“There’s going to be a press release going out on Monday, but I wanted you to hear it from me first.”
After two days of phone tag, so began my Saturday night conversation with Dwight Burgess, “The Voice of the Crew” for 24 seasons. He wanted to personally let me know there would not be a 25th.
Juggling obligations to his family, his job as head coach of the men’s soccer team at Wittenberg University, his health in an ongoing recovery from a stroke he suffered in May of 2018, and his role as the longtime (and original) Columbus Crew broadcaster, something had to give. It certainly wasn’t going to be his family. It certainly wasn’t going to be his health. It certainly wasn’t going to be his primary source of income and the ability to shape young men’s lives, on and off the field. By default, that left the Crew and the job he has cherished since 1996. Alas, thirty-something weekends of work on top of a full-time job, with the back and forth travel to Cleveland to call away broadcasts, the commitment got to be too much.
The heart and The Voice were willing, but life’s circumstances offered no room for accommodation.
Dwight Burgess has been my friend for 24 years. I’ve been his friend for roughly 21. The discrepancy is easily explained.
There is a certain intimacy to a radio broadcast. Without the moving pictures flooding your brain, you are solely relying on a disembodied voice to describe the action to you so you can create the images in your own mind. You hang on the announcer’s every word. With time, that voice becomes a trusted friend. There’s a one-sided familiarity with the person on the other end of the transmission. They are at the game and they are talking to YOU.
Growing up, I listened to Herb Score call countless Cleveland Indians games. I never once met Herb Score, yet I considered him an unofficial additional grandfather. When we would go to Tribe games, my sister and I would make a point to stand in front row of the upper deck above the radio booth and scream “HI HERB!” before the game. I have no idea if he ever heard us. Heck, I have no idea if he was even in the booth at the time we screamed. But I just knew I wanted to say hi to my friend / unofficial additional grandfather Herb Score since he talked me almost every night for six months of the year.
When the Crew first started, not every game was televised. Radio played a big role in following the team. And that meant that Dwight Burgess became my friend. The Voice would come out of the speakers and I could feel the game come to life. I could picture it in my head. I would laugh at his sarcastic comments, get excited when he raised his voice, and feel the crush of disappointment when he relayed bad news. There was a lot of bad news in 1996. I remember listening to a 5-2 loss at RFK Stadium when Steve Rammel scored a hat trick for D.C. United. I remember listening to that bonkers 6-4 loss in Kansas City when the Crew blew a 4-2 second-half lead. I remember my friend Dwight telling me all about it. Just the two of us.
Unlike Herb Score, I actually met Dwight Burgess. It was the summer of 1998. I had started covering the team that season, but our paths had not yet crossed in any meaningful way. Then one day the folks who ran CrewFan.com, the precursor to a site like Massive Report, set up a lunch with Dwight. I don’t recall how it came to be. I was a supporter of CrewFan and had befriended Matt Bernhardt and Chuck Pearson and some of the guys on the site. However it happened, we all had lunch with Dwight at the (since closed) Pizzeria Uno on Tuttle Crossing. Dwight held court for two solid hours, talking Crew, answering questions, and offering advice to all us novices. (Myself included. I had no idea what I was doing and was just winging it that first year.)
When it was over, I couldn’t believe that Dwight Burgess took time out of his day to meet with us. But we were fans and passionate about covering the team.
Dwight has always been happy to help kindred spirits.
I first became real friends with Dwight later that fall. In September of 1998, I flew with the team out to Foxboro as they took on the Revolution as part of a doubleheader with Mia Hamm and the U.S. Women’s National Team. Friday night, there was a large group outing to the Boston Red Sox game. There were broadcasters like J.P. Dellacamera and Ty Keough, front office folks like Crew PR guy Jeff Wuerth, Columbus Dispatch beat writer Craig Merz, coaches like Tom Fitzgerald and Greg Andrulis, and players like Brian Maisonneuve, Mike Clark, and Todd Yeagley. It was in this illustrious company that I crossed Fenway Park off my ballpark list. Yet, my defining memory is Dwight finding a curbside parking spot right next to Fenway Park. When I say right next to Fenway Park, I mean the brick exterior of the structure was maybe 25 feet from his rental car. He couldn’t have done better if Fenway offered valet parking. Unbelievable.
Dwight and I had a blast on that trip, constantly cracking each other up, and we became fast friends. In 1999, he kindly wrote a column called “A View From Above” for my short-lived ‘zine, The Foreman’s Soccer Journal.
By the year 2000, not only were we both working for the Crew, but Dwight helped me through a lot of personal stuff during one of the roughest years of my life. Also, we started playing indoor soccer together. Not only could he play, but—and this surely comes as no surprise to anyone—he would run his mouth all game long. Just a joy to play with.
I remember one game where we combined on the winning goal with seconds to play. He was along the end boards and scooped the ball over the goalkeeper at the near post. I came in from the far post and had an easy tap-in from 12 inches in front of an empty net. It completed a tap-in hat-trick, all courtesy of Burgess feeds.
