The Oviedo-Winter Springs community lost a soccer luminary this year, but his family’s legacy on local fields – now three generations deep – continues to play on
Soccer – or football, as it is called across the pond – has been a part of Melanie Brown’s life for as long as she can remember. Her father, Mike Balson, played the sport professionally in his native England as well as South Africa and the United States. She watched him on the soccer field as a player, coach, and referee. She also watched her younger brother play when the family lived in South Africa, and when Melanie moved to Atlanta at age nine, she played recreational soccer – on a boys’ team.
Years later, when Melanie moved to Oviedo with husband Scott Brown, she never intended to steer her children toward soccer. But sometimes you can’t control fate. All three Brown children are soccer players, and they have all excelled in the sport: Sydney, 20, is a sophomore on the University of Central Florida’s women’s soccer team; Sierra, 17, is a senior on Oviedo High School’s girls’ team; and Maddox, 15, is a freshman on Oviedo’s boys’ team.
“Soccer has always been a part of my life,” Melanie says. “But with my children, I always encouraged them to play other sports. My daughters started out in ballet, dance, and gymnastics. But I think maybe it’s just in their blood.”
Before Melanie’s dad passed away on May 30 at the age of 71, he shared many proud moments watching his grandchildren play the sport he loved. For the last 12 years of his life, Mike battled dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head traumas. Mike and his wife, Julia, moved to the Oviedo-Winter Springs area in 2013 to be closer to their family, after living in Atlanta for 34 years. The Balsons’ son Oliver is a youth soccer coach in North Carolina. Oliver’s daughter Zoe, 15, played recreational soccer and son Judah, 14, is a soccer and basketball player.
“Mike took so much enjoyment in watching his grandchildren play and do well,” Julia says of her late husband of 51 years. “They’ve all been very successful in club soccer, high school, and now college. All his grandchildren loved him dearly. I know they miss him. But he left a great legacy.”
That legacy goes beyond Mike’s skills on the soccer field. Born in the English seaside village of Bridport, Mike began playing professional soccer at the age of 16 while also working for his family’s famous business: RJ Balson & Son – Europe’s oldest family butchery, which has been in operation since 1515.
After playing 11 years for Exeter City, where he served as captain for more than 200 games, Mike moved his young family to South Africa, where he would lead the Highlands Park team – as a player and coach – to three national titles. During his three years as a coach, he introduced multiracial soccer to South Africa, which was still in the grips of apartheid.
In 1979, media mogul Ted Turner lured Mike to the United States to play for his Atlanta Chiefs in the now-defunct North American Soccer League. After the league folded, the Balsons remained in Atlanta, and Mike continued to make his mark in the soccer community. He coached at Georgia State University, briefly came out of retirement to play for the Georgia Generals and Tampa Bay Rowdies, and started Mike Balson’s Soccer Academy in Lilburn, Georgia, where he opened the first indoor soccer facility in the Southeast.
Mike was also a highly regarded referee. He twice worked the NCAA Division I Men’s Final Four college soccer tournament and worked the 1999 NCAA Division I Women’s Championship game. He has been inducted into several Halls of Fame as both a player and referee. Mike also penned a handbook, Soccer-Helpful Tips for Coaches, Parents, and Players, and wrote a soccer column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.
“Mike was a humble man,” Julia says. “He didn’t care about accolades for himself. His main focus was the development of soccer in this country, for parents, coaches, and players. Mike did everything he could for the game of soccer – the game he loved since he was a child.”
For Mike’s granddaughter Sydney Brown, the only Seminole County player on UCF’s roster, her grandfather’s legacy is never far from her mind when she takes the field for the Knights.
“He always loved watching us play,” says Sydney, who helped Oviedo High win state championships in 2016 and 2017. “I think about him all the time. I just want to play like him. Everyone always said he played with a lot of heart, and he didn’t play for himself – he played for his teammates. It’s strange, but I think God had a plan for all of us, and it started with my granddad.”
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