A Crewsmas Story (2019)

On September 12, 1999, I drove up to Cleveland following that afternoon’s Crew game to personally witness the return of the Cleveland Browns following the original incarnation’s relocation to Baltimore. They lost to the hated Pittsburgh Steelers 43-0. It was still a happy night. After three years without football in one of the NFL’s most rabid markets, the Browns were back where they belonged. And now the Browns, headed by the Haslam family, have helped ensure that the Columbus Crew remain where they belong after a relocation threat.

Compared to a 43-0 drubbing by a vile rival after a three-year hiatus, the hiatus-less Crew’s 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls was barely a blip. Coach Caleb Porter and his players spoke of the disappointment of two points lost, but as unfair as it is to all of the hard work they have put in since January to prepare for the season, to me, under these specific circumstances, the result of the match didn’t feel absolutely paramount.

The match’s mere existence did.

*****

More than two hours before kickoff, Peter Shehata roamed the Mega-Tailgate waving a giant #SaveTheCrew flag. It’s a triumphant remnant from the hard-won fight by the people of Columbus to save their team from being stolen away to Austin, Texas. Now he was celebrating Crewsmas, the holiday the marks the Crew’s home opener.

“It’s surreal,” he said as he surveyed the jubilant sea of Black & Gold that surrounded him. “The fact that we’re here, it’s bringing me so much happiness. “

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Peter Shehata with his #SaveTheCrew flag. Fun note– obscured behind the flag is Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer, who wandered the tailgate with a victory cigar.

Shehata described himself as a casual Crew fan prior to the relocation attempt. As a kid, he had gone to the Horseshoe to watch games with his parents and other members of the Egyptian community. He watched MLS Cup 2008 while living in Toledo. Upon returning to Columbus, he would attend the occasional Crew game. Then the battle to save the Crew began, which he saw as a fight to preserve some happy memories and the ability to create many more in the future.

“When the social media came through with the #SaveTheCrew movement, I felt that that was the calling for me to not only be part of the movement, but to support the team and go to all of the games,” he said. “From there, one thing just kept leading to another and my fandom turned 180 degrees from casual to this is a club I really want to get involved with.”

From the rally at City Hall to the takeover of College Gameday, where Crew fans flooded the background of the on-campus ESPN set at Ohio State with a bevy of #SaveTheCrew banners and images, Shehata threw himself into the effort to keep the team in Columbus. He also became a member of the #SaveTheCrew peloton at Pelotonia and ran his first 15k while carrying his #SaveTheCrew flag for the entire race.

“I’ve always wanted to get involved in the community,” he said. “Everyone’s attitude of you can’t beat us and it’s not over until it’s over, that kind of moxie from them is what I wanted to surround myself with. You have to surround yourself with positive people if you want something to succeed and come to fruition.”

Not only has #SaveTheCrew inspired Shehata to become more involved in the community, but the success of the movement has carried over into other aspects of his life—physically, mentally and emotionally.

“It has changed me,” he said. “It’s taught me that you can never give up. You can never be pessimistic about things. You always have to have faith. Always be optimistic. Always be positive. It’s something that I can now apply to other aspects of my life. Even if things are against you, that’s okay. Just keep on trying.”

And now it was matchday. Everything that he and so many fought for would result in the Crew taking the field in their iconic gold uniforms to face the New York Red Bulls.

“It’s really going to hit me when that whistle blows at 4:30,” he said. “I think a lot of us, including myself, might even be in tears because what we thought was never going to happen is here. We have our team. I’m ready to look forward. I’m excited for what Caleb Porter is going to do, I’m excited for the leadership of Bez and Dr. Pete and Dee Haslam, and I’m really excited to see this club have a presence in our community. Come 2021 (when the new Confluence Village stadium opens), I don’t even have the words to describe. But for this season, I’m ready to think about our players and opponents and tactics and not have to worry about talk of business metrics. Tonight, I’m ready to hear 17 or 18,000 chanting their support. I’m going to be in tears.”

