Erroll Bennett: Tahitian Soccer Star


His Courage Changed the Rules

“Are you crazy?” Erroll Bennett’s father raged when he heard of his son’s intention to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Have you gone mad? You’ll have to give up everything—everything you’ve worked for. You can’t possibly know what you’re doing!”

Waving aside his son’s protestations, he insisted: “If you do this, I don’t want to know you. Take everything in this house that belongs to you and don’t ever set foot across this door again.”

It was not the first time, of course, that deep parental misgivings have been a barrier to embracing the gospel. But there was more to this opposition than objections to new religious doctrines. For Erroll Bennett, joining the Church could well mean the end of his spectacularly successful career as the top soccer star in Tahiti.

Soccer in that South Pacific island has something of the flavour of the sport in South America or parts of Europe. It has by far the largest following of any sport in Tahiti, and its fans virtually live for the game. Its champions become national superheroes. At age 27, Erroll Bennett had already won that place of honour as captain of the premier team of the Tahitian Honours Division. His was truly a household name, and there was every sign that his reign at the top would be a long one. His slight, five-foot nine-inch frame gave no hint of his dominant presence on the field. Moreover, his ready smile and quiet manner seemed totally at odds with the banner headlines in Tahitian newspapers: “Bennett, Terror of the Stadium”; “Bennett without Pity”; “Bennett: Top Scorer of Tournament.”

Driving with his wife to his parents’ home that evening in 1977, pondering how he would break the news, Erroll reflected on the recent events that had begun to change his life so dramatically.

Since sport in Tahiti is not professional, Erroll had been working during the day as a police officer in the Tahitian capital of Papeete. A friend in the Financial Department of the city government had first introduced him to the Church. The friend was Lysis Terooatea, who was serving as bishop of Papeete Tahiti Stake’s Third Ward when he invited the footballer and his wife over for a family home evening.

The Bennetts had enjoyed the evening and were touched by the film they had seen—“Man’s Search for Happiness.” Return invitations followed, and the Bennetts felt their interest deepening. As Brother Bennett was to recall later: “The bishop explained the principles of the gospel with great clarity. My wife and I both felt deeply the need to be baptized.”

But that decision had come as a bombshell to Erroll’s soccer club, Central, riding high at the head of the Honours Division—and it had nothing whatever to do with religious intolerance. All soccer games in Tahiti, as in many other places in the South Pacific, were played on Sundays. And if there was one thing the club officials knew about Mormons, it was that they had other things to do on Sundays than play sport. The club had already seen promising young players drop out of Sunday football after becoming members of the Church. Erroll Bennett’s decision to become a Latter-day Saint would almost certainly spell the end of his soccer career.

They were right about the Sundays. Erroll was already saying that if he was baptised he would no longer participate in Sunday games. The Church would come first—even before his beloved soccer. In desperation, Central Club and football league president Napoléon Spitz—an immensely powerful and influential figure in Tahitian sport—had telephoned Papeete Stake President Victor D. Cave, now Regional Representative. Wasn’t there some way, he asked, that the stake president could make a special dispensation to allow Erroll to play on Sundays? After all, this wasn’t just a football game, but a matter of national pride.

The president’s reply was polite, but to the point. “You must ask Erroll, and let him speak for himself. It is his decision to be baptized, and he will tell you how he feels.”

Yet none of this pressure had been as difficult to cope with as the prospect of facing his own father, whom he loved and respected deeply, and who was passionately proud of his son’s sporting accomplishments.

To hear Brother Bennett recreate the scene today is to recognise that the experience touched him deeply. He had always been close to his parents, but now his father was adamant. “You have erected a wall between us. I want no more to do with you.” And, he added, he would not want to see his son’s third child—the baby his wife was then expecting.

Erroll and his wife left his parents’ home that evening in tears, desperately unhappy, yet knowing they could not reject the gospel. The depth of their conviction would now have to prove equal to whatever pressures were brought to bear.

Erroll’s first action, though he still was not a member, was to seek out his friend, Bishop Terooatea, for counsel. The footballer fondly recalls how the bishop listened, then urged Erroll to make the first step in reconciliation, to put aside the question of baptism until he had made this final attempt. He then explained the principle of priesthood blessings and of how priesthood authority could be used to help him.

That evening, Erroll received a priesthood blessing for the first time, with longtime LDS friend and fellow soccer enthusiast Noel Tarati acting as voice. Brother Tarati quietly promised Erroll that the difficult problem would be resolved, and that his father would receive him if he returned, even though some strong things had been said.

The next day, Erroll again drove out to his father’s home. As he approached the house, he could see his father standing by the gate to the front garden. There were tears in his eyes. “I want you to forgive me, Erroll,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep last night for thinking about it. If you hadn’t come here first, I would have come to you.”

