Randy Sims, Columbus, and the Crew

I first met Randy Sims in July of 2005. The Crew had organized a bus trip to Soldier Field for an away game against the Chicago Fire as part of a doubleheader featuring the Beckham/Zidane version of Real Madrid versus Chivas Guadalajara. I decided to make the trip and write about the bus experience. As luck would have it, I randomly sat next to Randy, who had driven four hours from West Virginia to catch the bus at Crew Stadium. Intrigued, I learned that Randy wasn’t making such a long journey for Real Madrid. No, he had been driving four hours each way for every Crew game. Who needs Zidane when you have Duncan Oughton?

We had a great time chatting on the bus, and Randy featured prominently in the story I wrote, which sadly has been lost for eternity in a hard drive crash. In the 13 years that have followed, Randy has always been a friendly face whenever I’ve run into him in the parking lot or in the stadium. It’s hard to imagine a Crew game without him.

It’s September 1 and we agree to meet up before the match against New York City to talk about Randy’s long-distance journey to die-hard Crew fandom. Of course, our tailgating plans are ruined by a monsoon, so I pull up and Randy hops into the passenger seat of my car. As sheets of rain pelt the windows, Randy sips from the cup of Glenlivet 12-year-old scotch in his hand.

That’ll get a man talking.

*****

Randy was the son of a military man, so his life has been one of constant movement and adventure. He was born in Holland and spent some of his formative years in Germany, where the Bundesliga introduced him to professional soccer. As he bounced around the United States, both as a child and an adult, his soccer fandom remained European. He had no use for the old North American Soccer League, whose Cosmos-centered focus caused him to deem the league a “Harlem Globetrotters of Soccer” sideshow. Even when MLS came about, he cast it aside without a second thought. “I had decided that American soccer is not for me,” he says.

As an American, he was fan of the national team, but club ball was something he never even considered. All of that changed in May of 2002. He traveled to Foxboro, MA to see the U.S. Men’s National Team play the Netherlands, the country of his birth. The game was part of a doubleheader between the New England Revolution and Chicago Fire, so he decided to watch the MLS match since it was part of the ticket. Instead of snickering, a flame started flickering.

“When I saw these two MLS teams play, I thought, ‘They’re actually playing the game. I can deal with it.’ But more importantly, everybody in the stands kept saying, ‘Have you seen Columbus Crew Stadium?’ I had not, but they kept saying, ‘You need to go to a game there just for the experience.’ These were other U.S. fans in Boston.”

Given the frequency and stridency of the East Coast recommendations, Randy decided that a four-hour drive from West Virginia to Columbus wasn’t so bad for a one-time soccer experience. Or so he thought.

“A week or so later, I got in my car, drove up, bought my ticket at the gate, walked in, and fell in love. I felt at home and it’s been that way ever since. The game hadn’t even started yet and I just knew this is where I needed to be.”

Randy had never visited Columbus in his life. He’s driven through a few times, but had never set foot in the city until he walked into Crew Stadium.

“It was just the stadium that drew me in,” he says. “I made the four-hour drive home and was miserable. I thought, ‘That’s crazy. I can’t keep doing that.’ Then the next game, I hopped in the car, made the four-hour drive up, and I’d do it again every time. I’d say I wasn’t going to do it again, but the next opportunity, I’d be back. I did that for three seasons before I even bought a season ticket.”

As we discuss his drive from West Virginia, I ask how he ended up there.

“My life is rather convoluted,” he says. Then he pulls out a laminated card that lists all of the places he has lived. I am gobsmacked. Up until purchasing his current home 23 years ago at the age of 38, he had never lived in a single location for more than three years. The double-sided laminated card is the only way he can keep his life’s story straight. Whether it’s Wiesbaden, Wichita Falls, or wherever else, many of the 31 entries have only a single year typed next to them. Stability is not found until you get to “Up the Holler” in West Virginia where it lists “1995-Present.”

Randy had driven through West Virginia to take some photos for a friend and became enamored. When he got back to Minnesota, he suggested to his wife that they consider moving to the mountaineer state. She agreed to have a look, so they drove down one weekend and after two hours in Charleston, she was game. “We packed up and moved outside of Charleston on the west side and got an apartment until we found our little spot in the country and have been there ever since.”

