On the sun-splashed steps of Columbus City Hall on Sunday, October 22, 2017, Morgan Hughes addressed a throng of 2,000 Crew fans who showed up to fight for their team. “If you came here for a funeral, you came to the wrong place,” he told the crowd as he vowed that they would prevail in the battle to save the Columbus Crew from a potential relocation to Austin, Texas.
You have to respect the ambition.
Ten days short of a year later, I awoke in Lakewood and all hell started breaking loose. Rumors were flying that Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam had teamed up with the Edwards family of Columbus to purchase the Crew and keep the team in Central Ohio. My phone began blowing up. Everyone was grasping for any morsel of rumored information. When photos showed that current Crew defender Josh Williams turned up at #SaveTheCrew celebration at Endeavor Brewing, ex-Crew midfielder Danny O’Rourke and I halted a conversation so that we could simultaneously text Williams to see if he knew something. It turns out he had simply heard about all the commotion and just decided he needed to be there with the fans. After all, Williams was a Crew fan from Akron long before he ever was a Crew player.
The madness carried on all day and I was being held hostage waiting for a kitchen contractor. When my fiancé Beth walked in the door at 4:00, she said, “Do you need to be in Columbus? You should go. You need to be there.” She took over contractor-waiting duty and I was on my way. (Naturally, the contractor arrived 15 minutes after I left.)
I pulled off at a gas station in Brunswick so I could read the promised announcements at 5:00. Indeed, MLS stated that the Haslams and Edwardses were in talks to purchase the Crew and that MLS was committed to keeping the Crew in Columbus provided that the key arrangements are worked out.
With that, I continued down I-71, traveling from one hometown to another in order to celebrate a new, monumentally personal bond involving both of my cities and two of my teams.
Naturally, the first person I encountered at Endeavor, because he has been unavoidably everywhere for the past 12 months, was Morgan Hughes. He was drunk on victory. And liquids. Some of which came from a three-foot tall bottle of champagne. The bottle had been a gift from Phil Goldfarb of the Crew’s front office on the morning of MLS Cup 2015. Phil’s instructions were not to open it until after the Crew won.
The Crew didn’t win MLS Cup 2015, so Hughes and his wife, Pam, have had to deal with a large and heavy champagne bottle cluttering their home during multiple moves, knowing it was going to get popped in celebration the next time the Crew won an MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, or Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. All of that changed in October of 2017 when future ex-owner Anthony Precourt announced his plans for a potential Austin relocation. Suddenly, there was a champagne-worthy win to aim for that was bigger than any trophy.
“As soon as the man-baby announced his plan of authentic ambition, I walked in the kitchen and saw it—it’s not the sort of thing you can keep in a drawer…we’d been looking at it for years—I just decided that when we save the Crew, this is happening.”
Morgan agreed to wait until Pam arrived at Endeavor to open the bottle since she had put up with the thing for so long. The problem was that by the time she got there, he was “too drunk to operate a champagne bottle.” The honor of popping the cork went to fellow #SaveTheCrew leadership team member John Zidar.
“I just gave it to Zidar, and just like everything else, that made it way better and everybody gave me credit for something that John did. What a great representation of the #SaveTheCrew movement.”
Hughes has certainly been the face of the movement. Since a text conversation with former Crew broadcaster Chris Doran on the night of Precourt’s announcement last October spurred him into action, Hughes has been an indefatigable source of confidence and positivity that the Crew would be saved. Whether it was positive projection, bravado, self-delusion, or honest belief, Hughes has been consistent since day one.
“I thought 100 percent,” he said when I asked for his true feelings on the chances of success last October. “I knew 100 percent. If it’s just me, then I’m 100 percent certain that I’m going to fail. But with my smart friends behind me? You don’t fuck with Columbus, Ohio.”
Hughes said he received word Wednesday night that big things were happening and that the Crew would be saved. After hanging up the phone, he collapsed onto the floor.
“I was laying on my back, staring at the ceiling, and I started laughing,” he said. “It was like a diabolical Die Hard laugh. I only cried five times. My dog was confused.”
As a young boy, Sage Scharre attended his first Crew game with his father in the inaugural season of 1996. He has been a die-hard Crew fan ever since. A literal lifetime of devotion was shattered when Precourt announced his Austin intentions last October. Scharre knew he couldn’t go down without a fight.
“360 days ago was a very upsetting day,” he said. “It was insulting. It was a betrayal. From the date that Anthony Precourt released his message, we mobilized. We mobilized the city. We mobilized the state. We mobilized the country and the rest of the world. We had messages coming from Scotland. From Germany. Everywhere around.”
