Back on December 21, I got a call out of the blue from Jeff Cunningham. We had exchanged a few texts regarding comments for stories I had been working on in 2018, but it was the first time I had heard his voice since his second stint with the Crew concluded at the end of the 2011 season.
The reason for the call? He was so excited that the Crew were on the cusp of being saved and he wanted to know all about it. He wanted to know the latest developments, what I expected to happen next, and most of all, he just wanted to talk about how proud he was of Columbus for saving the team. He spoke at great length of the pride he felt that Crew fans made history and kept their team where it belongs. We ended up talking for about an hour, not just about the Crew, but catching up on our personal lives and all that stuff. It was a truly lovely conversation with one of the players I thoroughly enjoyed writing about back in our younger days. There was never a dull moment with Jeff, and that unexpected call was another delightful surprise.
This weekend, he called again from San Antonio, where he lives with his wife and two children, to revisit some of the topics from our December chat, except on the record. We also talked about some other bits of Crew history for other projects I intend to work on. It was yet another fun conversation with the Crew’s all-time leading MLS goal scorer.
For the purposes of this series, here’s what he had to say on some #SavedTheCrew topics…
On his emotions during the 15-month ordeal that largely pointed to the Crew being stolen away to Austin:
For me, Columbus was a lot of firsts. My first professional experience, first goal, and just a lot of firsts me. That community embraced me and taught me how to be a man. They took me in from 21 until I think 28, if you do the math. The city became my home away from family. That to me has always been a place with special memories from special years of my life.
I felt like Columbus is a staple for this league. A lot of firsts, you know? The first-soccer specific stadium was an integral part of the growth of MLS. For the team to possibly not be around, it felt like the foundation was being taken away, and for me personally, part of my legacy and history was being uprooted. Columbus was so integral to the league’s growth and success that I didn’t want to see it uprooted.
On Dr. Pete being part of the ownership group that bought the Crew to keep them in Columbus to stay:
That man has been with us in the trenches. He’s been to some preseason trainings in BFE, promoting the game. He’s been with us since day one in the trenches, even in places without proper locker rooms. He’s family to us. He became one of the boys, you know? To have him be one of the owners is unreal. To take the care and passion that he had as a staff member, and now bring it to the ownership group, you’re not going to have someone that bleeds the Crew colors more than him. I’m happy for him and his family, because he’s true Crew through and through.
On the family atmosphere that Dr. Pete wants to restore to the club, especially with alumni:
That’s great man, because until this situation, I didn’t like the direction it was going, to be honest. Even before myself, we went to some places, man, to grow this league. We went to some farmland where people didn’t even know what proper soccer cleats were and we tried to push this league and to promote the Crew symbol and grow it. Then for people to come in and not appreciate that and ignore what we did to grow the sport, it was like wiping out the legacy of the Crew players, even before myself. The Brian McBrides and Brad Friedels. To come in and try to wipe that out, I didn’t like that, and not just for the Crew, but for the league. So many people worked so hard to build this league, so then to say it’s just business and ignore the foundation of who built this league, that’s crazy.
So having Dr. Pete, that foundation is not going to be left out. You don’t get to destroy what people do. It’s like pissing on their grave. You don’t do it. We’re all standing on the shoulders of the guys who came before. I stood on their shoulders and the young guys now are standing on our shoulders. The guys before me didn’t get to enjoy the success of this league, so don’t piss on those guys, man. I’m happy because Dr. Pete gets it and he knows the sacrifices because he was in the trenches with us.
On MAPFRE Stadium (where Cunningham scored the first-ever goal) being kept in place as part of the new training facility and public sports park:
That stadium is a staple. 50 years from now or a 100 years from now, when you’re talking about the history of this league, they’re going to be giving tours of that stadium. They’re going to make a lot of money on tours of that stadium. This is where it all came from.
On the success of the fan-led #SaveTheCrew movement:
Like we talked about before, watching how these type of situations turn out, I’ve never seen that happen. Always the team gets moved and the organization has to start over. For this to happen in Columbus, it’s just crazy. I was watching it and was shocked that Columbus pulled it off, but at the same time, I’m not surprised because that’s the city that has embraced the team since day one. If they saw us at the grocery store, they were friendly. You didn’t find that type of connection in other sports. They embraced us and we were friendly back. As players, we were ingrained as part of the community. In that sense, I’m not surprised Columbus was able to get it done because of how passionate they are about their team and players.
I’m just happy for Columbus, man. In the history books, when it says that hey, this has been done, it’s going to say “COLUMBUS” right there. I’m happy for those fans because of all places, they deserve it.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.