Back in his playing days in Brazil and later in the German-American Football Association [GAFA] -- the CSL’s earlier incarnation -- Steve Kovalenko was a resilient defensive midfielder who bested many an opponent. Aged 73 now and approaching a half century as boss of CSL side New York Ukrainians, Kovalenko has just defeated his toughest foe yet: the Coronavirus. It’s a double sweet victory because Tania, his wife of 42 years, has also overcome the disease.
It was on April 16 that Kovalenko, one of the CSL’s longest serving members received the call from his doctor. Three days earlier, with both of them coughing and spluttering, Tania had insisted they see their family doctor in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“I was coughing most of the time so my wife said let’s go see the doctor. She was also coughing, but her symptoms were milder. I was getting the chills, I was hot and cold,” said Kovalenko.
The doctor took throat swabs from the couple before calling them back three days later with the results.
“He said you guys are positive [for Covid-19],” recalled Steve.
As shocking as the news should have been for the two members of a demographic hardest hit by the pandemic, the Kovalenkos took the news calmly.
“I wasn’t really scared,” said Steve.
Still, he went downhill from there.
“It was really bad for a couple of days after we were diagnosed,” he remembered. “The cough got worse, I was getting a fever and drinking a lot of ginger tea and a lot of ginger ale to combat my dry throat. I’d wake up and my throat would be very dry.”
He also lost his sense of smell, taste and his appetite.
Since Tania’s symptoms were milder, the Kovalenkos decided to self-isolate in their four-story Brooklyn home that they share with Steve’s sister and husband, who were not infected.
As word of Kovalenko’s Covid-19 struggle spread around the Ukrainian club, a former player came to the rescue.
“He called me and said his sister was like a nurse -- she worked for a doctor and could help me,” said Kovalenko.
She called and offered medical advice, recommending which meds to take. Antibiotics were also prescribed. Between gallons of ginger tea, ginger ale and the antibiotics, Steve and Tania recovered without spending a night in hospital.
Ironically, Kovalenko, who turns 74 on July 30, believes that he might have contracted the virus at a medical facility.
He fell in the subway station at the end of February, breaking three ribs and dislocating his right shoulder. A few weeks later, he had an MRI on the shoulder and fears that visit to the hospital might have exposed him to Covid-19. Then there was another visit to a doctor’s office when he escorted Tania who had a knee problem.
But as the old adage goes, “all’s well that ends well.”
“I’m recovering well. I am almost perfect [100 %],” said Kovalenko, who’s on medical leave from his job as a boiler mechanic at Rockefeller University on the Upper East Side.
His recovery has cheered the CSL and everyone that knows Kovalenko.
“Steve is a life member of the CSL Board and we could not be happier to hear that he and his wife are recovering and doing well,” said league president Mike Fitzgerald.
“There is so much to be said about Steve Kovalenko, he embodies the spirit of the CSL. Steve is a historian of the league and of the game. He can pull out articles and tell you stories about international all-star games that he played in representing the CSL [when it was the German American Football League] from a time before you born.”
Hailing Kovalenko’s massive contribution to soccer, Fitzgerald added: “He is a fixture in Greenpoint, so much so they really need to rename McCarren, Kovalenko Park in his honor.”
Kovalenko, meanwhile, can’t wait to return to the touchline with NY Ukrainians once the Covid-19 pandemic abates. He’s managed NY Ukrainians since 1974. Born in Germany and raised in Brazil, Kovalenko had debuted for the club as an 18-year-old back in 1964.
The club won back-to-back CSL titles between 1965 and 1967 with Kovalenko, who’d honed his skills in Sao Paulo, a key player.
After that early success, Kovalenko moved up to the National Soccer League. He helped Greenpoint Polonia to the NSL championship at Brooklyn Italians’ expense in 1970. There would be another championship with NY Brasilian in the Flushing Soccer League in 1979 to cap a playing career that included stints with several other clubs.
These would include: Newark Ukrainians [American Soccer League]; Kingston Sports Club and NY Hungaria [both German-American Football league]; Yonkers Ukrainians Krilaty [EDSL]; NY Platense [Spanish League] and Kingston Sports Club from upstate New York.
In 1969, Kovalenko turned out for Second Division Kingston in a playoff game for promotion to the GAFA first division at the old Downing Stadium on Randalls Island. It was a curtain raiser to a friendly between a still relatively modest Barcelona side and Bahia of Brazil, in front of 10,000 fans. Kingston won 3-1 and clinched promotion.
After his appointment as NY Ukrainian coach in 1974, Kovalenko would pick up a raft of titles.
Between 1976 and 2000, Ukrainians’ second unit would bag 12 Reserve championships, along with one D’Arpino Cup. His first team won three titles in the second tier of what was now the CSL, earning a ticket to the top flight.
Kovalenko, then 45, was player-coach of NY Ukrainians when the scooped the old Sportfriend Cup in Wayne, New Jersey. There were, in addition, numerous other summer tournaments that his side won.
Off the pitch, Kovalenko has held various administrative positions including board member of the Eastern New York State Soccer Association and chair of the CSL second division.
His contributions to the game have not gone recognized.
The New York soccer referees association named him Coach of the Year in 1997 and in 2011, Kovalenko was inducted into the Eastern New York State Soccer Hall of Fame. In 2016, the CSL paid him the ultimate compliment for his more than half a century association with the league by making him a life member.