Then he continued: “You know that thousands of people will be disappointed in you. It will mean the end of your career if you won’t play on Sundays. You know that Napoléon Spitz isn’t going to change the entire football league schedule just to accommodate you. Still, this is your decision. All I ask is that you don’t raise the subject again. It’s closed.”

Although the relationship between Erroll and his father today is as close as it ever was, pressure from both sides of the family was to continue right up to the day of the scheduled baptism. “I remember my feelings on that day,” Brother Bennett now says, rolling his r’s in the characteristic Tahitian French. “We had gone through a lot of pressure, and we knew what we had to do. Yet somehow I felt I needed a final confirmation, a last indication from the Lord that all was well and that we should proceed.

“I remember going up the side of the mountain near my home where I like to jog, and privately pouring out my feelings to my Heavenly Father. I asked for confirmation, perhaps some message that I was about to take the right step. Halfway down the mountain on the way home, I offered the same prayer again.

“As I drew near my home, there was a car parked outside. It belonged to Gabriel Vaianui, a member who had been inactive for about ten years, attending church only intermittently. Gabriel had been at the market and had overheard someone say that Erroll Bennett had decided not to join the Mormon Church after all. He had then driven over to my home immediately to find out for himself.”

Erroll recognised Brother Vaianui as the messenger he had sought and promptly asked him, “Gabriel, should I be baptised today?” Without hesitation, the answer came: “Erroll, whatever you do, you must be baptised. Do not turn your back on the Church.”

Brother Bennett now speaks gratefully of Gabriel Vaianui’s counsel. “It was just what I needed—that little extra to give me the courage I lacked.”

The baptisms went ahead as scheduled, and afterwards Erroll Bennett had time to think. No one called from the soccer club with congratulations or criticism, and by the end of that quiet evening he had made his decision. It was no good agonizing over an elusive compromise, and there was little point in training if he wasn’t going to play on Sundays. The following day he would talk to Napoléon Spitz and withdraw from active soccer, leaving his position open to some other hopeful.

Mr. Spitz’s reaction was a surprising one. “Hold off for a few days,” he said. “Wait until after the meeting of the league later this week.”

When Erroll heard the news a few days later, he could hardly believe it. Napoléon Spitz had advised league officials that the Central club had decided not to play on Sundays. Mr. Spitz explained that playing on Sundays was preventing team players from being with their families, and that it was an unacceptable practice. Whatever other league teams wanted to do, Central would not play on Sundays.

A vote was then called for, and the decision was unanimous. From now on, all Honours Division games would be played on weekday evenings.

Michel Ferrand, senior sports writer for the Tahitian daily newspaper La Dépêche, attended the meeting as a delegate of another club, and remembers it well. He smilingly recalls: “Of course, we all knew the real reasons for the requested change. Napoléon Spitz was addressing the meeting as a delegate of Central. He offered some good reasons why we should all make the change—pressure on players and on their families and so on—but I guess everyone in the room knew that it was Erroll Bennett’s joining the Mormon Church that prompted it all.”

Mr. Ferrand says the players themselves seemed happy to go along with the new arrangements, though the public reaction was mixed. “It’s not easy to change a long-standing tradition,” he says. “People had been going to Sunday soccer for years and now suddenly it was to be switched to weeknights. Some of the sports writers were a little unhappy with it, but criticism was fairly subdued. You have to remember that Erroll Bennett is enormously popular in Tahiti. No sports writer is going to be outspokenly critical of a national hero!”

Since Erroll Bennett’s baptism in 1977, all twelve top clubs in the Tahitian Honours Division have played their games midweek. It has now become such an established practice that it is unlikely to change even if Erroll retires or leaves the game. Mr. Ferrand, who is also executive secretary of the College La Mennais, the largest private Catholic college in Tahiti, welcomes the change.

“Personally, I feel it’s a good thing,” he says. “If it contributes to a more sacred Sunday, so much the better.”

No one is suggesting that soccer enthusiasts now flock to churches on Sundays instead of to a game. Yet besides making a point for the sanctity of the Sabbath, the changes prompted by Erroll Bennett’s baptism five years ago seem also to have had a positive effect on Tahitian soccer itself. Napoléon Spitz, a man who has observed the repercussions as closely as anyone, is unhesitating in his response:

“There’s no doubt the players prefer playing on weeknights,” he says. “They have discovered that they like being with their families on Sundays. They appear to be better rested, they practice better and they play better. The public may have been uncertain at first, but I believe there is no doubt now that they value the extra freedom they have on Sundays to do what they want to do with their families. All of us have benefitted.”

