By Julie Stankey
I grew up in Columbus with no proclivity for soccer. During the Columbus Crew’s inaugural season in 1996, my church youth group worked a concession stand at Ohio Stadium during Crew games for a fundraiser. I volunteered at almost every home-game, although admittedly my favorite part was being allowed to run on the track in the stadium after the games. I attended a couple of games over the first few years, but made no lasting memories (aside from a pre-teen crush on Brian McBride).
I attended a Division 3 university where I quickly became friends with a couple of guys on the soccer team. My friends and I would paint shirts and make up chants in the stands as we cheered them on. Unbeknownst to me, my soccer-related painting and chanting was just beginning.
In 2003, my then-boyfriend, now-husband Andy, who was attending The Ohio State University, started following Chelsea and the Columbus Crew for the express purpose of irritating one of his roommates who is an Arsenal and DC United fan. The more he watched, the more he began to appreciate the game.
For me, however, following soccer was just another thing to do. We were both very into OSU football and Columbus Blue Jackets hockey and I really didn’t have an interest in adopting another sport to follow. Andy would come to games with his roommates, including his best friend since middle school, Eric. I frequently tagged along but they were much more into it than I.
In 2006, a group of underclassmen that Andy knew began to join him at games and they started tailgating together. During that summer, Andy and I got married and moved to Northeast Ohio, which hampered his ability to go to as many games.
In late 2007, our daughter was born. On that day, our friend Eric made a bold prediction that the Crew would win MLS Cup the following season. We laughed and forgot about it. One day in early April 2008, Eric called Andy to tell him that he was going to be in Columbus that weekend and asking if Andy wanted to go to the Crew vs. Chivas USA game. Andy had to work but they agreed to catch up soon. Two days later, Eric was gone. He died in his sleep from an undetected virus that attacked his heart.
The season carried on and the Crew clinched the Eastern Conference title and their first MLS Cup berth on what would have Eric’s 25th birthday. A week later, the team proved his prediction true by winning MLS Cup. We watched and wept from our living room.
I foolishly thought that with the distance, a young, growing family, and loss of his game-watching buddy, Andy’s fervor for the Crew would fade. However, that group of young guys that he had tailgated with a few times in ’06 rallied around him and became his Crew family. They continued tailgating together and started standing in the newly minted Nordecke.
When Andy is interested in anything, he learns as much as he possibly can about it and then he likes to share, so he would frequently read me Sirk’s Notebooks or Steven Lenhart’s blogs about training camp shenanigans. Although I wouldn’t admit to it, I enjoyed hearing Sirk’s Notebooks because I love the “voice” with which he writes and I found myself leafing through Andy’s copy of “A Massive Season” from time to time. Even though I only made it to a game or two a season, I was always aware of the ins-and-outs of the team. I enjoyed the energy and camaraderie of the Nordecke and felt more engaged in the game there than I had previously sitting in the upper deck or south end.
In the summer of 2012, the Crew world was forever shaken by the sudden passing of Kirk Urso. It was horribly sad news when it happened but when the cause of death was released a few weeks later, it was a gut punch. Another young man, another soccer-loving jokester, gone too soon due to an undetected heart condition. It became real and it became personal.
As I watched the way the team and the supporters responded to this tragedy, I started to see the heart of the Crew community, and it started slowly drawing me in.
Throughout the following season, I quietly started paying more attention. When the scoreboard caught on fire, I was the one who saw the tweets and told Andy, not the other way around. I started reading “Sirk’s Notebook” for myself and actually looking forward to attending games.
When Sirk released his book, “Kirk Urso: Forever Massive,” I practically pushed Andy through the line to buy it. I read it and sobbed the whole 2.5 hour drive home. That book transformed the players and staff from untouchable athletes to accessible humans, hurting in ways that I’ve hurt and hoping in ways that I hope. They were no longer just people, they were “my” people.
Throughout the 2014 season, I engaged more. I started listening to Massive Report on my own occasionally. I started following a few more people on Twitter. We took our kids to their first game. By the end of the season, I was legitimately excited about Crew news. On #NewCrew day, when the rebrand was revealed, I was traveling for business all day, flying into Columbus. Because I had a lot of downtime, I spent most of it watching the supporters banter in excitement on Twitter. When my flight landed late that evening in Columbus, I watched the logo reveal video on my phone and my first thought was “can I still make it to the end of this party?” It was that moment, on the escalator down to baggage claim in Port Columbus, that I knew that, against all of my efforts over decades, I had slowly yet inextricably fallen in love with the Crew.
In the brief years since, I’ve built some amazing friendships with wonderful people, become a Season Ticket Member, witnessed the excitement of the 2015 playoff run and the heartbreak of the MLS Cup from the Nordecke, spent countless hours tailgating in the Mapfre Stadium lot, helped with tifo/banner painting, gathered up hundreds of flags after games, greeted the team at the airport when they’ve brought home trophies, traveled halfway across the country and to the east coast with friends for NorOnTour, cheered and chanted until I had no voice, and made a million treasured memories as a Crew SC supporter.
The Columbus Crew SC is a piece of my home, my community, and has a piece of my heart – now and always, no matter what. It’s about so much more than soccer – it’s the people on the field, the people in stands, and the people who I carry in my heart into the stadium every single game.