Can't Help Falling in Love: Thoughts on a Year of Saving the Crew
only fools rush in,
but I can’t help
falling in love with Crew.”
On Friday, October 12, 2018, I got to work early. The sky was clear and still yellow from sunrise, and the air was cold. I’d slept poorly, and not for long, and was bracing myself for a day that wasn’t scheduled to end until after 10 p.m. Between meetings, I scanned Michael Arace’s column on Frankie Hedjuk’s Twitter meltdown and swallowed down a new helping of the same sadness I’ve been swallowing down for eleven-and-a-half.
I blinked, yawned, and tried to puzzle out what The Man Who Was Right was talking about.
What's changed in a year? How do we condense and explain our experiences to ourselves?
In a couple of days, it'll be a year since I stayed awake deep into the night making a poster with an unnecessarily detailed image of the LeVeque Tower and the words “Save the Crew” emblazoned on it to take to the City Hall rally next day. My emotions were so turbulent that they defied easy analysis, but they were enough to make me obsess for hours about the aesthetics of a poster that had a simple message"#Save the Crew." Grief, anger and disappointment mingled with resolution and a self-protective hopelessness. I couldn't handle the Crew leaving, and I especially couldn't handle them leaving when my hopes were up.
This summer, Justin took along his son to hand out flyers for Project 2019, the list of people pledging to buy multi-game packages for a 2019 season under new ownership. Justin watched his six-year-old son charging up to strangers before a game, handing them flyers and exhorting them with "Save the Crew!"
“I just remember how happy he was to be a part of something,” Justin told me. As they made their way to their seats, his son kept repeating that this—this was the best day ever.
In the car, headed home, his son asked what we're saving the Crew from, anyway. Justin explained that there were people trying to take the Crew away, and his son asked “So no more best days ever?”
Justin's son cried himself to sleep that night. To Justin, the entire Save the Crew movement was reflected in his son’s day: enthusiasm and purpose painted on a backdrop of impending doom. Saving the Crew means saving the possibility of best days ever to come.
If you’re like me, you can still feel, but still not explain the uninvited hope the City Hall rally inspired. It pushed its way up from the deepest places inside of me as I was looking for a spot to park. As we circled sun-drenched Downtown Columbus, and saw streams and pools of black and gold coalescing into rivers that surged toward City Hall, I couldn't keep hope at bay anymore. Standing in the shade to the right of the speakers, clutching my sign in one hand, and holding my son on my hip with the other, chanting "We're not done yet!" that hope began to harden to conviction.
Conviction aside, that Thursday, my un-convicted stomach tied itself in knots as I watched the knockout game in Atlanta. Spent and sore from Thursday Night Soccer, I sat in my darkened living room willing the Crew to victory with an existential desperation. I knew it was irrational, but it felt like the survival of the franchise depended on us winning and getting a home game in the playoffs. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced watching a sporting event.
Perhaps it's that once-in-a-lifetime fervency that makes it unusually tricky for me to articulate the magnitude of knock-kneed relief and dam-burst of exultation I felt when Adam Jahn put away his penalty, then put away the crowd? I don’t know that I can. Fellow Crew fan Jason described it to me in a Twitter message as a “euphoric moment,” so overwhelming that it moved to tears. If the stalemate felt like the team’s future was on the line, winning felt like one small sign that it might all be okay. The fleeting sensation of triumph became a memory to cling to as the months got long and the work got complicated. It was fumes for the final miles.
If you’re like me, you recall a scalp-tingling flush when you turned on ESPN’s College GameDay and saw stubborn, soggy yellow punctuating the scarlet-and-gray? If you're like me, you couldn't restrain a smile as you realized that after all, maybe we were massive enough. That perhaps a cobbled-together coalition of volunteers standing proud in the gale and damp where national television couldn't avoid them was a metaphor for things to come.
For Pete, one of Save the Crew’s most dependable volunteers, the GameDay invasion felt like the real beginning of things. “It seemed like the stars aligned for the #SavetheCrew movement,” he told me in a Twitter message describing that morning. “...I personally felt it got us off the ground and running.”
If you’re like me, you were standing next to Pete outside Mapfre Stadium on Halloween night, three days after GameDay broadcast. With your breath billowing white, you handed stacks of yellow #SavetheCrew cards to fans in a line that crept into the stadium at the pace of chilled molasses. Doing your small part, so others could do theirs.