*****

Shehata was not the only one tearing up as we spoke. Longtime Crew fan Dennis Acosta teared up at the thought of his grandchildren. As someone who stood in line at Kroger in 1994 to put down his initial season ticket deposit, and as someone who froze while watching the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship match and who celebrated the Crew winning MLS Cup in 2008, Acosta described Anthony Precourt’s relocation treachery as akin to having his own heart ripped out.

“I couldn’t imagine Columbus without the Crew,” he said. “But the #SaveTheCrew movement carried the torch until the Haslam and Edwards families came on board. The news this past October that there was hope—real hope—instead of watching Austin City Council meetings and all that stuff… so when the news came in October that this might be happening and then in December and January where it was really happening, it was like, ‘Oh my god. My grandkids will be able to enjoy all the things that we have enjoyed since 1996.’”

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Dennis Acosta raises his beer to those who saved the Crew for his grandkids.

Tears rolled down his cheeks.

“I bleed Black & Gold, even more than Buckeye Scarlet & Gray,” he said. “To be able to say that I can take my grandkids to games, I’m in tears, man. It means that much. I just thank Morgan (Hughes), Sage (Scharre), and all the people at #SaveTheCrew for making that happen. I can’t believe it.”

Seeing is believing. He was at a tailgate for the 2019 season opener.

“The Crew will stay in Columbus, where it belongs as the first MLS franchise,” Acosta said. “It’s just incredible. This is tradition. This is history. It’s old times in the modern era. I can’t describe the words. Emotions, man.”

*****

Michael Blankley is better known in Crew supporter circles as Hard Hat Mike. The sobriquet derives from his ever-present hard hat at Crew tailgates, a nod to the Crew’s original construction-themed logo from 1996-2014. When the Nordecke was formed in 2008, Blankley became the unofficial spokesman for the corner, speaking to the media on behalf of the club’s most fervent fans.

Frankie and Hard Hat Mike 2008
Blankley and Hejduk on October 4, 2008. Photo by Sam Fahmi.

On October 4, 2008, Hard Hat Mike was part of an incredible image from the 2008 championship season. With Frankie Hejduk suspended for the sold out match against the LA Galaxy, the Crew’s captain wandered out to the tailgate and decided to party with the fans. At one point, Hejduk stood in the back of a truck with Blankley as they each chugged a beer. In a season that bonded the team with the Nordecke, the tailgate beer chug was an indelible moment.

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“Hard Hat Mike” Blankley on Crewsmas 2019

Hard Hat Mike now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. There was no way he was going to miss this very special Crewsmas, so he made the pilgrimage back to Columbus.

“When I saw that tweet that they were going to move the Crew, I sat down at my kitchen table and cried,” he said. “Everything that we helped build was being taken.”

He then surveyed the overflowing tailgate with merry revelers in every direction.

“This is the greatest thing ever,” he said. “I didn’t expect any of us to be here today. They told us this was impossible. These guys made it happen. I didn’t have a thing to do with it, living as far away as I do. All these folks made it happen.”

He glanced at MAPFRE Stadium, a beacon of Massiveness looming in the distance.

“The old girl looks amazing over there,” he said of the mecca he traveled 800 miles to visit. “The effort they (new ownership) put into it in two months is more than the other guys put into it in the last four years. It’s incredible.”

What was truly incredible was the confluence of events that occurred as the Crewsmas tailgate. Encouraged by his fellow fans, Hard Hat Mike climbed onto the roof of a van and delivered an impromptu address to his brethren.

I honestly don’t know what to say up here. This is the greatest thing we could have thought. WE’RE STILL HERE! They told us to accept it. They told us that all of our anger and all of our tears didn’t mean a thing. WE’RE. STILL. HERE. I want to say thank you to the Edwards family if they’re still here. I saw them around earlier. I want to say thank you to the Haslam family. I also want to raise a glass to the one guy who isn’t here. Father Crewsmas, shine on us today!

