Two Penn State Soccer Legends Recall Their Journeys To The 1956 Olympics

Dick Packer awoke on the bench of a Newark, NJ bus station as a newspaper landed on his chest with a thud. It was about 8 a.m., and he was awaiting a ride back to State College.

The 22-year-old groggily flipped through the New York Times that had just been tossed onto him. He landed in the sports section and scanned the final roster of the United States Men’s Soccer Team that would travel to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. His name was on the list.

Packer had just finished the final season of his record-breaking career as a Penn State’s men’s soccer player. While playing for legendary coach Bill Jeffrey, Packer helped the Nittany Lions to two national championships. Along the way, he scored 53 goals, a program record that stood until 1995.

Although he had shown flashes of greatness during high school, it was coming to play for Jeffrey at Penn State that had sparked Packer’s ascent to a national team member.

“Bill Jeffrey had a track record since the’ 20s. He recruited guys from the all-New York and all-Philadelphia teams,” Packer said. “[He] was a big draw.”

When Packer arrived at Penn State as a freshman in 1952, Jeffrey was already a well-established soccer legend. The Scotland native led his Nittany Lions to a 65-game unbeaten streak from 1932 to 1941 and was one of the founding members of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

After honing his skills under Jeffrey’s tutelage, Packer received an invitation to try out for the Olympic team that would travel to Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics. He participated in tryouts in Philadelphia and New York and was later one of 150 players invited to St. Louis to play in a tournament to decide who would make the final cut.

Packer (bottom, left) and his teammates pose for a photo to represent their 18 straight wins over the course of the 1954-55 seasons. (Image courtesy of Dick Packer)

After the tryout, Packer flew to Newark to catch a train back to State College, only to find out he had a bit of a wait ahead of him. He landed late in the evening and his bus back wouldn’t be leaving until morning.

The night wasn’t all bad, though — he found out that his tryout had been successful from the paper that landed on him. Little did Packer know, there was another Nittany Lion who would be on the team with him.

Ron Coder had a bit of a different soccer experience than Packer did at Penn State. He arrived in State College as a star pole vaulter on the track team in 1947 and had no previous experience playing soccer competitively in high school.

The young track star began to take a liking to the game towards the end of his sophomore year, playing it with friends in an intramural league. This was when Jeffrey took notice and approached Coder with an offer.

“‘How’d you like to play soccer? I like the way you use your feet,'” Coder recalls Jeffrey asking him after one of his games.

That was all it took for Coder to join the team and, with some work over the summer, he was suddenly the starting goalkeeper for the Nittany Lions. Before his first game, Coder remembers Jeffrey giving him some simple advice.

“Can you catch the ball?” Jeffrey asked. “Go over there and stop everything that comes at you.”

Coder went on to have extremely successful junior and senior seasons. The Nittany Lions won national championships in 1950 and 1951 as they dominated the college soccer landscape.

When he graduated in the spring of 1951, Coder enlisted in the Air Force and spent four years as a tanker pilot. He joined the Armed Forces Soccer team in 1955 as its starting goalkeeper, traveling to different countries and taking on teams from around the world.

Coder said his fondest memory of his time on the team was playing against England’s Royal Air Force squad, which had three future Olympians on its roster. Despite the seemingly lopsided game, the Americans took down the British 3-1.

After playing well for the armed forces team, Coder attracted attention in the United States and earned himself a spot on the 1956 Olympic roster.

Before the Olympic games in Australia, the State Department decided to send the Olympic squad on a two-month trip around the planet, playing games and becoming what Packer describes as “soccer ambassadors for the US.” Their goal was to be successful enough that the game would begin to take hold back home. But of course, the priority remained winning a gold medal in a few months in Melbourne.

Two Nittany Lions were now confirmed members of the Olympic team. Coder was four years removed from college and serving in the Air Force, while Packer had just graduated and also enlisted as an Air Force officer after spending time in Penn State’s ROTC program. This was enough of a connection for the pair to become roommates during the team’s several-month exhibition match tour of the globe.

The Americans made stops in China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and several Australian cities before finally arriving in Melbourne.

Packer in his uniform at the Summer Olympics in Melbourne. (Courtesy of Dick Packer)

The Americans unfortunately only played one game in those 1956 Olympics, losing to Yugoslavia 9-1 in the first game of what was then a single-elimination tournament. The young American amateurs struggled against Yugoslavia’s group of professionals who eventually lost the championship match against Russia. Neither Packer nor Coder played in the match.

Both Nittany Lions were nursing injuries that they had sustained in pre-Olympic matches. Coder had broken his ankle in the final minutes of a match in Hong Kong just a few weeks before competition began in Melbourne. Despite it being the game that would knock him out of the Olympics, the goalkeeper remembers it fondly.

“It was an exciting match to be a part of,” Coder said. “The Chinese crowd was fun to play in front of, they were supportive of both sides.”

Even though the pair didn’t play in Melbourne, they both have a long list of memories from their Olympic adventure. Some of the most notable experiences of the trip were their encounters with other famous Olympians.

“Jesse Owens and Bill Russell were both there,” Packer said. “[We] all ate together in the dining hall, so that was wonderful. All of these star athletes that you read about, and you’re now sitting with them and chatting across a dinner table.”

Packer recalled walking right up Russell and introducing himself like it was no big deal. “Hey, Bill! I’m Dick,” Packer remembers saying, “Could I get a photograph of you, please?”

Both Packer and Coder clearly made memories that have lasted a lifetime at those Summer Olympics. The pair both continued on in the Air Force after their soccer careers, eventually taking other career paths after their service but staying connected to the game.

When he settled in Connecticut, Packer started a soccer camp in 1978 with former New York Giants placekicker and Hungarian soccer legend Pete Gogolak. “Packer Soccer Camps” entered its 41st year of existence this summer.

Coder stayed close to Penn State athletics. His son, also named Ron, went on to play five seasons in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Cardinals after playing football for Penn State.

Despite the fact that both men have traveled far and accomplished much, they haven’t forgotten their Happy Valley soccer careers or the value of timing. This was clear when Packer discussed his 53 career goals record. He made it clear that all of the success he had as a Nittany Lion was a team effort.

“I give all the credit to my teammates,” Packer said. “Kicking a goal is fun, but you have to work hard to get into the right position to score, and all of my teammates were in the right place at the right time. They deserve all of those goals and accomplishments just as much as I do.”

Your ad blocker is on.

Please choose an option below.

Sign up for our e-mail newsletter:
Support quality journalism:
Purchase a Subscription!

About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

Penn State Planning $40.4 Million Renovations To Former Art Museum Building

The renovations would aim to create general purpose classrooms after the Palmer Museum was moved to the Arboretum.

Ace Baldwin Jr. Confirms Return To Penn State Hoops For Fifth Year

Baldwin was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year during his first year in Happy Valley.

Bill Pickle’s Tap Room Undergoing Renovations, Will Reopen In Early June

The bar will debut its new barbecue menu upon reopening.