On the drive home to California last June after the Spirit season, Steve Boardman sought refuge for a night with his soccer friend, Dan O'Keefe, in St. Louis. Back on the road again the next day, Boardman was in Denver when he learned of the trade.
He phoned O'Keefe. "Did you hear the news?" he asked.
"No," O'Keefe said.
"You got traded for me," Boardman said.
Indeed, the Spirit traded Boardman, a defender, to the St. Louis Ambush for O'Keefe, a forward and the National Professional Soccer League's all-time leading goal scorer with 311.
Shocked? Not terribly. During a Spirit practice break yesterday at Du Burns Arena, O'Keefe talked about the events that led the Ambush to sour on him only a year after he won the 1991-92 NPSL scoring title.
O'Keefe missed part of training camp last year after surgery on his right knee. Doctors thought he had recovered sufficiently to play and gave him a cortisone shot when he still complained of pain. That succeeded only in making his knee stiff.
"One doctor suggested maybe it was all in my head," O'Keefe said.
His relationship with the club continued to sour. Although he scored 60 goals and was the Ambush's No. 2 point scorer with 104 despite reduced playing time, O'Keefe was told after the season the team intended to trade him.
"It wasn't the kind of season like the previous five, but my knee was part of the reason," O'Keefe said. "I was going to retire and go back to teaching, phys ed or special education. Then, when I learned the trade was to Baltimore, I said sure."
Spirit coach Kenny Cooper wanted another target man, a prolific scorer big and strong enough to absorb the abuse of playing with his back to the goal and with the ability to dig the ball out of the corner. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound O'Keefe qualified.
The Spirit started last season with two target men, Michael King and Rusty Troy. King underwent major knee surgery in midseason and subsequently was traded to the Milwaukee Wave to be nearer his home in Chicago. Troy, from the pounding he took, was not at his best the second half of the season.
"There weren't two better target men than King and Rusty," Cooper said. "But once they got hurt, we lacked size and strength up front. In particular, we got knocked around in the playoffs against Harrisburg."
The Spirit is well fortified there now with rookies Tarik Walker and Rob Ukrop, plus O'Keefe and Troy.
"All four are powerful and can score," said Cooper, who is preparing his team for its opener a week from tomorrow night against the Chicago Power at the Baltimore Arena.
O'Keefe, less than a month shy of his 32nd birthday, was born in St. Louis, played four years for Southern Illinois University (which lost twice during his time there to Indiana in the Division I final) and was drafted by the NPSL's Kansas City Attack.
He broke his foot in training camp and spent a year teaching high school-level special education classes. After that, three years with the NPSL's Indiana Kick, then two with the Detroit Rockers and last season with St. Louis. His best season was 1991-92 when he won the scoring title and led Detroit to the NPSL championship, scoring 21 goals in 10 playoff games.
That wasn't very long ago. His knee is fine, thank you, and he feels as good as he has in 10 years.
NOTES: Paul Wright, who scored 104 points in only 25 games for Milwaukee last season, has yet to practice because of a hamstring injury. Restricted to light running and stretching exercises, Wright is expected to join the team next week for full-scale workouts. . . . The squad is down to 19 with the departure of Mike Conway, Roberto Ascenzi and Terry Locklear. One more player must be trimmed. Of the remaining 18, two will be on the developmental squad, with Ricky Bush, Billy Reinhardt, Pat Walsh and Shawn Boehmcke the leading candidates.