And if you're like me, your pride in doing your part gave way to seething rage when you stood under the scoreboard at kickoff and saw the line outside the gates stretch out into the obscurity at the back of the parking lot. And if you're like me, you channeled that rage into catharsis. You joined a choir of thousands, bellowing in fury and contempt for ninety minutes for a national audience.
It's common knowledge, exploited by cults and social clubs that working hard for something makes you love it more. What's perhaps less obvious is that working to save something you love becomes meaningful in its own right, and changes the complexion of why you love the things you do. Brian, a Save the Crew volunteer, told me that his most vivid memories of the year involve canvassing local businesses, and returning a week later with yard signs and window clings.
It was therapeutic, he told me, to spend hours explaining to business owners, patrons and employees what the Crew meant to him, and what he had seen the Crew mean to the community. It was equally therapeutic to see those strangers rally to the cause.
But the reason those memories stick is the connection with his fellow volunteers.
"For as long as I live I don't think I'll ever forget those people and the conversations we shared," Brian told me, "One of the people I volunteered with also has season tickets and we still nod to each other whenever we cross paths. "
“We probably won't ever be close friends or even see each other often going forward, but we'll always have that memory of going around town trying to help Save The Crew, and that's probably the biggest memory that sticks out to me over these last 11 months.”
In the past year, I've found that not only am I more deeply tied to the Crew and Columbus communities than I knew, but It's become hard for me to hate other soccer fans the way I prefer to hate them. I find that whenever I wind up to despise a supporter's group for being arrogant dirtbags who think they invented the game in 2000-whenever, I remember seeing their team's crest on Save the Crew's letter to the league, and my hatred is gone. They might call it "footy." They might be a bunch of overheated, self-involved pompous bloviators. They may even claim to "win the stands," but I'm grateful to them forever.
J told me that was what stuck with her; the way it felt to watch fans from around the country lock arms in support of our battle in Columbus. J’s second cousin, a Real Salt Lake fan and employee, whom J met only once, a decade ago, rallied to the cause. Immediately after the initial announcement, she got in touch to offer her support and encouragement. Hours after the letter to league leaders was made available, the cousin signed it.
“That letter, those signatures, those crests with our initials,” J told me, “that was a powerful reminder that we aren’t fighting this alone, that we’ve got back-up all over this league, and that soccer support truly is a family, sometimes in real life, too.”
@hangthadj’s tweet was first I saw, but others followed. All cryptic, but all excited.
If you’re like me, there’ve been like, fifteen different occasions when a tweet from Someone Who Might Know has pumped your soul full of misbegotten hype that gets crushed later. They say something like “Pumped for tonight! #SavetheCrew,” and only later does it occur to you that they did not, in fact, mean “I am excited because tonight we're announcing that the Crew have been saved.”
So when folks start to dispense 280-character bursts of cryptic Crewcitement, I’ve learned to first assume that it's not the hoped-for resolution. More likely, an advantageous legal brief has been filed, or Save the Crew leadership has partnered with the Academy of Motion Pictures to host the Oscars, or something.
But as I read the tweets, and then the relevant threads on bigsoccer.com, the ingredients of my chest floated free from their moorings and began to rearrange themselves inside my rib-cage.
This might be it, I thought. This might be it.
In the last twelve months, have you listened to at least twelve hours of audio produced by, or at least featuring Morgan Hughes in the past twelve months? I sure have. The man became inescapable in the best way imaginable. Not only did he continue to host his own trash podcast, but made appearances on Sirius XM, NPR, and the BBC. When you heard him on NPR and the BBC, did you want to laugh until you cried because the world’s most trusted news organizations were interviewing the world’s least-trustworthy podcast host? But did you find it hard to laugh, though, because your whole chest was inflated with cartoonish pride? I sure did.
Do you marvel at each new eddy of reminiscences and nostalgia from Steve Sirk? Are you in awe of the way he always reminds us how we first fell in love with the Crew? I still am. Does it do your heart good to read his conversations with former players and staff, and realize they share your favorite Crew memories? It does mine.
Do you worry that someday Michael Arace will use his powers of inciting and focusing righteous indignation, civic pride and outrage to become a demagogue? Me either, because what shines through his columns over and over is a generous soul and a belief in fairness and in our city.
Do you hope that someday, the vagaries of fate will bring you a chance to buy Miki Turner a beer? Have you pondered whether it’s possible to roast an entire beef for Andrew Erickson? Are you reading these sentences hoping I won’t forget to mention Andrew King and Pat Murphy and Daniel Salazar and Ralph Schudel and Chris Bils and Patrick Guldan and a list of names that does indeed begin to stretch past memory?
