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Bob Marley had a competitive side — and ‘the beautiful game’ helped fuel it  

Neville Garrick, Marley’s art director and friend, recalls how much soccer meant to the music legend

A lot of people don’t know that Bob Marley played the flute. That’s right — Bob Marley’s favorite instrument is the f—— flute. Why? Because, he said, when he played the flute, it cleared his lungs and he loved the sound the flute made.

Those of us who were close to him would always ask him: ‘Why don’t you play the flute on your songs?’ His answer was always, ‘Bwoy, me nuh ’tink me good enough.’ That’s how much of a perfectionist — and raw competitor — Bob was. The song ‘Africa Unite,’ which starts out with a flute intro, would have been perfect [for him to play on]. Imagine if Bob came out on any stage to that, playing the flute — he would have torn the place down.

But that was Bob; he was a perfectionist and a hard taskmaster. He expected the best from everybody and didn’t believe in ‘can’t’. He always believed you had to find a way. He didn’t want anybody coming to him with problems. He believed in fighting through and finding a way. I respected that about Bob.

The most important thing to him was people — that’s why he was so hard on the rest of us. He never wanted to disappoint his people, even though he was a man who didn’t trust too many people. That’s why he wrote ‘Who the Cap Fit’ on the Rastaman Vibration album.

At the same time, Bob wasn’t an egotist. He was comfortable finding the right people to contribute to the team. He was the frontman who would easily step to the back.

There was no stepping back with football, though. Bob loved football — or soccer, as the world calls it. Loved it to the point that if he was as good as Allan “Skill” Cole, his former tour manager who I still consider Jamaica’s best footballer, he probably would have pursued it over music. It was understandable why Bob emulated Skill Cole; back then, Skill would curve the ball, nutmeg and ‘salad’ defenders on a regular basis — nobody had ever seen that. He would break a defender down from 3 yards out because they were afraid [to get close to him]. You see that all the time now, but that was novel back in those days.

Even though Bob wasn’t a big, strong man, he was very aggressive. When he tackled, he tackled hard. When he kicked and tried to score, he kicked hard. We lost plenty of balls to Bob’s powerful foot.

Neville Garrick and Bob Marley pose for a picture after taking a break from playing soccer.

Courtesy of Neville Garrick

Bob was a midfielder who would always make overlapping runs. Because he tackled so hard, he probably would give up penalties if he played defense. On a big field, he was a very offensive-minded player, always looking for an opportunity to score.

If you saw those shots he used to take at Hope Road [where Bob lived in Kingston, Jamaica] in those little scrimmage goals, man, you would marvel. Hope Road had become a mini stadium back in the day. The field wasn’t that big. But we had some wicked three-on-three and four-on-four games there, with some big-time national team ballers who would come and play with us. We used to command big crowds.

If I was to rate ‘the Gong’ as a baller — I’m sure he’d be vexed to hear this — I would give him a 6.57 out of 10, because I grade hard. He gets that grade because of his weakness, as a player, which was also his strength. He was so aggressive and so competitive — and sometimes you can be too competitive. But, bwoy, he would run. Run for days. [Original Wailers band member] Bunny Wailer was more skillful than Bob, though; we used to call him “Fitty Fitty” because he was so fit.

Once we were in England for the Uprising Tour with [singer] Eddy Grant; he had a big tune called ‘Walking on Sunshine.’ Eddy had a bunch of brothers, three or four of them, who had an indoor team. They ended up challenging us to a game. At that time, Skill [Cole] had just returned from a three-year hiatus in Ethiopia, just before Bob got shot in 1976.

So we’re playing, and Eddy Grant’s team is just knocking the ball around us like we weren’t even there. It was me, Skill, Bob, [Bob’s percussionist] Alvin “Seeco” Patterson and [Bob’s cook] Antonio “Gilly” Gilbert. They went up on us quick — 2-0. But we didn’t know that you could use the wall basically to your advantage, to elude a defender or to play a ball around him. So Bob called timeout. We told him, ‘Bob, you can’t call timeout — this isn’t basketball,’ but they gave us a break. That was their worst mistake.

Once we understood the rules — and knew that it was allowable to use the wall — Eddy Grant and his friends got 5-2 when it was all said and done. That was just Bob; he didn’t want to lose at anything.

