Pedro Kozak hands out medals to his players after a tournament in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2019. / Photo by Mark Kennedy

A child's first encounter with death is hard.

The other day, I interrupted our younger son while he was cutting wood on a table saw in the garage.

"Take off your headphones for a minute," I said. "I have some very sad news to tell you."

He slowly lowered his ear protectors down around his neck and looked at me expectantly.

"Pedro died this morning," I said.

"What?" he said.

"Your coach, Pedro, he passed away today," I said.

Our 13-year-old immediately lowered his head and stared at the ground. He didn't cry, but his eyes were a million miles away.

Pedro Kozak, a legendary Chattanooga youth soccer coach, died last Sunday of natural causes. He was 71.

Our two sons, ages 13 and 18, are among the hundreds of boys and girls who played for Pedro's Premier Soccer Academy, which was founded here in 1997. Our family's association with Pedro's teams, which lasted only about three years, was brief but meaningful.

Some of Pedro's first Chattanooga-area players are now in their 30s. A former Argentine professional player, Pedro coached a Canadian national boys team before arriving in Chattanooga. All told, his coaching career spanned more than 40 years.

A few minutes before I told our 13-year-old the tragic news, our 18-year-old son had come down the stairs at our house with moist eyes to tell me that texts about Pedro's death were flooding his phone.

He had traveled with Pedro's River Plate team throughout the South and had thrived under the coach's tough-love style.

Pedro would shout at our older son in his trademark clipped English: "Keegans, what the heck'ins you doing? Pass the ball and stop doing the hokey pokey, or you'll make yourself fall down!"

It was 100 percent Pedro that he mispronounced our older son's name for two years.

It was also 100 percent Pedro that he telephoned me with tender concern in his voice when our 13-year-old boy hurt his back last winter and missed a month of training.

Pedro Kozak was known universally by his first name. For hundreds of Chattanooga soccer players, "playing for Pedro" was their athletic calling card.

"Playing for Pedro" meant you were mentally tough, physically fit and absolutely relentless. His teams were known for outworking opposing teams that would sometimes wilt under in the final minutes of a match. Pedro made his players run hills and sprint endlessly in the days leading up to a tournament.

"Pedro was definitely concerned about being the fittest team in any tournament we played in," said Jonathan Ricketts, a longtime PSA player who went on to star at Bryan College and now plays for the Chattanooga Red Wolves professional team. "He always pushed us to be better players every day in training. It might have been hard to see in the moment, but I can see that now."

Pedro coached scores of local teenagers who went on to play at all levels of collegiate soccer, including Division I. If Pedro vouched for your child, college coaches listened.

His PSA club was nomadic. At points his teams had been based at Middle Valley, the North River YMCA, Camp Jordan in East Ridge and, most recently, at Red Bank High School, where he presided over his last training session on May 30.

When his PSA club moved to Red Bank seven years ago, Pedro had five boys teams and a girls squad. By the 2019-20 season, PSA was down to two teams. The Chattanooga FC and Chattanooga Red Wolves youth academies also compete for club players now.

Pedro's teams always had names rooted in Argentine soccer such as River Plate, Lanus (his former professional club) and Boca Juniors. His PSA sides were known throughout the South for their blue and white Argentina-style jerseys, which soccer fans worldwide associate with legendary players such as Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona.

On the day before his death, Pedro had been on the field at Red Bank High School guiding his under-12 Boca Juniors and under-15 Lanus teams through their first social-distancing training sessions of the coronavirus era. It was the first time the teams had gathered since mid-March, and Pedro had carefully structured drills so the kids stayed 6 feet part.

"Not so close!" he would shout at the boys if they accidentally drifted together.

Pedro was not outwardly warm and fuzzy. In fact he was loud and bossy. Yet he cared deeply for his players, and they returned the feelings.

When Pedro dressed down a player it was demonstrative, but not personal, and usually involved a correctable fundamental or mental error. He also didn't abide lollygagging or horseplay.

I used to tell our boys that it was never hard to find Pedro at a soccer tournament. You could just roll down your car window and follow his voice, which would boom across the pitches no matter how many games were in progress. Pedro's older players learned to "play on" through his scoldings, as the game might have progressed 20 touches and a goal by the time he refocused his attention on the action.

Pedro could also be playful, often telling the boys to return a bag of practice balls to his Maserati or Lamborghini, when they all knew he meant his Honda minivan.

As was their custom, the players at last Saturday's training session filed off the field at Red Bank and called out, "Thanks, Pedro."

As was his custom, Pedro Kozak answered, "OK, sweethearts!"

So, one last time, from all the "sweethearts" who ever wore the blue-and-white, "Thank you, Pedro."

You were one heck'ins of a coach.

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