Brother Bennett’s no-Sunday play rule has meant that in the past five years, Erroll has missed only two games held in Tahiti—both were played on a Sunday, and both were in 1977. The first was the day following his baptism—before the historic meeting of the league to change days. The second game was the final of the Tahiti Cup—an open competition for all 112 clubs in Tahiti. Napoléon Spitz says it was just too complicated, with short notice, in that first year to switch the cup final to another day. The following year, however, and every year since, the Tahitian Cup has been kept off Sundays—because of Erroll Bennett.

Erroll Bennett’s stand on a matter of principle would have been remarkable enough if it had ended there. Yet his conviction was to be tested over and over again during the next few years. And again, Napoléon Spitz was to figure prominently throughout.

The island of Tahiti claims the bulk of the 150,000 people who make up the scattered population of French Polynesia—a self-governing French territory which elects its own members to the French parliament. Since it is a French territory and not an independent nation, Tahiti cannot enter its soccer teams in the World Cup or the Olympic Games. However, it does have a right to compete in the South Pacific Games, held every four years.

In the South Pacific Games held in Suva, Fiji, in 1979, Erroll Bennett’s strong stand on the sanctity of Sunday was to have remarkable consequences.

In the preliminary discussions with the Fijians, in the months before the games, Napoléon Spitz had anticipated that the Sunday issue might again present a problem. He was right. The Fijians scheduled the soccer final on Sunday, and the issue was still unresolved when the Tahitian athletic delegation arrived in Suva, with Napoléon Spitz at its head.

In fact, the Sunday issue was not new to the games. Tonga and Samoa had raised objections in previous years, also on religious grounds, but had not managed to force a change. In 1979, however, things were to be different.

Napoléon Spitz was well-prepared. Armed with a half-forgotten and long-neglected clause in the South Pacific Games Constitution, he pointed out that the rules actually prohibited Sunday games and that he would insist they be applied.

“The soccer games were taken off Sundays,” he now relates. “There was no way I could have accepted Erroll not playing, and since he wouldn’t play on a Sunday, that was the only alternative. I remember they agreed to move the basketball games from Sunday also, because there were five Mormon basketball players in the Tahitian group.” And his face breaks into a wide smile as he adds: “You Mormons have created a real mess in South Pacific sports!”

After months of negotiations, the 1979 games finally arrived. The Tahitian soccer team, led by its LDS captain, won its quarter-finals match against the New Hebrides (now the independent nation of Vanuatu), after it was switched from Sunday to Monday. Tahiti followed it with a semifinals win against New Caledonia—and then climaxed the series with a finals win over Fiji.

One might picture Erroll Bennett as stubborn, perhaps even smug over the lengths people go to accommodate him and his extraordinary ability. But his demeanour displays no such attitude. He responds to questions quietly, even shyly. His boyish grin belies the fact that he is a deep thinker with a profound commitment to matters of principle. It is probably this quality that has endeared him to such strong-minded community leaders as Napoléon Spitz and has earned him the respect of his teammates.

The earnestness of Erroll’s feelings for the sanctity of the Sabbath is beyond question. When he says he would rather pull out of a key game than kick a soccer ball on the Lord’s day, he means exactly that. This fact has been visibly demonstrated on several occasions when he has missed important games with international teams because of his religious convictions. Invariably, those games have been located outside of Tahiti, where the host nation has the right to arrange the schedule, and where they have seen no advantage in accommodating the visiting Tahitian team.

One of the most telling of these experiences occurred in 1978, in competition for the coveted France Cup—a trophy sought by soccer clubs throughout France and its territories. Since the Tahitian football league is affiliated with the Fédération Francaise de Football, Tahitian teams also vie for the France Cup.

By a long-standing arrangement, two top clubs from Tahiti, together with two leading teams from the French-administered territory of New Caledonia, play off to see which South Pacific club will travel to France to compete against the French professionals in the annual France Cup competition. The play-off locations alternate each year between Tahiti and New Caledonia.

In 1978, Erroll’s club, Central, qualified for the local play-off with the New Caledonians, but it was to be played outside of Tahiti and the final was fixed for a Sunday. Not even the persuasive talents of Napoléon Spitz could get the New Caledonians to move the game to another day. And so, as he had the previous year after leading his team to the Tahiti Cup finals, Erroll stayed away from the game. While his teammates spent that Sunday morning preparing for the all-important clash later that day, Erroll went to Church. When the whistle signalled kick-off, Central’s captain was alone, back in his hotel room.

“I’ll never forget that day,” he recalls. “Towards the end of the match I had the strongest feeling that things weren’t going well. I wondered whether it would be right to pray to the Lord about a soccer game, but I knew He was aware of my situation and that I had tried to do what was right. Finally, I knelt and asked the Lord to help my team players do their best.”

Erroll learned later that Sabbath day that Central had been a goal down with only 60 seconds to go when the Tahitian club had equalized the score at 2–2. In the mandatory extra time that followed, Central took the winning goal. It was one of the most memorable of Central’s matches.