Father Crewsmas
Frankie Hejduk with the late Mark Rovick in all his Father Crewsmas glory.

Father Crewsmas is a nod to Mark Rovick, a white-bearded Crew fan who dressed up in a gold Santa suit every year to herald the arrival of the Crewsmas holiday at the start of every home campaign. Rovick passed away in June of 2018, while the future of his beloved Crew was very much in peril. If there was any doubt whether Father Crewsmas was watching down on the 2019 celebration, he appeared to answer Hard Hat Mike’s request to shine down upon the proceedings.

During Blankley’s speech, fans began shouting Frankie Hejduk’s name, hoping he was in the vicinity. Suddenly, there was a loud cheer from the masses. As luck would have it, Hejduk was nearby, so he came over, climbed on the roof of the van, and chugged a beer with Hard Hat Mike in a throwback to their 2008 moment. Crew supporters went wild.

It was so perfect that it seemed like a setup. But it wasn’t.

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Hejduk and Blankley on March 2. 2019 prior to the Crewsmas day match against New York. Photo by Sam Fahmi.

“This was totally spontaneous,” Blankley said afterward. “They came over and said, ‘We want you to get up there again.’ I said, ‘No, I’m too old for this nonsense.’ [laughs] As you can see by my beer, which is only half empty.”

It was still a perfect chug in spirit.

An hour after the 1-1 draw against the Red Bulls, I caught up with Hejduk, who also said his chugging skills were rusty. He was at the tailgate and heard his name spreading through the crowd. Once he saw Hard Hat Mike on the roof of the van, his first instinct was to stay on the ground.

Internal objection overruled.

“I was thirsty anyway,” Hejduk said.

Having a feel for the moment, Hejduk climbed on the roof of the van and had a beer with Hard Hat Mike, just as they had done over a decade before. The fans ate it up.

“It was a special moment,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, dude, we’re doing this again.’ But then it made perfect sense. It was the perfect time to do it. I think that was a high-energy moment and a funny moment from back in the day, so it was good just to relive the moment here today, and it seemed like the people were twice as passionate.”

It went over so well that Hejduk had a suggestion for Hard Hat Mike.

“I said, ‘We need to do this more often’ and he said, ‘Dude, I live in Nebraska.’”

On the surface, it may have seemed like a fun and frivolous Frankie moment. In truth, it went deeper. During the entire relocation ordeal, Hejduk was exiled in bummer-trapped purgatory. Outrageously outgoing, always upbeat, and overflowing with good vibes, Frankie couldn’t be himself with the threat of relocation hanging over the club. Saturday’s serendipitous rooftop chug-a-long with Hard Hat Mike almost felt like Popeye eating his spinach.

“It was a special moment for me because I got to see and feel the fans again,” he said. “For that period of 15 months, it didn’t get to be that way. The fans have been trying to help me out, but it was a weird spot to be in, so to have that energy back and to have the fans behind me to and to see everyone out there having a good time and smiling at the tailgate, everyone was happy out there, so it was a special moment. It’s what we all wanted to see for a long time now, and now we finally got to play a game and get our fans back into it and now it’s time to go to work again.”

*****

The Crew got back to work again, but the match was a euphoric blur to me. The image that will stick in my mind is the team huddled around Gaston Sauro in celebration of his equalizing goal.

Sauro’s career was in serious jeopardy after an infection settled in to his surgically repaired knee, but now he was having this special moment. The crowd cheered. Black & gold checkered flags waved in the stands. And a man who came back to the field against long odds with the help for Dr. Pete Edwards scored the tying goal for the club that came back from an existential threat against long odds with the help of Dr. Pete Edwards.

In the end, Crewsmas 2019 didn’t result in a win for Columbus, except for in all the important ways that it did.

*****

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
If you wish to support my writing, please consider becoming a patron at my Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/SteveSirk

A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.

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