Undoubtedly, he was signed for his prowess around the goal. Yet the true measure of Pepe Fernandez in the 40 years since his Seattle arrival is the friends and fans he’s made for himself, the Sounders and the sport.
That list lengthens with each day, for any time spent with Pepe becomes joyous. He is upbeat, full of song and story.
“If I could pick one player to represent everyone who ever played here–rec, select, premier or pro–it would be Pepe,” says former Sounders teammate Jimmy McAlister.
“He’s one of the most genuine persons you would ever want to meet, who would talk to the littlest player the same way as a top player,” McAlister adds. “Pepe Fernandez is the greatest thing that ever happened to the game in this area.”
When John Best was assembling the original squad in 1974, he wanted players of both ability and character. Best had witnessed Pepe’s effervescent style firsthand. Fernandez scored three goals in four games versus Best’s teams and 39 in 60 games altogether, between 1967-69. He was on the verge of a big season with the Sounders when calamity struck.
In only Seattle’s second home match, the Uruguayan set-up the first goal with a corner kick to John Rowlands, then later on won possession at midfield and began his drive toward goal. He unleashed his shot an instant before a San Jose defender’s tackle. The ball snapped the back of the net while the crunching tackle snapped two bones in Pepe’s lower right leg.
The goal won the game but Fernandez was lost for that year and part of the next. Gone yet far from forgotten, he became an instant folk hero. Once fitted with crutches, Pepe’s entrance to Memorial Stadium on match nights produced prolonged ovations.
“He was there for every game and the crowd would love it,” recalls Jack Daley, the general manager. “They appreciated how well he had played the first few games and they cheered him. They also appreciated that we didn’t just discard him because he got hurt. It was part of that team bonding with the community from the outset.”
Fifty-five weeks after injury, Pepe was finally able to properly celebrate with his admirers. He came off the bench to volley home a goal in extra time against Denver. His arms outstretched while teammates rushed to mob him, he let the fans’ roar wash down upon him.
“It was just beautiful,” said Fernandez. “It was for the fans.”
More than players, the original Sounders were promoters. “You knew they could play the game,” says U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Tom Webb, “but they were here to promote it, to go out and give clinics.”
During the mid-Seventies in Seattle, Fernandez was as popular as any member of the Seahawks or Sonics. In 1975 community leaders asked him to lead a clinic for the Quileute Tribe. The site: La Push, located on the westernmost stretch of coast on the Olympic Peninsula, nearly a 4-hour trip each way from Seattle.
Fernandez may begin a demonstration as an unknown, but within minutes he wins over the audience. He weaves his gift for music (as a teen he sang and played guitar to supplement his income) together with his love for the game.
“I say you need to play this game like you’re dancing,” says Pepe, “and they follow me. Other coaches have trouble getting players to be quiet. But when I get up there, they listen.
“It’s always the same song: (Seventies disco hit) Love Is in the Air. Then I dance. Everything I do, I move. And they try to do the same.”
When Pele´ first played in Seattle in 1975, Fernandez visited some Uruguayan friends who were with the Cosmos. As they talked in the hotel lobby, Pele´ rushed past toward the elevator. Teammates called out to him but the door closed. Fernandez thought he had missed his opportunity to meet The Black Pearl. A moment later, the door opened.
“It’s nice to meet you,” said Pele´. “I’ve heard about all the things you’re doing here in Seattle.”
The next afternoon, although fans chanted, ‘Pepe, Pepe, Pepe,’ Fernandez never got off the bench. But when the final whistle sounded, Pele´ remembered his new friend. Heremoved his shirt, gave it to Pepe and then, together, they posed for photos.
“It was amazing, what he knew about me,” says Fernandez. “He was so easy. It made me feel good.”
Now 70, he still gives freely of himself.
“I love the game, I like people, I like to share what I know,” he explains. “People have taken me into their heart. Today I go to games and I see people from those (earlier) days, and I thank them for supporting the Sounders since 1974. To see those old-timers with their kids and grandkids, it’s beautiful to see.”