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November 9, 2011

Like grandfather, like grandson: Casey Desiderio continues family business, tradition

By Michael Lewis

KINGS POINT, N.Y. – In many instances, a family business is passed down from one generation to another.

The Bahr family has followed suit, except their family business, by and large, happens to be football and futbol (aka soccer).

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy senior midfielder Casey Desiderio is the latest member of the Bahr clan tackling the beautiful game, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Walter Bahr, and his uncles, Casey, Chris and Matt Bahr.

And now the next generation is pursuing soccer – Casey Desiderio at the Merchant Marine Academy.

"I never thought of all the grand kids who would be interested in something like that," Walter said. "I know the coach there. He [Casey] loves it. It's a good soccer place."

A four-year member of the soccer team, Desiderio has become a vital part of the team's success the past two seasons. The Mariners reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III tournament last year and are preparing to face Rutgers University-Camden in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament in Camden, N.J. at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

Desiderio's lineage is quite remarkable.

Let's start with the top of the family tree. His grandfather Walter, is a legendary figure in American soccer. He not only played in the 1950 World Cup, but set up the lone goal of the 1-0 upset of England in that competition. It is considered one of the greatest upsets of soccer, if not the biggest stunning result, in the history of the sport. Walter, now 84, also participated in the 1948 London Olympics and had a nice long career starring in the old American Soccer League before he became the Penn State soccer coach.

Walter is married to Davies Ann, and they had sons  – Casey, Chris and Matt – who played soccer – and a daughter, Davies Ann, who became an All-American gymnast.

Casey played for the Philadelphia Atoms in the original North American Soccer League and represented the United States at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. Chris also played for the Atoms and was selected as the 1975 NASL rookie of the year.  He went on to kick in two Super Bowl triumphs for the Oakland Raiders. Matt played in the NASL with the Caribous of Colorado and Tulsa Roughnecks and in the American Soccer League with the Pennsylvania Stoners before winning two Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants.

The parents of Kings Point's Casey, Davies Ann and Rick, both were All-American gymnasts at Penn State, where they met. They have three sons, all of whom have played soccer – Daniel (25), Casey (21) and Mike (16).

Daniel did some kicking for the Penn State football team as well.

Casey considers his younger brother, Mike, a member of the Philadelphia Union's U.S. Soccer's Development Academy team and is considered the most talented of the three brothers.

"It's funny. Nobody in my family and my wife's family were involved in sports," Walter Bahr said. "That's not an athletic background."

Perhaps it is the skill mixed together with a competitive edge. When the Bahr family has gotten together, regardless of the sport, the game is competitive.

"Even if it's just a friendly game, no one wants to lose," Desiderio said. "So I think that's one of the main things. You can be given all of the talent in world, but if you don't want to do it, then it doesn't mean anything. It just shows that no one really just rests on who came before them. Each one wants to make their own name for themselves."

The Bahr clan arguably has become one of the leading sports families in American history.

"Just growing up with my brothers, you did sports," said Davies Ann, Casey's mother. "Balls were always laying around. That's what you did in your free time. It could have been basketball, baseball or soccer. Something that moved."

Of course, no one told anything to Casey about his family tradition when he was growing up in suburban Philadelphia. He did not know of the feats that his grandfather and uncles produced with their feet. In fact, Casey did not discover it until he was 13- or 14-years-old and it was quite accidental. He heard his grandmother tell the story of the 1950 World Cup upset to a friend. Walter never talked about it.

"I was just thinking about that the other day. It was pretty late," Casey said. "I kind of knew that he played. I didn't know anything more."

Casey admitted he was shocked when he heard about it.

"I didn't believe it at first because I was like, 'Grandpa? My grandpa?' Because I had just known him for who he was," he said. "It was kind of a mind-numbing thing to realize that he had done that."

After he learned about Walter, Casey said he did not do much research about his grandfather's career or feat.

"Not really," he said. "I have asked him some questions and I have learned things from him through the years about what's going on. I really don't want to look it up because I know what he's told me. I don't want to see other people's take on it."

So, what is Walter Bahr really like?

"He's a. . . . I don't want to say character, but he definitely has a lot of animation.

"He wants the best for everyone, even if it's not him taking credit for it. He would rather see someone else do well."

While not in the same class as Walter or his uncles at the moment, Desiderio has become a pretty decent accomplished Division III player, having been named to the Landmark Conference first-team all-star team this season.

While just about every grandparent dotes on and is enthusiastic about their grandchildren, Walter is proud of Casey and realistic as well.

"He's not Pele or the next coming of Messi , but he's a good, solid player," he said. "He shows up at every game. You know what you're going to get from him. He's the type of player you need to watch for a while to know what he's going to bring to the team.

"He could play almost anywhere. He can put up a fairly consistent performance, game in and game out."

His statistics might not be gaudy – Desiderio has accumulated two goals and two assists entering Saturday's game -- but contributions to the Mariners go well beyond pure numbers. Just ask coach Mike Smolens.

"As a young man, he's someone who is not afraid to speak his mind," Smolens said of his two-year captain. "We've had a lot of communication back and forth the last couple of years. We don't always agree with what he has to say. But we really like the fact that he's a guy who is always thinking about the team, thinking about the team and that's something that he brings to the table and makes him even a more valuable player."

Smolens said he was most impressed with the 5-11, 180-lb. Desiderio's vision.

"He has very good awareness of his teammates, his opponents," he said. "He sees the game very well. As much as he can create for himself, what he does best is create for other players, see things early on. And that's something we really need him to do for us to be successful. "

Like many young children his own age, Casey Desiderio grew up playing soccer for the fun of it. After all, it has been the fashionable thing for young children to do. He also dabbled in baseball and lacrosse, but decided to stick with soccer.

"I liked how it was still a team game, but you could make things happen on your own," he said. "It was one person with everyone else."

At Penncrest High School in Media, Pa., Desiderio also kicked for the football team. He punted and converted 22 extra points and three field goals during his senior season.

"That was an interesting experience," Desiderio said. "When I was a freshman, my brother was a senior. So he was kicking at the time, too. He mentored me and taught me the ways of what he was doing."

And Casey has mentored his younger brother, Michael.

"He's probably the best one out of all three of us," he said. "I think that's how it works. Each step down. me and my older brother are about the same and the younger one is the best."

Desiderio then interjected with a laugh: "Saw all of the mistakes I made."

But he was certainly good enough to play in college. With his uncle and namesake a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Desiderio not only had an interest in the sea, but had someone to tell him about his experiences to stoke his interest.

Desiderio was interested in attending the Coast Guard Academy, but then fate intervened during a soccer college showcase. His mother, Davies Ann, saw a coach wearing a U.S. Merchant Marine jacket and asked if the Coast Guard was at the event. The school wasn't, but Davies Ann and the assistant coach talked and he gave her some information.

"That was the first time I heard about it," Desiderio said. "I liked all of the options coming out."

He picked the Merchant Marines over the Coast Guard and became a Marine Transportation major and a standout soccer player.

Whether Desiderio continues the family business as a pro player, that remains to be seen.

He is, after all, planning on a career at sea. With a June graduation looming, Desiderio doesn't have a job lined up just yet.

"I would definitely play for fun," he said. "I definitely don't want to give it up. I don't think I could. If an amateur league or something comes up because of it, I'm not going to go out and try to go for it. I'm going to have fun, playing it and whatever happens."

Photo: Casey Desiderio has played an important role in the Mariners' success the past two season. Photo by Shawn Antonelli