Have you found your will for the fight renewed again and again by Save the Crew’s informal corps of citizen journalists and analysts, ruthlessly and efficiently exposing Precourt Sport Ventures and the league? I have. Is your “buy a drink” list also thick with Twitter handles like @knaas (Mr. Indomitable), @timmymyers, @etmckinley, @SolonTLG, @asmith2729, @bernhardtsoccer, @kingargyle and @BeckmanNate, to name only a sampling? Mine is.
In any given year—in my experience, at least—The shape of a person's life changes. That, in itself, isn't exceptional. But moments like this one, years like the one we've just endured seem to shape people in more noticeable ways, and to shape whole groups of people together.
If you’re like me, then, you come to the end of this year with a consuming desire to catalog every scrap of minutiae from the past twelve months and eulogize every moment. The tweets and the emails and the interviews and the billboards and the water-cooler conversations and the rumors; you want to plate it all in gold. You don't want to leave out the murals or the Community Kit or the stadium renderings. You want to hold it all in your head and your heart forever.
I think I understand why I feel that way. We’re staggering arm-in-arm-in-arm onto the summit of our hopes, and from these heights the world I know has been obscured, but some-surreal-day soon, we’ll all just be soccer fans again. We’ll be advertisers and designers and baristas and laborers in an ever-broadening pool of other advertisers and designers and baristas and laborers holding their barcodes under the scanners at the entry gate.
That’s as it should be, I think; we rose to the occasion and we won the day. There's work left for us to do, but once it's done, when the pressure and uncertainty subside, things will settle into a new rhythm. This isn’t the year anyone expected to live, and heaven knows we’ve all got other things to think about. We’re not done yet, but we will be, soon.
Before we're done, I want you to know how much this all has meant to me. Everything I’ve written about, and a hundred things I haven’t. Not because I think it’s important that you think about me; but because I hope it’s meant something similar for you.
At risk of paraphrasing Billie Joe Armstrong, I hope that you’ve gained indelible memories of adrenaline and rage and pride and frustration and joy. That every memory is accompanied by the pictures of the people who were there. The faces of new friends, and of old friends you see more clearly, now. I hope you see yourself more clearly, as well.
I’m not happy that an occasion came along for us to rise to; it’s been a rough year for me in general, and this mess hasn’t made it easier. But I’m a little in awe of how we rose to meet the moment when it came. It's implausible for even the most cynical and skeptical of onlookers to say that Save the Crew had nothing to do with this outcome. How much was us, how much was the Modell Law, and how much was the billionaires? Who knows? Who cares? We made as much of a difference as any grassroots movement could have made.
#SavetheCrew is a powerful story about money and politics and power and community. And at the heart of that larger story lies an even more remarkable narrative about thousands of individuals, each one swallowing their sadness and sacrificing their time, energy, and anger in service of keeping the team for the sake of themselves, their children, their community and their city.
In the late summer, as the team slumped and news slowed to a trickle, I asked fans and friends for their feelings and memories of the movement to that point. I was surprised to hear from someone who’s given more to the team than almost anyone, and more to the movement than most. Here’s what Karen Crognale had to say:
“I can’t imagine living in Columbus without the Crew. It has been a thread woven through our family that would be impossibly unraveled. The first thing that comes to mind with “Save The Crew” is GRATITUDE. Thank you for fighting for what is important to this city, but also what is important to my family.”
And that's it for me, as well. In the end I'm grateful. For the team, for my fellow fans, for the leadership team, for the analysts and journalists. Just to have been along for the ride, much less to have been a tiny part of it all.
I wasn’t in the crowd at Endeavor on Friday. I was stuck someplace else, hunched over my phone whenever I could find a moment. I was struggling to concentrate, going mechanically about my business with watery eyes. Maybe if the ink were dry on the contracts, maybe if I’d been at Endeavor, it would sink in more completely.
A year ago, we rushed in where angels fear to tread. We're not done yet—there's plenty left to fight for, and we're going to fight and build together. But after a year of fighting, of swallowing sadness, and pressing doggedly on, take a second to look back on the last twelve months and marvel. For all that worry and work and grief and doubt, I still can’t help falling in love with Crew.
And thanks to all of you, thanks to all of this, I’ll never have to stop.