You couldn’t necessarily determine that a football facility would be near us, not every time, when we traveled. It was always nice to have a park or a facility nearby. But we played ‘Money Ball.’ Whenever we rented a hotel, we always rented a suite — which Bob never slept in. It was rented so that we could have a big dining room table and kitchen, because we never ate out. We cooked all of our own food.

With ‘Money Ball,’ we’d juggle the ball inside that presidential suite. And if you broke anything, you’d have to pay for it. That’s why we called the game ‘Money Ball.’

Bob Marley dribbles down field.

Adrian Boot/Fifty-Six Hope Road Music LTD.

Everyone knows the story of Bob’s injury in 1977. You hear all kinds of conspiracy theories. I see them all the time and laugh, but I was there. We played a match against some journalists in Paris that year, just walking distance from the hotel. Bob wasn’t playing in proper football boots, and a bredda tackled him. Bob’s toenail tore off as a result — not completely, but the nail was lifted up. So he stopped and told us to continue playing and went back to the hotel. I think it was hotel doctor who looked at it, and they clipped off the nail and bandaged it up.

He had a black-and-blue bruise under his big toe. Not the whole toe — just the middle part. He never complained about it. He continued to tour; if you looked it up, you’ll see shots of him performing in sandals or with mismatched shoes. But what I remember about the toe injury was [the blood] wouldn’t dry up. You know when you get a cut, after a while it dries up, so you know it’s healing.

We finished the tour and went back to America. I went with him to his mother’s house, in Delaware, after the U.S. part of that tour. We had planned to go into America with the Exodus tour, which had done well in Europe, and he went back to England — he left me at his mother’s house — to check up on the books, and also his toe. And that’s where doctors said they think he had cancer.

I was with his mother when they called to tell her the news. And then the suggestion was, ‘Come to America for a second opinion.’ The suggestion was made that he may have to amputate the toe, but Rastaman wasn’t keen on that. They never diagnosed it — they cleaned it up. I moved Mother from Delaware to Miami, and I lived with them there for about five months. We wrote plenty of tunes in the early mornings during that time.

Bob Marley relaxes in a bed alongside of a soccer ball.

Adrian Boot/Fifty-Six Hope Road Music LTD.

So we forgot about it. The toe healed; they’d patched it, and I think by Christmas of 1977 we were playing ball again, until the Central Park incident in 1980 [when Marley had a seizure that doctors would later determine was caused by a large, cancerous brain tumor]. There’s all kinds of conspiracy theories. One was that the CIA gave him some shoes that had something in it. Another one was that the FBI and CIA were watching him. I can’t support that, but I can’t doubt it, either.

The last time I saw Bob was when I went to Germany for his birthday in February [1981]. It was tough; I don’t know if it was sadness. When you get that short amount of time on Earth, it’s easy to ask, ‘Jah, what have I really done?’

I went through a divorce where my ‘other woman’ was my dedication to the whole Bob Marley experience. That’s who my other woman was — not an actual other woman. I still bear that scar. When Bob passed, they made me the executive director of the Bob Marley Foundation, and I used to travel like 60,000 miles a year representing Bob. It was an honor for me, but I eventually resigned from the foundation in order to save my marriage. They were vexed that I’d resigned, and [my wife] still divorced me, so it was like a double divorce. It cut me good.

What an honor it has been to serve Bob. I always say to people, ‘The only time you’re dead is when they speak your name no more.’ Bob is even more alive today than when he was living. That’s who you can call an icon, because everywhere I go around the world, I see Bob Marley’s face.

So when he [sang], ‘Dem a go tired fi see mi face / can’t get me out of the race / oh man you said I’m in your face’ on the ‘Bad Card’ track [from the Uprising album], he was really prophesying to the world. So, yes — football is very much a big part of Bob Marley’s life story. That was his sport. On tour, we never traveled without a ball yet. In fact, I think when [R&B singer-songwriter] Roberta Flack came to Bob’s funeral, she brought a [soccer ball], which I think was placed in his casket.

Neville Garrick, a Jamaican-born, Los Angeles-based graphic artist and photographer, created the artwork for many Bob Marley album covers (including Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Survival, Uprising, Kaya and Confrontation). The former executive director of the Bob Marley Museum is also the author of A Rasta’s Pilgrimage: Ethiopian Faces and Places.