“One time they asked me if I want to coach kids' teams, but they couldn’t pay me,” Chiu said. “I don’t do that for the money, but for the satisfaction – doing something for the community.”
When Chiu was dating his wife, Sylvia, they would run into former players. He would say to her, “This is my boy, this is my other boy.”
“She thought, 'Oh, my.' She said, “How many boys do you have?” I said, ‘Hundreds of them,’” Chiu recalled.
Chiu came from Guatemala to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1969 and moved to Johnson City a few years later. He worked at Kennametal until he retired in 1997. He always worked third shift so he could coach soccer during the day.
He teamed up with Johnson City Parks and Recreation to help start a youth soccer league in the Tri-Cities, because he knew how important it was to start playing soccer at a very early age.
Chiu said they started the league in 1977 with just four teams. Chiu coached one of the teams in those days.
“We did not have much, but many people teamed up with us to help the league."
– Juan Chiu
In the beginning he and his partners at Parks and Recreation faced many obstacles. People did not have much interest in the sport. Eugene Gillespie, who worked for the Dr. Pepper soft-drink company, gave the league shirts that he dyed four different colors to use as jerseys.
“We did not have much, but many people teamed up with us to help the league,” said Chiu.
The teams didn’t have a regular soccer field. They played on a baseball field with tennis nets wrapped around two-by-fours as the goal. The field was near the Johnson City Housing Authority.
In the housing project, Chiu came across a 7-year-old boy who was chewing tobacco.
“At that time, I didn’t know much about chewing tobacco,” Chiu said. “I said ‘What are you doing?’ He said to me, ‘Chewing tobacco.’ I said, ‘Why do you do that?’ [He said,] ‘Because I like it.’ I said, ‘How can you afford to buy it?’ [He said,] ‘My mama gave me money to buy it.’ Seven years old! I said to him, ‘Right! And your daddy? Your daddy can't say anything?’ He said, ‘No, he’s in jail.’
“After a few minutes I asked, ‘Do you like to play soccer?’ He said, ‘Yes, I’d love it.’”
Chiu asked him: “Do you want to come every day?” and the boy said “yes.”
Chiu then said, “I go take you home and I bring you back every day on one condition. That I don’t want to see you chewing tobacco.”
The little boy became one of the best kids Chiu coached.
“I used to go for him and take him to the games. When the season was over I didn’t see him any more,” Chiu said.
Seven years later, Chiu saw the boy again. He hugged his former coach and told his friends, “You know something? He made me quit chewing tobacco.”
“It was a good feeling. I am proud of that,” Chiu remembered.
Chui has played soccer since he was just 3 years old, and has been involved in the game just about all of his life.
He attributes much of the reason that soccer is less popular than other American sports is that kids don’t start to play at an early age, and the soccer season is a few months long as opposed to all year round, like in Guatemala.
“They really have to develop the skills they need at a young age and cannot be taking months at a time off, or they will not be as good,” said Chiu.
“We played soccer every day and did not care what the conditions outside were,” said Chiu, who turned semi-pro at 15 in Guatemala.
When Chiu retired from coaching youth soccer he said there were around 2,000 kids in the league, but says the numbers have gone down since then because in 2006 the league started charging fees for every participant.
Chiu has received many awards for his work with the youth soccer league, and one of the many leagues is named after him. Roger Blakely, Johnson City Parks and Recreation director, said the city owes a great deal to Chiu.
“Juan is a good friend, and has worked very hard to build a better community,” Blakely said.
Because of what Chiu did to help get the youth soccer league started, he was named to the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Wall of Fame.
“Juan has done a great job with all of the work he has done with Parks and Rec, and has inspired a lot of kids while doing it,” said his friend Graham Spurrier, who formerly worked for Parks and Recreation in the athletic department.
Chiu was always patient with his players, said Sandy Czuchry of Johnson City, whose son Matt, now an actor, played on one of Chiu’s soccer teams.
“He is from Guatemala, so he had the skills of a professional,” she said. “He was good at teaching the kids not just how to pass and shoot the ball, but how to play as a team.”
Today Chiu works for the Tennessee Opportunities Program, which helps migrants adapt to the United States and find opportunities for work and education. This program receives grants and contracts from state and federal agencies to provide services across the state.
Program staff also provide tutors for students who might be struggling in school, and provide homes and mentors for migrant students who might need them.
He also hosts the “Ritmo Latino” show Sunday nights on WETS-FM, the public radio station at East Tennessee State University. He agreed to do the show under a few conditions. One was he wanted the show to be live, which it was not at the time.
“Ritmo Latino” has a Latino music format, and runs for two hours starting at 7 p.m.
Chiu is retired from soccer now, but it will always remain a big part of his life. He watches games on the television every day, and even listens to the games broadcast in Spanish on the radio.
He still keeps in touch with a few of his former players and goes to youth soccer games when he can. Chiu recognizes that today, players have advantages that didn’t exist when he coached.
“Now they travel in a bus,” he said. “Now things are easy, more easy.”
Above, right: Chiu practices head shots with a young player in 1978; above left, Chiu and the Falcons, a team he coached in 1987; above, youth soccer coach Rafie Boghozian, an old friend of Chiu's, visits with him during a 2014 soccer game in Johnson City. Photo: Alex Baker.