Scharre took to creating weekly recaps for the #SaveTheCrew app to keep fans informed as the fight raged on. Friday, he was on his way back to Columbus from a business excursion to Mansfield when he started getting cryptic text messages that the Crew might be saved. He made a beeline for the #SaveTheCrew swarm at Endeavor. Like Hughes, Scharre insisted he never had any doubts.
“I think we felt deep inside that this day would always come,” he said. “We didn’t go into this movement thinking that it was unachievable. We let everyone know that we were going to win this. The beauty about this is that it is a true grassroots movement. It shows that the people are power. It shows that people can create change if their voice is loud enough. Our voice screamed.”
John Zidar confessed that he went into the fight to #SaveTheCrew with more of an underdog mentality, not with the confident certainty of Hughes or Scharre. He felt it would be an uphill battle against long odds.
“I think that’s the realistic take,” he said. “I always try to be realistic and practical about things. If you’re honest with yourself, I think that’s what we all thought. We’re the little guy and we’re not supposed to win. If we’ve all learned anything in America in the last two years, it’s that if you think something’s wrong and it’s not going right, you should stand up and speak out against it and do everything in your power to fight it, so that’s what we did.”
The confidence grew over time. The #SaveTheCrew organization conducted itself so professionally and made so many connections in powerful and influential circles that they came to get a sense of the positive momentum, even if some of it wasn’t for public consumption. It just spurred them to work that much harder. And then they received the news they had been fighting for.
“We’ve been under the impression that this was going to be ending soon, but this morning was when we got enough information where we knew not only was this ending soon, but it’s over,” he said. “It was just this morning that we felt comfortable enough to let ourselves finally believe it.”
At 8:36 a.m. on Friday October 12, 2018, Morgan Hughes sent a Slack message to the entire #SaveTheCrew leadership team. After a caveat about not leaking the information until official statements were issued later in the day, Hughes simply wrote: Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve saved the Columbus Crew.
“It’s unbelievable,” an exhausted but elated Zidar said near midnight. “It’s been 16 hours since that initial message went out and I still don’t believe it. I won’t believe it until tomorrow. I need a sleep. I need the act of waking up to happen so that I know it’s not a dream.”
Dante Washington has been a prominent alumni face of the #SaveTheCrew movement since the very first rally, where he stood on the steps of City Hall and announced his solidarity in the fight to save the team. On Friday, we talked on the phone when I was still in Cleveland, but we didn’t see each other in the Columbus mob until he exited the building on the way home to his wife and daughters. We were elated to see each other and had a celebratory hug and conversation. Earlier in the day, Dante tweeted that he was about to “f’in cry.” It looked like it might still be the case, even though he acknowledged that there has not been a 100% official final announcement.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Dante said. “When I heard of the prospect of the team leaving, then the announcement, then the whole process between then and now, for all of us former players, it’s a part of our history and a part of our career. When you talk to some of the guys, they’d say, ‘I never got a chance to bring my kids to where dad played.’ Even my girls, who never got a chance to see me play, they know that daddy played at Crew Stadium and the team might be leaving and why is that man going to take the team away from us, and tonight I called them and I said, ‘Listen, the team’s gonna stay.’ And they just started yelling and were so happy and excited. It’s really hard to put this into words on so many levels because I’ve been involved with this for a long time with so many other people. Silently and vocally, there was so many people that were a part of this. We can celebrate tonight, but the real celebration is going to be when it’s signed, sealed, and delivered and the new ownership is in place and we have the new stadium. This is just the beginning of hopefully a lot more.”
While the fact that there is still any mathematical chance of it not happening gives him pause, since a deal isn’t a deal until it’s a deal, he felt he had to be at Endeavor to celebrate this major ownership development with the fans.
“I’ve spent a lot of time here tonight at Endeavor just trying to soak it all in,” he said. “So many warm wishes and thank yous and pictures from so many people I don’t know. I’ve seen them around and they are all fans of the black and gold, so I’m just trying to take a few minutes to let it all soak in. I’ve said it before, you don’t realize the impact that you have on people’s lives and the emotions they have toward the team. People have said, ‘I really enjoyed watching you play. Thank you for everything you have done then, and especially now.’ I said it a couple different times tonight—‘I’m just another cog in the wheel. Another piece in the puzzle. This is completely a team effort.’”
