That's so NASL: The time the Chicago Sting decided to draft a Playboy Bunny

All publicity was good publicity for the old NASL. Unfortunately, that meant the occasional stunt.

Quite satisfied with his team’s five selections in the opening three rounds of the 1976 North American Soccer League college draft that Jan. 14, Chicago Sting and general manager Jim Walker decided to shake things up, make some history and get the second-year soccer team some publicity.

When the Sting's turn came around in the fourth round, Walker announced Chicago's selection on the conference call.

"Marilyn Lange, forward; Hawaii," he said matter-of-factly.

Silence.

Commissioner Phil Woosman, who was on the line, made Walker repeat that name five times.

"What was the first name? What was the last name? How do you spell the first name?" Woosnam asked,

Dallas Tornado general manager Dick Berg then spoke up. "It's a girl!" he exclaimed.

"As if we just had a baby," Walker remembered, adding that "Phil said something like, 'We're not going to make a joke of this.'

"He was pretty pissed, actually.”

That’s how Lange became the first woman selected in a draft by a U.S. professional soccer team that day. Oh, and Lange also happened to be the 1975 Playboy Playmate of the Year.

Woosnam certainly could not have been peeved about the attention the publicity-starved league received from that news. Instead of being relegated to a paragraph in most newspapers, this draft received unprecedented publicity. Many papers published a short story and a picture of Lange with an NASL ball. In Zander Hollander's 1976 “The Complete Handbook of Soccer,” Lange was the only draftee pictured with a rundown of the draft.

Few fans remember that Brown University midfielder Steve Ralbovsky, the MAC Hermann Trophy winner, was the first player taken in that draft by the Los Angeles Aztecs.

While playing was the longest of longshots, the Sting was had hoped to use Lange in promotions.

"Marilyn has a soccer background in Hawaii," Walker said then. "Women are becoming more and more involved in pro sports.

"As for signing her, we'll sit down and talk and see what develops."

The 23-year-old Lange realized her limitations. "I've seen the Sting. There's all guys on that team. We practiced three times a week and played our games on weekend," she told reporters. "But that was girls. I wouldn't want to play against the guys the Sting play. They're too rough.”

Actually, Lange already had a relationship with the Sting, taking the ceremonial kickoff in May 1975 for a game against the Aztecs at Soldier Field. After every game the team would have a post-match party with players, their wives, club officials and fans at McCormick Place.

"She showed up at the games," Walker said. "She wasn't like a celebrity at all. She was real friendly."

That positive experience gave the Sting an idea.

"When the draft thing came up, her name popped up and it was kind of a natural thing because we also had her come out and take pictures with our team in our uniform, taking the ball," Walker said. "I think there was a shot of her and [head coach] Bill Foulkes in a magazine, maybe Time magazine, may have carried [that] picture."

Lange was born on Jan. 12, 1952 (she turns 65 on Thursday, the day of the National Women's Soccer League college draft in Los Angeles) and was raised in Westfield, N.J. She admitted she was a bit introverted.

Six months after graduating from high school, Lange married a rock musician but eventually got divorced. While living in Hawaii, she took up soccer. When she visited Chicago, her boyfriend, Kip Palmer, convinced her to model for Playboy.

Not only was she the Playmate of the Month for May 1974, Lange was selected as Playmate of the Year, earning $10,000, a Porsche 911 and a Kawasaki 100 motorcycle.

Lange never got an opportunity to work for the Sting.

A week after the draft, Tim Weigel, a sportscaster for the Chicago WNBC affiliate (Channel 5), interviewed Walker about the team's unique selection.

"She was very excited and said this was the first time she's ever been drafted," Walker told Weigel on a taped segment.

The station, however, decided to bleep the word drafted, leaving it to the viewer's imagination.

"What is so cheap and disgusting is that NBC Sports bleeped the word 'drafted,' implying that Marilyn had said something censorable," a Playboy spokesman told the Chicago Tribune.

To which an executive at the TV station replied, "Weigel was just trying to have some fun."

It was no fun for the Sting or Playboy, which banned Lange from participating with the team.

"The lady we were dealing with was really mad," Walker said. "She said, 'We're not going to cooperate any more with this as far as her having her do appearances."

The Sting had no way of contacting Lange after her contractual obligations with Playboy were completed.

Not much is known about Lange after that as she shied away from publicity. A Playboy Enterprises spokesperson said the organization did not have any contact information.

As it turned out, Lange wasn't the only woman taken in the draft that day. Defending champion Tampa Bay Rowdies made B.J. Woodward of the University of North Carolina the 80th and final pick of the draft. Because of her initials -- her name is Betty Jo – no one originally suspected Woodward was a woman.

Tampa had an unofficial scout on the East Coast, Dr. John McKeon, who had coached at East Stroudsburg and searched for college players -- men and women.

"We thought it would make sense for us to counteract what the Sting did with a legitimate female player that will not be embarrassed to come to training camp and that will get a lot of publicity," said Francisco Marcos, who was vice president of player personnel and public relations. "We knew that she was a real player at the time."

In 1976, the Tar Heels had a soccer club and not a team, and were three years away from Anson Dorrance becoming coach and directing North Carolina to the first of its 21 NCAA championships in 1982. Title XI, created in 1972, was still in its infancy.

Unlike Lange, Woodward got an opportunity to train with the Rowdies several weeks later.

"She did not embarrass herself in any means," Marcos said. "She could play. Could she play against guys in those days that were very physical by comparison today? Different story. I remember she pretty sure took home one of the original Rowdies jerseys, with a name on the back because we wanted it to be memorable."

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