Joining the Yanks

It all started because I needed an essay.

The year was 2012. At that point in my life, I was pretty much in between jobs. I had returned to the first school district I have worked for at the start of my career because they had asked me to return and quite soon, I immediately wished I hadn’t accepted. With my wife’s consent, I decided to move on.

At this point in my life, I was considering a few options for what was next. My home was in Muscatine, Iowa, where I had graduated from high school, and I was keen on trying to teach there. I thought it was a good district and my kids were attending school there at the time, so I thought that might be a fun experience.

I also had a high in the sky dream that I might become a full-time professor at another place – Muscatine Community College (MCC). That went to some old fantasies I had of being a professor/writer, like I had first seen on the University of Iowa campus. I could picture myself teaching three or four classes a semester, hanging out on some spacious campus lounge during my off times, and putting together a novel every two years or something like that. I could picture myself teaching kids eager to be the next Hemingway or James Patterson to spread their literary (or genre) wings. Older people still need their fantasies, kids.

To accomplish these goals, I decided to start substitute teaching at the school district and started working as an adjunct instructor at MCC. In the district, I taught everything from pre-school to high school; at MCC, I taught composition and writing. While I was substituting for other teachers in the district and teaching their lessons, the MCC class was totally my own. I designed it with input from mentors who were full-time instructors there, and I did all the evaluating and grading. Both positions, coincidentally, were part-time. That obviously meant no benefits and varying hours, depending on the situation on any given week. I wanted to show that I was interested in working for both organizations and contributing to them.

Due to a multitude of factors, I never did work for either the district or MCC full-time. The exact reasons aren’t important anymore and I’ve long moved on since that time. In fact, about a year later I’d chuck all of that to briefly come out of retirement from journalism and work for my hometown newspaper for about 18 months. However, something happened as part of that teaching that was something of a thought experiment to me.

As part of my work with MCC, I was designing my own course to teach online – a virtual composition course. This was during the early years when online teaching was beginning to unfold – no Zoom, no live chat. However, it was writing, and I’d like to think that I was putting together some good online instruction.

When I was starting to design that course, I had a chance to examine some existing composition courses from some of the other instructors. One of the things that I noticed that at least a couple of those instructors were using sample essays that were written by other students. As I was just starting out as a composition instructor, I didn’t have ready access to some good example essays from students. Because of that, I decided to put together one of my own essays to fill in the gap.

As one of the strategies I was teaching was descriptive writing, I figured I’d put together an essay that would include a strong description of something I had experienced. The idea behind such an essay is to give a dominant impression of whatever subject that you are describing. You want your audience to feel something about your subject, to have a deeper understanding of it. At this point in my life, there was one subject that I wanted to write about more than anything else. That subject was soccer.

For the past couple of years, I had been interested in the Chicago Fire Soccer Club (now the Chicago Fire Football Club). Soccer had been a longtime interest of mine (more on the origins of that subject later), but at that point in my life I had become obsessed with soccer in both domestic and foreign leagues, an obsession that has only grown in the years since. That summer, however, I had my first chance to watch a pro game live, in Chicago, with my son and one of my friends from Muscatine. It was an amazing experience… so I wanted to talk about it.

The result of all of this was “Joining the Men in Red,” a first-person account of that match. Is it a perfect example of a descriptive essay, like what I would find in some of the composition textbooks I used for my classes? Maybe not. Were there one of two things I could have made better? Maybe. But I think it had a lot of heart and passion, and I think it did reflect what I truly felt about the sport and its fandom.

And I was able to use that essay for those classes. I even found that it would up being useful for later classes (back at the high school level) where I used it as a descriptive writing example. Heck, even last year, I ended up using it in a composition class I was teaching at my new high school, and it wound up being a good resource.

However, this year, I had the opportunity to have another soccer experience that was brand-new for me but involved the oldest love of my soccer fandom. After that second experience, I started to wonder if it wasn’t time for a second essay about my soccer fandom, that used that second experience as an opportunity to express how I felt about the sport and one team in particular.

This is the result of that urge.

So, about 10 years after I tried this for the first time, I’m going to do something of a spiritual sequel to that article. Let’s hang out with the Yanks.

Continue reading “Joining the Yanks”

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 6: My obsession with soccer

Honestly, there’s been more than a few hints that I’m obsessed with soccer/association football/football.

The origins of the obsession come back to me, in fits and spurts. You have to understand, those of you who only remember 21st century America, that if you were ever transported to late 20th century America, you would find much of it to be familiar, yet there would also be some profound differences. For the purposes of keeping on topic, I’m going to only stick to what it was like for those who had an interest in soccer.

By the time I was growing up, soccer already had a century-plus history in the world under the rules and regulations that had been started up in an English pub around the time of the American Civil War. I knew none of this history growing up. I knew soccer was a game where you kicked the ball and used everything but your hands to move it, but that was it. There weren’t any games I could either watch on TV or hear on the radio, and the first match I ever saw live were the YMCA youth games I played in.