As I rushed at him to celebrate our last-second game-winning goal, Dwight fended me off by saying, “You just scored the shortest distance hat-trick in the history of soccer. You’re welcome.”
Dwight and I were together for another famous scoop pass. When Guillermo Barros Schelotto found a streaking Frankie Hejduk for the goal that clinched MLS Cup 2008 for the Crew, I bear-hugged Dwight in the broadcast booth. He was on the radio and it felt like I squeezed all of the air out of his lungs, but nothing could stop him from talking, especially in a moment like that.
“Rogers, a beautiful ball over the defense to the weak side, 1-v-1. It’s Moreno, now working with Gaven. It’s a bad pass, but Moreno wins it back….Gaven plays it to Schelotto…HEJDUK!…HEADERRRRRRRR… IT’S IN! THREE-ONE!”
Our dream had come true. The Columbus Crew had become Massive Champions.
About ten minutes later, he called the final moments.
“After the goal kick, Lenhart heads the ball down for Alejandro Moreno. Ale accelerates toward the corner flag and holds the ball there. Knocked out of bounds. Throw-in Columbus. The Hunt Sports Group is gathering behind the Crew bench. Clark Hunt, who referenced his father, Lamar, prior to kickoff, is about to accept the championship trophy. The balance of this one is on the wristwatch of the referee AND THERE IT IS!…THE COLUMBUS CREW ARE CHAMPIONS OF MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER!……..(long stretch of crowd noise, letting the cheers tell the story)… Thirteen long years, the Crew faithful have stood by their team…. At the start of the 2008 season, head coach Sigi Schmid said, ‘Our goal is to make the playoffs.’ Sigi, you did it! You made the playoffs!…You won the Supporters’ Shield!…And you are the champions of Major League Soccer!”
Thinking of those MLS Cup calls just made me think of how revered Dwight is by all the folks he helped along the way. That situation is a perfect illustration.
By the time the 2008 season rolled around, Burgess was doing the TV broadcasts and Neil Sika had been doing the radio broadcasts for a few years. With the playoff games being nationally televised, Burgess joined Sika in the booth to offer color commentary. Sika, ever-appreciative of Dwight’s friendship and guidance as Sika learned the sport upon taking the radio gig, and also respectful of Dwight’s place in club history, surprised Dwight by handing over the final minutes of the 2008 Eastern Conference Final so Dwight could call the historic moment after four prior conference final heartbreaks. Sika then did the same thing at MLS Cup.
The radio call was rightfully Sika’s gig. It would be the dream call of any young and ambitious broadcaster to exclaim the historic words at the clinching of a championship. It’s something that would truly pop on a demo reel, that’s for sure.
Yet young Neil Sika gladly handed the mic to Dwight Burgess because he felt it was the right and honorable thing to do.
It tells you a lot about both of those guys.
I’m writing this in a hurry. This is one of those publish-the-first-draft situations or it will never get done because I’d never stop trying to make it better and better and it would never end up being published.
There are so many Dwight things that I can’t possibly cram into a hastily-written blog post. So many roadtrip stories. So many game calls. So many acts of friendship.
So many laughs, like when he ends a face to face conversation by cheerfully saying, “It was good to see me.”
So many fun (and frustrating) conversations over the years. Here’s one as I chronicled it during our preseason trip to Virginia Beach in 2005 and included it in A Massive Season.
Among his many talents, Dwight is a master of Making Conversations More Difficult Than They Need To Be. To wit, on our drive to the airport, I told Dwight that my layover is in Philadelphia. Dwight suggested that I go see the Liberty Bell. (As if I’d have time.) Then the following conversation took place:
SS: I’ve already seen the Liberty Bell. We had to stand in line for two hours.
DB: You did not have to stand in line for two hours.
SS: Yes we did.
DB: I beg to differ.
SS: Okay, fine. If we wanted to see the Liberty Bell, we had to stand in line for two hours.
DB: That is also incorrect. You could have seen the Liberty Bell some other time when the line was shorter.
SS: We were only in Philadelphia for the afternoon.
DB: So? That doesn’t mean anything. You could visit Philadelphia some other time. What you meant to say is that because you wanted to see the Liberty Bell on that day and at that time, you willingly chose to stand in line for two hours.
DB: All I’m asking is that if you’re going to tell a story, tell it honestly.
Through good times and bad, that last line is something The Voice of the Crew did for 24 wonderful seasons.
Given its nature, I’m shocked that the Saturday night phone call from Dwight wasn’t sadder. After all, I can’t imagine a season of Columbus Crew broadcasts without him behind the mic. But maybe I wasn’t sad because he seemed at peace with the situation. He stressed he’s not retiring and he certainly still loves the Columbus Crew. Instead of focusing on the loss of what once was, he seemed focused on what could be. He is already looking forward to the possibility of new potential projects that better fit his present circumstances.
Maybe I was heartened by the idea that, in some form or another, perhaps Crewville hasn’t heard the last of The Voice.
My new book “A Massive Collection, Volume 1” is now available!
Also, for those who like to support local businesses, signed paperback copies are available at Prologue Bookshop in the Short North.