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Hunt a quiet pioneer of U.S. soccer

When Lamar Hunt was courting his wife, Norma, they stood on the terraces for a Shamrock Rovers match in Dublin. That trip to Ireland in 1962 also kicked off Hunt's interest in soccer and started him on a path toward becoming the game's most persistent financial backer in the U.S.

Hunt was a farsighted and innovative investor in sports, starting with the American Football League in 1960, then the North American Soccer League, World Championship Tennis and Major League Soccer. But Hunt, who died Wednesday after an eight-year battle with prostate cancer, still kept a low profile and in interviews remained humble and revealed he was aware of his own mortality.

In 1962, Hunt was a 30-year-old heir to an oil fortune and had already made his mark in professional sports as a founder of the AFL. His impact on professional sports started to take effect in the late 1960s, and his adventurous spirit and imagination would help shape soccer in the U.S. He was impressed by television transmissions of the 1966 World Cup final and became an original investor in the NASL as owner of the Dallas Tornado. Hunt was a key figure in the AFL-NFL merger and coined the term "Super Bowl" (inspired by his daughter Sharron's super ball toy) for professional football's championship game. He began attending World Cup matches in Mexico in 1970, witnessing every Brazil match (except for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina) through 2002.

But Hunt's longest-lasting legacy could be his decision to build Columbus Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium of consequence constructed in the U.S. since the 1920s. Four more such stadiums have been completed for MLS teams (including Hunt's Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas), two are set to open next year (Denver and Toronto), and ground has been broken on two more.

"One stadium in one city and one sold-out game doesn't make a success," Hunt said before the opening of Crew Stadium in 1999. "But this stadium will be here for 50 years, even if I won't be.''

Crew Stadium was not extravagant. But it symbolized much about Hunt's vision and how he regarded soccer in the U.S. Crew Stadium cost about $29 million, a fraction of Hunt's fortune, but the importance of it was that it started a movement toward similar stadiums.

After the 2002 World Cup, during which Hunt visited all 20 stadiums used in Japan and South Korea, Hunt was asked when he thought soccer would succeed in the U.S.

"I have no doubts that it will be a major sport in the United States," Hunt said. "I'm probably not going to live to see that day because Americans are a little afraid of getting interested in something at which they're not very good. So it depends on how quickly the U.S. can become good. Well, we've made huge strides since the 1990 World Cup, USA '94, and obviously since '98. Unfortunately, those strides only register with the public once every four years. But I have no question that we're going to see the sport become a major success in the United States, with high attendance at club games.''

Hunt was an ambitious proponent of soccer in the '60s, funding a world tour for the Dallas Tornado before they had played a home game, and bringing top European talent to the team. But by 1969, there were only five teams still in business and Hunt was a key figure in keeping the league going until the arrival of Pele' in 1975.

By 1981, though, the NASL was declining again, and Hunt folded the Tornado. He became more cautious with the MLS, believing the U.S. public only needed time to catch on to professional soccer, and the league required conservative, slow-growth policies rather than ambitious player acquisitions.

Hunt was unable to translate his interest in Brazil into flashy, winning soccer, though. Hunt's only championships were with the Tornado in 1971 and the Kansas City Wizards in 2000.

Hunt was the son of Haroldson Lafayette (H.L.) Hunt, who moved away from his Illinois farming family to Arkansas, where oil prospecting led him to tycoon status and the designation as possibly the richest man in the world. Lamar Hunt was born Aug. 2, 1932, in El Dorado, Ark., attended the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., and attained a Bachelor of Science degree in geology from Southern Methodist University in 1956. Hunt's first exposure to soccer was as a student at the Hill School; he played football at SMU.

National Football League owners rejected Hunt's attempts to establish a new franchise, so he joined a group called "The Foolish Club," which would charge investors $25,000 each for a franchise in the AFL. Eight teams started playing in 1960 and by 1966 had become successful enough to challenge the NFL on the field. And fittingly, at the end of that 1966 season, Hunt's Kansas City Chiefs were playing in the first Super Bowl.

Hunt, as owner of the Kansas City Chiefs again clashed with the traditional NFL power structure when the NASL was established in December 1967 (following a merger of the nascent United States Soccer League and the National Professional Soccer League), when NFL owners began challenging the right to cross ownership of professional teams. Joe Robbie averted the challenge by naming his wife, Elizabeth, owner of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The NASL won an anti-trust suit against the NFL, and though the judgment came too late for the league, it helped clear the way for Hunt and others such as Robert Kraft to invest in the MLS. When the MLS started in 1996, Hunt was listed as investor-operator of the Columbus Crew and Kansas City Wiz. Three years later, Hunt added the Dallas Burn. Hunt sold the Kansas City team to local investors this year.

In 1999, the U.S. Open Cup, the longest continuously held national team sporting competition in the country, was named the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Hunt had been battling prostate cancer since 1998 and was unable to attend the World Cup in Germany last summer. His sons, Clark and Dan, did attend the 2006 World Cup and are important figures in the management of FC Dallas and the MLS. Clark and Dan Hunt both graduated from SMU, Clark captaining the soccer team.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.