Michael Finnegan’s story about “Plum Jaw,” also known to us football fans back then as “Harry J,” touched me. Plum Jaw’s story is a startling metaphor for the Belizean exodus. In 1969, he disappeared into America when he had reached the peak of his fame. Plum Jaw was playing a flank defence for arguably the best team in Belize City at the time – Red Stripe, and he had just starred in perhaps Red Stripe’s biggest game ever – an “international” against a visiting “Vera Cruz” team.
You have to remember that in Belize back then, there was no television and only a government monopoly radio station. The newspapers in Belize basically ignored sports in those days. When it came to football, Belize’s most popular sport, everything was word-of-mouth. In the first game that visiting “Vera Cruz” team played on the MCC Grounds (it was not against Red Stripe), this blonde Mexican forward had electrified the crowd when he fired a shot from the edge of the eighteen which absolutely sounded like a thunderclap against the crosspiece of the Guinness (northern) goal.
It was the football equivalent of what had happened at the MCC in cricket a few years before. A guy named Steadman White had appeared, like out of nowhere, playing cricket for the Police team. It seemed to me that he came from one of the Caribbean islands, and he later married a Belizean lady, a daughter or some relative of Rose Howard’s, if I’m not mistaken. Steadman White hit cricket shots no one had ever seen before, sixes in specific off two of Unity’s best bowlers – Telford Vernon and Ellis Gideon, which seemed as if they were entering orbit, like Sputnik, the Russian satellite. Steadman White was not long in Belize, or maybe it was because I went away in 1965. But Steadman White became mythical. And so did “Blondie.”
In little Belize we always used to call these teams “Vera Cruz,” although sometimes the name of the Mexican oil company, Pemex, began to be mentioned. The organizer of these visits was the late Hubert Bradley, an older brother of the legendary Bertie Ellis and a younger brother of the late, legendary George Phillips. Hubert Bradley, an executive on the waterfront, was very close to Premier George Price, a confidant of the Premier’s in fact, and he had a sister who lived in Coatzacoalcos, and may still do. Not only that, he was close to one of Belize City’s most prosperous business executives, the late Clive Tucker, Sr. Hubert Bradley, then, had big-time connections. Remember now, self-governing Belize was being kept out of FIFA by Guatemala, so the trips organized by Bradley to and from Coatzacoalcos were the closest our footballers came to “internationals.”
Hubert had his own senior football team, Amateur Sporting Club (ASC), sponsored by Mr. Tucker, I believe, but ASC never really competed for the local championship. Two of my younger brothers, Michael and Charles, began playing for ASC while they were still attending St. John’s College. ASC was a nice team, disciplined and so on, but not championship caliber. When the regular season and the knockout competition ended, however, everybody wanted to play for ASC, because Mr. Bradley would choose a few stars from other teams to “strengthen up” ASC for the trips to Coatzacoalcos.
Vera Cruz itself is a large and beautiful city on the Gulf of Mexico coast of the republic, but it is inside of a huge state of Mexico which is also called Vera Cruz. I think that all these teams we called “Vera Cruz” in Belize were actually from Coatzacoalcos, which is a large and beautiful city in the oil belt of Vera Cruz state. I think oil money from Pemex seriously improved the quality of the teams Bradley’s Belize teams played against in Belize and over there.
In 1978 I was vice-president of the Belize Amateur Football Association and, under Mr. Bradley’s leadership, we took a Belize selection to play in Coatzacoalcos. That was a fun trip, and it is discussed in Sports, Sin, and Subversion. I would respectfully suggest to Finnegan that he do some research and maybe travel to Coatza in search of “Blondie.” (In Mexico, unlike the case in Belize, they keep records.) If he travelled, he would have to take an interpreter, I guess. For us football fans and roots-conscious Belizeans, this is a project the National Institute of Culture and History should view with interest. It may sound crazy, I guess, but there are those of us who take our football like religion.
Before you say that I am disrespecting a Cabinet Minister by proposing such a project to him, I know Mr. Finnegan to be, in the first instance, a true lover of football. During all the decades of his political career and ascension, I wondered where that love had gone. Today, I believe that Michael Finnegan has overcome all his political challenges and so, like Alexander The Great, he has no more worlds to conquer. Thus it is that his love for football has returned to burn as a passion. Where football is concerned, the Hon. Finnegan is back in love again.
In that famous game between Vera Cruz and Red Stripe, it must have been decided by the Red Stripe brain trust that Blondie was so dangerous, Harry J would have to hold him man-to-man. (Belizeans used to refer to this in Creole as “married to anh.”) And as we football fans sat tense and crowded against each other in the MCC pavilions that afternoon, it seemed to us, in fact it was plain to be seen, Plummy would have given his life to get the job done – for himself, for Red Stripe, and for Belizeans. And, praise God, he did. Nowhere in the Belizean newspapers or on the Belize radio station was this dramatic story really told. But in the hearts and minds of all us anonymous Belizean colonials who worshipped at the MCC football shrine that day, Plum Jaw became a hero forever.
And then, just as suddenly as he had become a Belizean hero, Plum Jaw disappeared. In the streets, the word was that he had headed for the “border.” (It may have been that he was on one of Mr. Hubert’s Vera Cruz trips.)
There are aspects of Belizean life that our society folk never knew were absolutely like food and drink for the rest of us. Michael Finnegan has done a service for us with his discovery, after 44 years, of a legend who had been lost in time. The problem for the Hon. Finnegan is, I submit, that he has only touched the surface of a saga. Our generation demands more detailed discussion of the drama.
Power to the people.