HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - It was a million-to-one chance for Joe Falla Sr. to come to the United States from Guatemala in 1964.
At least, that’s what immigration services told him.
Although the soccer player’s dream of playing in the World Cup wouldn’t come true, his dream of coming to the U.S. would when he was given the opportunity to move to Kentucky.
“I still wanted to play in the World Cup, but I couldn’t play anymore,” he said. “I still had this passion inside of me. I loved soccer and I wanted to do something with soccer, so I set my mind on coaching. I wanted to give back this stuff that I had learned and show others how much it meant to me. I wanted all those passions to carry on.”
More than 40 years later, that passion still burns bright inside Falla Sr. - and his son and grandchildren.
Falla Sr. is the girls soccer coach at Sacred Heart in Hattiesburg, where his son, Joe Falla Jr., coaches the boys soccer team and his grandchildren Grant, Gabby and Gracie suit up for the Crusaders.
Now a 70-year-old Hattiesburg resident, Falla Sr. began coaching his son when he was 10 years old and they lived in Louisiana.
“That’s where I get it from,” Falla Jr. said. “I could see how excited he got when he saw me play, and it’s transitioned to him now with Gracie and Gabby. He loves the game, but he loves his family more.”
Through the years, Falla Sr. coached his son, but also split time coaching soccer at Hahnville High School and Destrehan, both in Louisiana.
But even after Falla Sr. retired, his influence on his son led Falla Jr. down the same path after his college football career as a kicker at Northwestern State ended.
“I had no intention of doing it,” Falla Jr. said. “But I knew a buddy of mine who applied (for the Sacred Heart job) and wanted to use me as a reference. Well, he called me later and asked me if I wanted the job. That was nine years ago, and I can’t imagine not doing it.”
However, when Falla Jr. became the head coach of the boys team at Sacred Heart, his father didn’t follow him immediately, preferring to stay in the shadows so he could enjoy watching his son.
But as Falla Jr.’s children - Grant, 17, Gabby, 15, and Gracie, 12 - were born, Falla Sr. began to feel a calling again.
Falla Sr., who still lived in Louisiana, made late-night trips back and forth to see his grandkids play.
He watched as Grant and Gabby took up soccer first and then Gracie. He watched Gracie run as a 3-year-old, kicking a ball and scoring goals, and knew he had to be a part of that.
“I went home one night and I told my wife, ‘We are selling the house and we’re moving to Hattiesburg,’” Falla Sr. said.
Falla Sr.’s tenure as the Sacred Heart girls coach, which began in 2010, has been a successful one and includes three state championships in 2015-16, 2013-14, and 2010-11. Now with Gracie and Gabby under his wing, the veteran coach has the Lady Crusaders out to a 7-3-2 record.
Falla Jr. has had similar success as the boys coach, racking up a pair of titles for the school in 2011-12 and 2012-13. Now in his 10th season at the helm, Falla Jr. and Grant are looking to add a third title and are already off to a 7-1-3 record.
But it isn’t about the championships for father and son.
“How you see it on the field with us laughing, joking and being all excited is exactly how we are at home,” said Grant, a senior forward. “It’s all in good fun, and it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t do it. It’s just part of why we all love playing and being together.”
In between Falla Sr. and Falla Jr. taking turns jabbing at one another, Grant, Gabby and Gracie can be seen on the sidelines in their sweatshirts and hoodies, kicking the ball across Sacred Heart’s artificial turf, laughing and enjoying their time together.
Gabby, a midfielder, couldn’t imagine it being any other way.
“It would be different,” the freshman said. “I would still love it, but being with them makes me more excited. Like when Gracie scored her first goal of this season, her first goal of her first game, it was unbelievable. That makes it all worth it. That makes playing together and getting coached by Papa (Falla Sr.) worth it.”
Gracie, a seventh-grader and forward, who experienced both her father and grandfather as her coach, said each has a different coaching style.
“My dad will teach me different stuff sometimes,” Gracie said. “And then Papa will teach me some other things that I never would have thought about, and Papa gets a little more excited, too. Dad can be serious sometimes.”
Siblings Grant, Gabby and Gracie also have their differences.
Grant is described by his father as having a high soccer IQ and a laid-back attitude when it comes to the game.
“His work ethic could be better, but it’s because he’s so laid back,” Falla Jr. joked. “Everything kind of comes easy to him. He’s a natural and he’s a good, smart player.”
Gabby, on the other hand, is the grinder of the family.
“It doesn’t come as easily for her as it does maybe Grant and Gracie,” he said. “But I think that’s what pushes her. She’s come a long way, and she works every day. She wakes up at 5 in the morning to go kick. Gabby is my hard worker.”
And then there’s Gracie.
“You know what you’re going to get from her,” Falla Jr. said. “She’s aggressive and just gets after everything full speed. She never slows down. She’s going, going, and she hustles and has so much energy.”
Despite their differences, the five Fallas all have one thing in common: their love for the game.
“I think (Falla Sr.) has been successful in passing down that passion to us,” Grant said. “I know especially for me, but to Gabby and Gracie as well. It means a lot.”
“We all get everything not just from a soccer perspective, but everything that (Papa) been through,” Gabby said. “It’s more of a lesson. Everything he says there’s something he backs it up with. Everybody is just like, ‘Man, he loves the game.’”
With his son coaching, and his grandkids playing the sport he loves, life couldn’t get much better, according to Falla Sr. The veteran coach said he had no idea what was in store for him when he left Guatemala in 1964. But now that he’s coaching at Sacred Heart, his dream of playing in the World Cup pales in comparison to the reality he has now.
“I’m really blessed to be where I am,” Falla Sr. said. “Playing in the World Cup would have been great, but this is even better than that. God had something in store for me even though I couldn’t see it then and this is what he had planned. I prayed that I could stay alive long enough to coach everyone and I have. This is my dream come true. All I ever wanted was my family and to pass on my passion for the game.”
Information from: The Hattiesburg American, https://www.hattiesburgamerican.com
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