Milan Keser was all about soccer, and so much more

Milan Keser poses with his plaque after being inducted into the Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame in 2009. (Photo courtesy of the Southeast Soccer Club)
Milan Keser poses with his plaque after being inducted into the Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame in 2009. (Photo courtesy of the Southeast Soccer Club)

East Lyme — The last time I saw him, I wasn't there to interview Milan Keser, just to visit. And yet Keser, although physically diminished by illness, was in full story-telling mode.

He started at the beginning.

Keser remembered holding hands with his younger sister, Anka, in a Croatian concentration camp in 1943. Anka, just two and a half years old at the time, perished in the camp. Two years his sister's senior, Keser was spared.

And so he dedicated his life to honoring her.

“You need something to push you in life,” Keser said that day at his Niantic home, leaning back from time to time when he grew weary of talking. “To me, it was my sister.”

Milan Keser, who immigrated to the United States from his native Yugoslavia in 1959 and would later serve as the first coach of the East Lyme High School girls' soccer team in 1991 — always with Anka in the forefront of his mind — died Friday at the age of 79, following his long and determined fight with cancer.

How to describe his life except for impactful?

Keser and his wife Karen happily raised three sons, Milan Jr. (Sonny), Adam and Aleksander. He earned his Ph.D in plant science from the University of Maine and was the supervisor of the Millstone Environmental Laboratory for 32 years.

He earned induction into the Westfield State University Sports Hall of Fame, the Southeast Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame, the Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame, the Connecticut Girls' Soccer Coaches' Association Hall of Fame and earlier this fall he was given the Outstanding Service Award by the UConn men's soccer team at their season-opening banquet.

The soccer field at Niantic's Bridebrook Park was renamed Milan Keser Field in 2002.

At East Lyme, Keser won 143 games and six Eastern Connecticut Conference championships in 11 seasons, reaching the Class M state championship game in 1998.

“No matter what you talked to Milan about, he always gave you good advice,” said former Waterford High School girls' soccer coach Rob Brule, who coached against Keser and then later served with him as colleagues with the Southeast Soccer Club.

“There's very few people that had an impact on my life as much as he had. You could talk to him about politics, nuclear power, the environment. He always seemed to give me really good advice in what I should and shouldn't do. He's like a father — parents don't just give you the good advice, right?

“It empties my heart to know he's no longer with me or us. … I loved him. I did tell him I loved him.”

Brule paused for a moment to laugh at his early recollections of coaching against Keser, whose histrionics in heavily accented English could be a source of amusement from time to time.

(My favorite Keser coaching story came on a day he needed at least a tie at Killingly to secure the ECC title. Regulation ended in a tie, at which point Keser collected his team and boarded the bus. Killingly coach Hank Rivers, meanwhile, normally mild-mannered, thought there should be overtime and virtually chased Keser to the bus. My memory has the bus pulling away, just as Keser uttered these words to Rivers: “Too dark.”)

Brule was 25 years old when he first became Waterford's varsity coach.

“Those were the days,” Brule said. “Him and I were two highly competitive coaches. I didn't want anyone to lose more than him. But as much as I couldn't stand playing against him because he was so competitive, I love that he was so competitive.”

Keser brought the idea of an East Lyme Sports Hall of Fame to fruition in 2013. It's one hall of fame to which Keser doesn't belong; he vehemently refused election to focus on others.

East Lyme softball coach Judy Deeb was a member of the hall of fame committee along with Keser.

“He was a lot different being on the committee than watching him coach on the sideline,” Deeb said with a laugh. “He was very compassionate. You could tell that his ex-players really adored him.

“We met two or three times (at the beginning). We tried to pull it together. It's a little different; we have athletes, coaches, townspeople. It's kind of neat. Pete (Walker) and John McDonald (both former major league baseball players who are in the East Lyme Hall of Fame) gave us their jerseys and they're hanging in the library now. There's pictures at the community center, one in town hall, so people from around town can observe and read about it.

“You know what, it was because of (Keser) that we have this.”

It was because of Keser that we have a lot of things, really, which makes me think that even though his story's over, we're certainly not finished telling it for him, preserving Anka's memory and now his.

It's the least we can do.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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