His home in West Virginia couldn’t keep Randy from the road. Now he has another home in a soccer stadium in Columbus.

“There are just a couple of small spots I like to go to and I love the people up here,” he says, “But the stadium and the team, that’s what it is.”

*****

The people and the team are reflected in some of Randy’s favorite memories. He’s not much for remembering the details of the games or the stats or other minutiae.

“I don’t even remember the big plays,” he says. “Things that hit me are things that just move me somehow. A good example of that, and I can’t even tell you who we were playing, but a couple of months ago, here, watching Wil Trapp, and the way he moved in defense for like five seconds blew me away. Those five seconds are the types of things that give me chills and that I remember.”

Most of his major recollections relate to people. One of his favorite memories involves that Chicago trip mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Not because of me. Rather, because of Danny Szetela. Most Crew fans likely remember Szetela as a youth national teamer the Crew won in a weighted lottery (and the unsmiling photo that ensued), only to have him not live up to those early hyped-up expectations. Randy, however, remembers Szetela as a person. That Chicago trip in 2005 is illustrative of that bond.

“Danny was injured a lot that season and I’d see him at the stadium and just talk to him,” Randy recalls. “I’d ask how he was doing. I’d say, ‘We need to get you back, but we need you healthy first. I don’t want you back out there too early. Get healthy so we can get you back out there playing.’ I was just trying to pump him up. He got depressed and you could see it all over him, so I just tried to pump him up when I saw him.

“That game in Chicago, he played. Warzycha was coaching and put him back out on the pitch. I was thrilled he was back after that long absence. At the end of the game, I’m yelling at Danny, ‘Welcome back! It was great to see you out there.’ He walks into the tunnel, then comes back out and climbs into the stands and looks me in the eye and says, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done for me’ and hands me his jersey. It’s my prized possession. It showed me that I made a difference to somebody.”

Later that year, the Crew did a photo shoot featuring a player and a fan. Szetela specifically requested Randy as his fan for the photo. The Crew called and asked Randy if he’d drive up for the shoot. He obliged and now has the photo and the jersey framed in his home.

“My wife says that when I die, everything gets eliminated except that, because she knows how much it’s meant to me,” he says. “It was the first thing to really show that I’ve made an impact here, so I cherish that.”

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*****

Randy works as a certified gemologist appraiser. He grades and evaluates gemstones and writes legal valuation documents on them. He also misses work a lot for the Crew. In 2017, for example, he attended 31 Crew games in all competitions, home and away, from preseason to the playoffs.

“I work with a very understanding employer,” he says. “Part of the condition of employment is that if it’s between working and going to a Crew game, the Crew wins. They accept that.”

Like a high-powered Manhattan attorney picking out the right suit from a closet full of dozens, Randy wakes up every day and chooses which of his 53 Crew player jerseys he is going to wear that day. He has dozens more that are autographed by the player and are therefore not in the wardrobe rotation, but the 53 unsigned ones are fair game for daily wear.

“I’ve got a good collection,” he says. “I wear them all the time. It’s all I ever wear unless I’m in a suit. Anybody that knows me, including my clients from work, they know me by name and the Crew. That’s who I am.”

Randy's stuff
 A sampling of Randy’s Crew collection.

*****

In October of 2017, Randy’s identity was shaken. He received a text from a Crew fan in Indiana warning him to prepare for some bad news. Then he texted the link to Grant Wahl’s story about Crew owner Anthony Precourt exploring “parallel paths” to move the team to Austin, Texas.

“My first thought was, ‘No. This cannot be happening. It’s gotta be a joke.’ I just kept learning more and more and I hate to admit it, but I just started crying. I still have a hard time dealing with it. I can’t imagine my life without the Crew.”

For Randy, the Crew is about way more than just soccer games. He made one of the best friends of his life, Bob Morgan, through the Crew. Randy is delighted when I tell him that when I started a Crew ‘zine in 1999, Bob was one of my two subscribers, so he’s always had a soft spot in my heart as well. Randy went on to tell me how he and Bob and their spouses would take vacations together, and how the two of them were in Los Angeles for MLS Cup 2008 when Bob got the phone call that he was a grandfather.