#SaveTheCrew certainly had some prominent and expected pieces to the puzzle. Hughes and Zidar are die-hard supporters who have led projects in the Nordecke for years, and ex-players like Washington have large platforms, but immeasurable help came from people that heretofore had little Crew involvement apart from attending matches.
Tim Myers, for instance, didn’t even start attending Crew games until 2015. He and his wife Pam grew up in Northwest Ohio and had Detroit sporting allegiances. Upon moving to Columbus, that ruled out the Blue Jackets and Buckeyes. A World-Cup-only soccer watcher to that point, Myers attended his first Crew game on May 9, 2015, to see U.S. Men’s National Team star Clint Dempsey of the visiting Seattle Sounders. He had a fun time at the game, and as it turns out, his neighbor had a suite and soon started feeding Tim and Pam tickets during the 2015 stretch run all the way through MLS Cup. They became hooked and had a Columbus team to call their own. Two years later, Anthony Precourt announced his ambition to steal it from them.
“There was such a sense of betrayal,” he said. “Being my age and being turned on to a whole new sport like soccer that I had never been interested in before, to suddenly have one guy take that away from me right after discovering it, it felt like this huge injustice. Then I realized that if I felt that way after only a few years of fandom, all these thousands of other people that have been following this team since day one, I couldn’t even fathom what they must be feeling, growing up as a lifelong Crew fan. That’s when I just decided, especially after the rally, if we’re fighting back, what can I do to help? There were so many people with their respective professional skillsets who also decided to see what they could contribute, and so I put some stuff out there and it seemed like it resonated with people.”
What Myers put out there was immaculately referenced mathematical beatdowns of bogus claims used to justify Precourt’s thievery.
“I realized that there’s a lot of stuff that pushes back against what Precourt, and to a lesser extent the league, is saying about our city, our market, our business community, our fanbase. Then I realized that this was a smear campaign. If we as a fanbase were going to push back, I knew that we were going to need facts and information to push back against the narrative, and with my (market research) background, I knew that this was a way I could help. I decided to start digging into this stuff and making powerpoints.”
Fury can be futile. Fury fueled by facts can be useful. Myers’ work was cited by journalists during the #SaveTheCrew saga.
When the celebratory news broke on Friday, Tim and Pam Myers were in New York City, preparing to go to the top of the Empire State Building. (In an elevator. Not King Kong style.) It was one of the few times this year that Myers was out of Columbus, and of course that had to be that day that the good news leaked out. Myers was at first inundated with happy messages, but then came radio silence. It dawned on him that everyone was celebrating face to face at Endeavor so there was no need for more social media messages.
Fortunately, Tim and Pam were flying home that afternoon. Pam, being a good wife, asked if Tim wanted to Uber straight to Endeavor from the airport. He declined so they could get there to celebrate together. On the way in, they listened to Jonathan “T-Bone” Smith read the various official statements on the radio on 97.1 FM. (Pam would like to give a shoutout to Nate Fernandez for telling them to listen to T-Bone’s show for the breaking news.)
Myers has a part of him that will be skeptical until the announcement that everything is 100% official, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying the scene on Friday night.
“That was my immediate gut reaction. How are they going to screw us?” he said. “But the more I talk to people, the more it is just an entire fanbase giving an enormous sigh of relief. It’s refreshing as hell to be a part of this tonight.”
Keith Naas was another emerging contributor of the #SaveTheCrew saga. A fan since 1999 and a season ticket member since 2015, Naas learned of the Austin relocation attempt while visiting New Orleans. He immediately got to work that night.
“I felt that there was more to this than meets the eye,” he said. “I guess I just started from that.”
A computer programmer by trade, Naas became the go-to #SaveTheCrew source for digging up facts, obtaining documents via the Freedom of Information Act, and drawing connections between disparate pieces of information, often sharing his findings in lengthy twitter threads.
“That’s kind of where I thought that I could help,” he said. “I’m an avid reader. I can draw connections between things, like what happened six months ago. There were some things that were just so obviously absurd. It’s easy to see it and say, ‘I just saw the exact opposite not that long ago. Where did I see it?’ I am the kind of person that can verify something or not. I’m the kind of person who enjoys that stuff. It’s like solving a puzzle. I always saw this as a puzzle to be solved and there is a solution.”
For Naas, it was imperative to be fact-based and to not let emotion get the better of him. Positivity and a collective spirit were integral to #SaveTheCrew’s success.