I’m sure I probably looked up the encyclopedia article for soccer at some point, but the first proper book I remember reading about soccer was a small one published by the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). I forget its name now, other than it was a little green book that went over the rules and general positions for soccer. (They still had the kids line up in a 2-3-5 (Pyramid) formation 30 years after it was obsolete.

It also talked to me about some of the legends who played soccer – Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, and Shemp Messing and Kyle Rote, Jr. (Americans playing soccer? Impossible). It talked about their exploits in America, in the old North American Soccer League, even though I didn’t know and the book didn’t say that the league was at that moment dying a quiet death.

Pele became my first soccer idol, even though he was retired from playing and I never saw any of his games as a kid. He was just that good, right? I did see him in a World War II movie directed by John Huston called Victory where Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone (what???) were Allied POWs who were challenged to a soccer match by the German National Team in occupied France. Stallone was the goalie and actually looked passable in the role – I learned years later that the former England keeper Gordon Banks had helped coach him. Pele was on the Allied team – they had to make him someone from Trinidad because while Brazil was on the Allied side during WWII, they never sent troops to Europe during the time in history.

Then there was my own limited playing experiences in YMCA soccer. I loved the freeflowing nature of the game, how improvisational you could be with the ball and how you didn’t have to be built a certain way or have a certain look to be successful with it. To be honest, I was a pretty limited player even as a kid – a defensive left back with a good right foot whose main defensive weapon was “get to the ball before the opponents and kick it as hard as I can.” The old English managers would have loved me.

I remember seeing a article in People magazine during the mid to late 80’s, a lifestyle story about Diego Maradona. I was fascinated about him being so small and yet so dominant in soccer, and intrigued about the wild lifestyle the article just hinted at. He became my first soccer antihero.

I vaguely remember there being a World Cup, but I really didn’t get into it until the USA hosted it in 1994. That was the first time I remember the entire tournament being on TV. I specifically remember visiting my then-girlfriend, now-wife, at her mom’s home and randomly turning on the TV to see how the US v. Columbia game was going on. When I saw we were already 2-0, I jumped up shouting and everyone in the house wondered whether I was nuts. I was a fan of the US men’s national team from that moment forward. I guess I was technically a US women’s national team fan from then on, too, but not really until the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when I saw them work their magic.

Ever since then, it’s become easier and easier to feed into my soccer fandom, with better coverage of the game in America and overseas, especially the English Premiere League which I have been addicted to since they began broadcasting those games regularly on American television. It’s been fun to find teams to root for in the different leagues, even ones in Mexico and Germany, among others.

And now, that passion for the sport has bled into my writing world, the Project A that I’ve talked about. I have a great main character from America and it’s been a blast dipping him into the world of soccer, though I think that this character in particular would be interesting no matter what he was doing.

However, I’ve put him in the world of soccer. That’s because, in part, I’m always up for seeing what happens during a good game.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I debated whether this was going to be a Volume I (childhood) entry, a Volume II (young adulthood) entry, or a Volume III (middle age and onwards) entry. I first learned of the sport and played it as a young child, my soccer fandom started as a young adult, and I didn’t complete the main project I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. It was a roll of the dice, but I settled on Volume II because that’s when the obsession really started.

Anyway, I’m publishing this not on the weekend, so I can still call it a midweek post and keep my word to everyone, lol.]

[AUTHOR’S NOTE #2: [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The pic I used for today’s post comes from a photographer I found out about from the blog In Bed With Maradona. If you are massively into football ⚽️ culture, you need to check it out. The photographer’s name’s Jurgen Vantomme and he does some great stuff. This comes courtesy of this collection, and you can check his web site out here.]

 

Joining The Men In Red

I decided that this was the best time to present some of my original writing. This was me for me – something that is a passion for me that I can’t escape.

Joining the Men in Red

“People think that football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

  • Bill Shankly, Manager, Liverpool FC (1913-1981)

It was the flare lighting up at my feet that finally pushed me over the edge. From my vantage point, I never really saw who had sparked it off, just two figures quickly shuffling away from the floor of the stadium two rows below me as the flames of the white-hot magnesium fuel seared my retinas. It was the second half of the match between the visiting Columbus Crew and La Maquina Roja, the Men in Red, Chicago Fire SC. As first that flare and a second one started to burn two sections to the right, the Section 8 crew, the most loyal Fire supporters, were in frenzy as they prayed in song to the boys on the field to keep their lead alive. As the smoke crept over the northern Harlem End stands, we began singing The Song.

Every great soccer team has one song or chant that is absolutely theirs, one that defines their team and which no one else uses. There’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” for Liverpool (although Celtic FC borrow it sometimes), “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” for West Ham United, and “La Roma Non Si Discute, Si Ama” [Roma is not to be questioned, it is to be loved] by AS Roma. Despite standing up for an entire hour straight, despite singing so loudly over that time I was seriously wondering whether I’d be able to talk the next day, I joined in the singing, at the top of my lungs, of Our Song:

Late last night, while we were all in bed,

Ms. O’Leary hung a lantern in the shed,

And when it tipped over, she winked her eye and said,

“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”

FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!

