tens of thousands of fans.
“We wanted to show soccer to the student body,” Echelle says. “What I remember to this day is that a couple of our guys really put good headers together and the crowd just cheered. After all I had experienced as a child, it was truly wonderful to make Notre Dame my home, and to share my love of the game with that group of friends. I will never forget that experience we shared together.”