“We managed to avoid a lot of mistakes that we could have made,” he said. “We tried to stay as positive as possible. We tried to motivate people. It was very easy to just get angry about stuff, but that doesn’t help. But if you can provide a solution, or here is an action you can take, or here’s what’s being communicated and here’s a counter to that that is very easy to see, then we’ve got something.”
Naas was in the camp that was confident that the Crew would be saved. I think. His explanation is somewhat confusing, but beautiful given that it’s another example of Precourt appropriating imagery for Austin that is more befitting of Columbus.
“I was always confident that we would save the team,” he said. “I was confident, but my confidence was small. It got bigger over time, but I was always confident. It grew like a seed for a tree.”
Respect your roots indeed. For Naas, the celebration at Endeavor provided immense emotional sustenance after a tumultuous year of battling to save the club he loves.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else tonight,” he said. “I’ve been here all day. It’s been fascinating to see the faces that have come in here, including many people I didn’t know until this whole thing started, including business leaders in the community, and to see former players and current players walking through the door, it just fills me with…I dunno…I can live off that for a while.”
Jonathan “T-Bone” Smith of 97.1 The Fan was heartbroken last October. The day Anthony Precourt announced his “parallel paths” scheme to Austin, Smith went on the air and couldn’t make it through his entire show without emotion overwhelming him.
“I actually cried on the air right around 5:30 and my co-host had to step in because I was talking about taking my girls to games,” he said. “They were seven and four then, and just getting to the age where we can go do this stuff. I was excited about that. I was getting ready to buy season tickets and get into the routine that I had known in the past and then that ripped the rug out from under me and I was despondent.”
Later that night, he went to drown his sorrows at Hendoc’s Pub with his friends, which happened to be the time and place that #SaveTheCrew was born. A few days later, he spoke at the rally and has been a prominent media advocate for the cause ever since. Almost a year later, after a morning of rumors, he got a text from a government source telling him that Crew fans were right to celebrate. Smith then became the Paul Revere of the radio station, hustling throughout the building to tell everyone that the Crew had been saved. He made an appearance on the Carpenter and Rothman show that precedes his own, then had to do his own show before finally breaking free to meet up with everyone at Endeavor.
“I think that was the worst part,” he said. “Bobby Carpenter and I were talking about this right before we went on the air at 2:00. I said, ‘Imagine you just won a national championship and then you had to wait four hours to get off the field and celebrate. That’s what it feels like for me because I have to be here for the next four hours and I want to go celebrate.’”
The celebration was a giant hugfest for Smith.
“Every person that I even kinda know, it’s hug time,” he said. “This scene has repeated a lot. We talk about how stunned we are, how happy we are, and how great this all is. That conversation winds down, and then you turn an eighth of a degree, and there’s someone else and then whole scene repeats itself. For three hours.”
Later that night, Smith drove Morgan Hughes back to Hendoc’s, where #SaveTheCrew was born, whereupon he was hit by a funny thought as he parked at the funeral home next door to the bar.
“It dawned on me that Morgan’s line from the rally—‘If you came here for a funeral, you came to the wrong place’—literally started a few nights earlier while our cars were parked at a funeral home. It kind of came full circle, which I thought was a cool, poetic thing.”
Another poetic full-circle bit of craziness is that, aided by the threat of the “Modell Law” passed after Art Modell stole the original Browns from Cleveland, the Columbus community was able to buy enough time to land new investors, such as the Edwards family of Columbus and current Cleveland Browns owners, Dee and Jimmy Haslam.
Or, as Hughes later summarized it to me, “The Cleveland Browns had to die so that the Columbus Crew could be saved by the Cleveland Browns.”
One of the architects of the high-level deal-making in Central Ohio is Alex Fischer, the CEO of the Columbus Partnership. A Tennessee native, Fischer has known the Haslam family for a long time, which made for a natural personal connection between Columbus and the owners of Cleveland’s NFL team.
Fischer and his wife, Lori, made a surprise visit to Endeavor on Friday night. Not ones to step into the spotlight often, the Fischers thought it was important to get out there and hug some people. After all, Alex Fischer said these new developments were a direct result of the #SaveTheCrew movement.
“Everybody wants to thank me or us in the corporate community, but no way,” he said. “This is all about #SaveTheCrew and the movement that happened at the grassroots level, because without it, none of this is happening.”
Fischer stressed that while the new developments were worth celebrating, nobody at #SaveTheCrew should be taking their foot off the gas because the deal is not yet over the finish line.
“This is just the beginning,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of momentum to be created, but it’s going to be the enthusiasm like this that is going to get it done.”
