When Paul Heasley's son Lucas started playing soccer seriously in the late 1990s, Mr. Heasley saw a small problem: Soccer was such a fringe part of the Pittsburgh sports scene there were very few, if any, local role models his son and other aspiring soccer players could look up to.
Mr. Heasley solved that problem by starting his own professional team.
Mr. Heasley, founder of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer club, died Saturday from complications of a lung transplant at his Belle Vernon home. He was 63.
"He was very kind and generous," said his daughter, Chris Heasley Treadwell. "He was a friend to a good many people in many different ways."
In 1999, Mr. Heasley, a Belle Vernon native, made the decision to bring professional soccer back to Pittsburgh after a 13-year hiatus. The last team, the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League, had folded in 1986. While the Spirit sported some modest success during its five seasons, professional outdoor soccer had never found a foothold in the region.
"He just felt we needed to have more of a professional soccer team in Pittsburgh for kids to look up to," Ms. Heasley Treadwell said. "That's how his interest in soccer came about."
Mr. Heasley wanted the Riverhounds to be a team that embodied Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, and made it a point to build a team with local players.
The first three picks in the history of the franchise were Justin Evans of Peters, Steve Bell of Peters and Gary DePalma of Upper St. Clair.
"I remember him just talking to me and saying, 'Hey, we made you our No. 1 draft pick for a reason. You're a Pittsburgh kid,'" said Mr. Evans, now the Riverhounds head coach. "That was something that was very important to him."
Mr. Heasley had his son on the team -- Lucas was a Riverhounds goalie -- but also treated the rest of the team as an extended family.
"When you came into the Riverhounds organization, he brought you in and he was the father of the whole thing," Mr. Evans said.
Mr. Heasley sold the Riverhounds in 2004 to a group that moved them to Washington, Pa. The team eventually returned to Pittsburgh and, this season, moved into its new home in Highmark Stadium near Station Square.
Mr. Heasley's illness prevented him from seeing a game in the new stadium, but he read enough about it to know that the dream he started -- a legitimate soccer presence in Pittsburgh's professional sports scene -- was even closer to fruition.
"One of the biggest steps, obviously, is step one," current Riverhounds CEO Jason Kutney said. "If you don't have step one then you're not going to get to step two and three. We can say that Highmark Stadium is maybe step eight in a 10-step process of hopefully bigger and better things for soccer. He certainly started step one. There's a lot to be said for someone like that. He was certainly a trailblazer in that regard."
Following Mr. Heasley's vision, one of the linchpins of the Riverhounds organization is its youth program. Thanks in large part to him, young soccer players in Pittsburgh have an accessible path toward a career in the sport.
"That gives a lot of kids a lot of hope," Mr. Evans said. "There's something you can do here. You don't just go to college and then start your 9-to-5 job. It gives kids something to look forward to, something to look toward. It was tremendous, the opportunity he afforded us and a lot of young players to follow their dreams."
Mr. Heasley is survived by his wife, Karen; daughter Chris Heasley Treadwell of Jefferson Hills; and son Lucas of Venetia.obituaries
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org.