In 1980 Central was invited again to compete outside of Tahiti against New Caledonia in the France Cup. Erroll balked at taking part. “It was an international match,” he explains, “and it was clear that if we reached the final and it involved a Sunday game, there would be bad feeling if I pulled out. I suggested it would be fairer to all concerned if I let someone else take my place. But Mr. Spitz wouldn’t hear of it. He talked the New Caledonians into playing on a Saturday.” Erroll took the winning goal in a 4–3 score.

Since Tahitian sport is not professional, it would be easy to dismiss the French Polynesians as insignificant in terms of international soccer. But in fact the opposite is the case. Almost 25 percent of the population are paid-up members of sporting clubs. Tahiti is at or near the top of the list of the fourteen South Pacific nations and territories that play soccer, in terms of skill, tactics, and endurance. And Erroll Bennett, as the embodiment of Tahiti’s soccer successes, has already seen his influence extend far beyond his own shores.

Brother Bennett likes to recount a conversation he had with a newspaper reporter during the South Pacific Games of 1979. Intrigued over the Tahitian captain’s refusal to play on the Sabbath, the journalist sought an interview. During the discussion, he asked, “Who is the person, alive today, that you admire most?”

“He sat back and waited for me to answer,” Brother Bennett recalls. “I guess he expected me to name some outstanding athlete. Instead, I told him the man I admired most was eighty-three-year-old Spencer W. Kimball, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I said I wanted to shake his hand one day. The rest of the interview was mainly about the Church!”

Erroll Bennett did eventually shake President Kimball’s hand. On 13 February 1981, the president visited Tahiti to break ground for the Tahitian Temple. Assigned to assist in handling security for the Church leader was Erroll Bennett.

Today, Brother Bennett, 32 and the father of five, is still at the top of Tahitian soccer. Shelf space in the lounge room of his home in suburban Papeete is occupied by a dazzling array of trophies. He has been the top scorer in Tahiti every year for the past ten years.

It is intriguing to observe the effect Brother Bennett’s courage has had on the image of the Church in the islands. Mission President C. Jay Larson has not been slow to use Brother Bennett in Church meetings attended by investigators. Jean Tefan, recently released public communications director for the Tahiti Region, muses: “Of course, not all people agree with the Church’s stand on the sanctity of the Sabbath. But I believe it’s fair to say they respect us for it. Many admire the fact that there are people who are still prepared to stand up for a principle. And there are countless Tahitians today—not only footballers themselves, but thousands of their supporters—who are now with their families on Sundays instead of at a game because of the character of a Latter-day Saint.”

Perhaps the most important question still remains. Why was a man with the stature of Napoléon Spitz willing to go to such extraordinary lengths to back Erroll on the Sabbath issue, when he did not share the player’s religious conviction? What did this president of the powerful Comité Territorial des Sports, this president of the Football League of French Polynesia and recently elected first vice president of the French Polynesian legislative assembly, see in Erroll Bennett that he so admired?

“For Erroll, I knew that it was a matter of deep religious conviction, and I respected him for it,” Mr. Spitz says. Then, as he leans back in his chair in his political office in the Assembly building, he adds with feeling:

“Erroll Bennett is more than just a soccer player. I believe he is the greatest Tahitian soccer star of all time—as a player, his attitude and his spirit mark him as a great man. If he had these qualities before he became a Mormon, he has them to an even greater degree now. Not once in his career has he ever been cautioned for bad behaviour.”

No one knows how much longer Erroll Bennett will be playing soccer. He could still be at the top five years from now. Yet one senses that an honourable retirement may not be too far distant. In the division of the Papeete Tahiti Stake on June 20 this year, Erroll’s former bishop, Lysis Terooatea, was called to preside over the new Pirae Tahiti Stake, and Erroll was called as a member of the stake high council. True to form, high council meetings come before practice sessions. For his part, Napoléon Spitz is hopeful that Erroll can keep going until the South Pacific Games scheduled for Apia, Samoa, in 1983.

Of his own life in the past hectic five years—of the pressures he has faced, the principles he has stood for, and the lives he has touched—Erroll Bennett says simply: “I’ve been truly blessed.”

[photos] Photography by Michael Otterson

[photos] Erroll Bennett and family with a few of his many trophies. Below: Part of Erroll Bennett’s duties in law enforcement include agricultural inspection.

[photos] A jubilant Erroll Bennett after an important victory. Newspaper headlines proclaim him as “king of tournament players” and “terror of the stadium.”

Michael Otterson, director of Church Public Communications for Australia-New Guinea, New Zealand-Fiji-Tahiti, was recently released from the Sydney Australia Mission presidency; he is the father of seven children.