“Then Bob got sick,” he says. “And of course, as soon as I heard, I came up to the hospital to see him. The conversations we had the last couple days of his life, he made it clear that I needed to be here for more than just the game.”

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Bob Morgan (left) and Randy on a bus trip to Toronto in September of 2008.

Bob knew that Randy has enriched the lives of not just fellow fans, but also players and staff. When Bob passed away in 2014, Randy called the front office and asked if they could do something to commemorate Bob’s life at the next home game. The front office replied that the next home game was in three days. Randy said he understood that it was late notice and maybe it couldn’t work out, but it was important to him to do this for Bob’s memory.

“They said, ‘We’re going to do it for you.’ They put together a memorial in three days. That’s the kind of place this team is.”

While he does not wish to discuss much in the way of details of the hows and whys, Randy has been able to develop personal relationships with players, going back from the Szetela story all the way through the present day. When he reflects on all that the team has done for him over the years, he zeroes in on another specific incident. In 2011, the Crew wore their banana kits at home for every game but two. One of those games was the pre-planned “Black Out the Galaxy” promotion. The other was something far more personal. Randy’s father had passed away and he tells me that he received word that Eddie Gaven suggested that the team wear black in the next game as a mourning gesture. Sure enough, for the September 14th home match, the first since his father’s passing, the Crew wore black at home for the first time all season. A grieving, yet appreciative, Randy watched the black-clad Crew from Colorado, where he was making arrangements for his father’s funeral.

The talk of the black kits for his father’s passing and the impromptu memorial for Bob Morgan have Randy tearing up in my passenger seat.

“Ask, me why I love the Crew so much? Those are two of a thousand stories. They can’t leave.”

The tears are falling heavier now.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I try not to do this on game day. I try not to think about this on game day.”

*****

The stress since last October is palpable. Like many of us, Randy has found his mood fluctuating with all of the twisted turns in this sordid story.

“It’s been up and down,” he says. “I have one moment where there’s a glimmer of hope and then that just gets dashed out. Driving up here, it’s tough. The guy I drove up with today asked me on a scale of 1-10, what do I think the Crew’s odds of staying are. I said I feel that I am at a two or a nine. I don’t know where to be. I don’t know what to think. I just keep telling myself I need to prepare for life after and I just don’t know how to do that. But just in case, I need to prepare for it. This team has done a lot for me and it’s what I dedicate a lot of my time and money to.”

One thing is certain. If MLS leaves Columbus, Randy will be among many, myself included, who will leave MLS behind. The relocation of the San Jose Earthquakes left a sour taste in his mouth, but the awarding of an expansion Quakes made him feel that MLS realized the error of their ways. He decided it was a one-time mistake and he put his trust back in MLS. Not anymore.

“I read that as they learned their lesson,” he says. “They know better. That doesn’t happen in soccer. You don’t just move a team. So I got comfortable. I got comfortable and trusted them. And that’s where we are now. I’m questioning that trust. They leave, I’m done with MLS. I’ll have nothing to do with MLS.”

Fan reaction to Grand Theft Massive has varied. Some have thrown themselves into the Crew with everything they’ve got. Others have angrily stayed away so as not give Anthony Precourt more money to spend on political lobbying and giveaway swag in Austin. Randy has dealt with all of those conflicting emotions, but he also knows firsthand that it’s been a time of uncertainty for the Crew’s players, so he keeps showing up to do what he has always done—support the men who wear the black and gold and play for the city of Columbus.

“For me, I look at it in three different directions at the same time,” he says. “No, I don’t want to give Precourt any more of my money. But I want to support these guys with everything I’ve got and I want the stadium full for their sake. I want the guys to feel us behind them as much as possible. And I also want to get every drop out of it as I can. If it’s gone, I don’t want to miss out on any of it before they’re gone. It’s too important to me.

“I just don’t want ‘em to leave. I just don’t want ‘em to leave. That’s all I know what to say.”

 

*****

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
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