At that moment, everything could and might be going to hell all at once. But I was absolutely at peace with the world and my place in it. I belonged and was part of something greater than myself.

Looking back, soccer has been a growing passion with me, a sport I always loved but only slowly getting its hooks into me over the years. As a kid, I played Y soccer as a kid myself, and for an abortive adult league in my town for a season back in the late 90’s. My one regret now is that I never attempted to join my high school soccer side. I had heard about the Chicago Sting of the old North American Soccer League, but I couldn’t have picked out any of their players if they’d shown up in uniform. Then there was the 1994 World Cup in America, and the founding of MLS, but it was still far away from me. I heard about the Fire’s founding, its success with the MLS Cup its first year and the U.S. Open Cup in later years, but it was difficult to see them on television, even on cable. However, that improved, as did America’s interest in the game. I also started becoming connected to the club online.

By the summer of 2012, I was deep into the culture of fandom with the Fire, following their every move online, keeping updated on where they were in the standings, and slowly acquiring whatever Fire gear I could. I had finally seen them play an exhibition against the great Manchester United in Soldier Field, but I had yet to see the Fire in their real home, in a league match. I decided to change that with a game that June, with my son Jake and friend Tim in tow.

After three hours of speeding through miles of Illinois farmland and a few more miles of urban Chicagoland sprawl, Jake, Tim, and I knew we were getting close when we entered suburban Bridgeview and started to see the Fire badge on more than a few local bars. Finally, we saw the stadium, Toyota Park, rise out of the ground as we made our final approach.

I loved the excitement in my son’s eyes as we took a walk around Toyota Park. The stadium’s design was a blend of American and European stadium design, a horseshoe of seating around three of the four sides of the field, with overhangs covering the seating along the sides. We’d be in the uncovered Harlem end at the north end of the field, right next to the goal.

As Jake and Tim and I wandered around the red brick exterior to find where the main gates were like the Iowa rubes we were, we saw a flash of gold and black in one small section of the parking lot. As we walked up to it, we realized that it was the small area of the lot dedicated to the visiting tailgaters cheering on the Columbus (OH) Crew. Black and gold flags flew over trucks, cars, and buses as they chowed down on tailgate burgers and dogs and broke out into the occasional song. As a U of Iowa fan (and later alumni) for 30-plus years, the idea of those colors being the opposition colors left me with a vaguely befuddled feeling. I was glad I was wearing red and had suggested my son and friend do so as well.

After a quick trip to the Fire gear shop and picking up our tickets, we made our way through the turnstiles into the stone entryway of the stadium. The views of the field were excellent – most of the nearest seats were no more than three feet away from the field. We saw the number displays honoring past Fire players and staff, and the banners honoring past MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup wins.

Across the field, I can see the Columbus fans filing into their small section and starting singing even before the game. The Section 8 boys and girls weren’t ready yet, but we could see the fans gathering their signs and banners that could cover an entire section of seats and getting them ready for the game. We had to move to another section because “the band was coming in,” and sure enough, we saw a group of fans setting up drums and horns in the middle of the section.

I knew stuff was getting real right before kickoff when I saw a guy climb on top of a red metal platform in front of the stands. These were the chant and singing leaders, hollering at the tops of their lungs as they led us through the Fire’s song catalogue. After we ripped through the National Anthem and kickoff happened, we started singing:

Vamos, la maquina roja/esta noche/tenemos en ganar……

[Let’s go, the Red Machine/this night/we win]

The Fire scored the first goal of the night in the fifth minute. As a roar went up from the Section 8 stands, we hoisted a massive banner with the logo CF97 (referring to the Fire and their founding date. The founding of the club actually happened on the 126th anniversary of the actual Great Chicago Fire) over our heads until it covered the entire section. We had a second chance to do it about 10 minutes later, so we took it.

Within 10 minutes, I could already feel my voice getting strained. Tim eventually had to take a few breaks from singing – he had to work the next day and didn’t want to be unable to communicate with co-workers. Jake kept yelling his head off, though, but he needed at least a couple of sodas to keep going. It must have been exhausting for the chant leaders, too – there were about five different people who took turns up on top of the platform during the match.

It started getting desperate around the second half. We had one of our players sent off and were a man down; then they scored on us to make it 2-1. As we continued to chant and sing, we kept watching that clock tick down closer and closer to the 90th minute, willing the game to end with the 2-1 score.

It was right in that mode that the flares dropped and The Song rang out from the stands for a solid four minutes. As we cheered them on, we were no longer just a crowd, but a whole community with our own little culture of the Fire.

Finally, after five minutes of extra time after the official 90, the whistle blew and the Fire was the winner. As we sang in celebration, the Fire players and coaching staff walked toward our section and gave us a round of applause from the field.

That day, I was able to celebrate a sport, a team, and a city that I loved, with a group of people that made it OK to do so. It’s not going to be every day that I am going to be able to make it out to see the Fire, but every time I do, either there or at home, I feel part of a greater soccer community. For me, the Fire has become more than a club; it’s become part of home.