Fischer beamed when talking about the quality of the ownership group and its commitment to the city.
“I think one of the great things that has been missing about the Columbus Crew is local ownership,” he said. “I think the exciting thing about today is that we see a group of local owners here in Columbus and throughout Ohio that have committed to this community and are selfless in terms of how they think about their contributions. They all recognize that it’s not their team, but it’s Columbus’s team. That’s what I love about this. They recognize that they are the keepers of a Columbus asset and that’s a great value structure.”
After our chat, I ruminated on the language about being a keeper of a Columbus asset and how Anthony Precourt sociopathically parroted that same language after having already negotiated a clause that would permit him to move the club to Austin.
This time, however, there can be no doubt about its sincerity. The Edwards family is Columbus through and through and are Crew supporters. Dr. Pete Edwards has been the team’s doctor since the first season in 1996. These are people who love Columbus and the Crew and have been part of it since day one. Dr. Pete and I have been Crew work acquaintances for two decades now, but those who know him far better than I do have always raved about him as a kind and caring person. My own occasional interactions with him over the years have done nothing to dispel that notion. I can assure each and every one of you that Dr. Pete and his family view this as the community’s team and it’s what prompted the Edwardses to get involved in the first place.
And while Dee and Jimmy Haslam are not local per se, I have heard nothing but good thing about their involvement and their commitment to Columbus. They will now be part of a growing sports alliance between Northeast and Central Ohio, plus they have a longstanding relationship with Alex Fischer and the blessing of the Edwards family. The Haslams are here because of real relationships, both person-to-person and city-to-city.
Looking at this new ownership group, it’s a far cry from having an unknown and unaccomplished west coast trustfunder materialize out of nowhere with Dave Greeley in tow.
As I laid in bed Friday night—well, technically, Saturday morning—I was unable to sleep. The adrenaline still coursed through my veins and I had so much to think about. I thought about the mental, emotional, and physical toll the last year has taken on me. I thought about my soon-to-be-wife Beth, and how she has been a great source of support and laughter during these trying times. She’s been Team #SaveTheCrew all the way…probably because she wants to get me out of the house for years to come. I thought about all of the fans who rose up together as part of the #SaveTheCrew movement, all of the other dedicated fans who will be happy to still have their team, all of the past and present front office people I’ve worked with over the years and all of the past and current players who have been on the same roller coaster ride as the rest of us. I thought of how Columbus Dispatch columnist Michael Arace and I spent some of our time at Endeavor reliving our past relocation heartbreaks—the Hartford Whalers and Cleveland Browns, respectively—and then beaming with pride as #SaveTheCrew revelers filled the bar with celebratory songs. I thought of Mike and Sandy Urso, and how a tangible part of their son’s public memory will not be stolen away by a selfish act of heartlessness. I thought of the perseverance of Lamar Hunt and how it’s now received a modern adaptation in 2018. There were times where I thought of so many people, places, moments, games, and feelings that my brain could no longer keep up with itself. It was a Massive mash-up of mushy emotion.
There was one other thought that could not escape my mind as I tried to go to sleep after a whirlwind day. I went back to it over and over again.
On the afternoon of the October 22, 2017 rally, I was part of a group of longtime Crew family members who watched the proceedings front and center, directly in front of the City Hall steps that served as the stage. Three members of our Crew family group would eventually go up and speak—former players Dante Washington and Mike Clark, as well as myself. Three other members of our Crew family group were former Crew goalkeeper Tom Presthus, plus Tucker Walther, who was with the club 15 years as the team administrator, and Amy Baer, who was the team’s first athletic trainer. But that’s not all.
I love this photo I took of local entrepreneur Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream fame….
She’s leading a chant of “Save The Crew!” at the end of the rally after all of the speakers had concluded. I used to think it was a cool photo, but it has infinitely more meaning now.
If you look below Jeni’s extended right arm, you will see the seventh member of our front-and-center Crew family group. It’s a man in a white shirt, with his back to the stage, soaking up the sight and sound of 2,000 dedicated and emotional people defiantly bellowing that they want to keep their beloved Crew in Columbus.
The man in the white shirt is Dr. Pete Edwards.
On the very first day that the public fight got underway, he was right there among you. He heard your voices loud and clear and felt your passion proud and dear. Afterward, as we now know from the news of October 12, 2018, he and his family stepped up and went to work for you and for Columbus.
It’s the antithesis of absenteeism.
This is our future. And it is Massive.