In some ways, it is hard to believe that it has been two years since I was hospitalized with pneumonia and viral meningitis. In other ways, it seems like yesterday. It was a horrific, life-threatening experience followed by even worse trauma of job loss and months long convalescence. I silently leaned in hard on those who expressed their love and support, namely my mom and stepdad, but sadly I succumbed to a mental darkness that still leaves scars to this day. In the many long sorrow-filled days, I learned a lot about where I fit into people’s lives.
That being said, I don’t want those of you who are reading this to be concerned. I am in a much better place. I don’t want to upset anyone, yet I want to be candid because it helps to sort it all out, and for me, writing is a cathartic way to do that.
Days turned into weeks turned into months of depression, darkness, and loneliness. I’ve kind of always been the initiator with friends to hang out, grab some food, play games, and such. But here I was in this deep emotional pit. I had a friend who became my roommate; he was going through his own thing, and our relationship was more of a silent support, which is exactly what I needed. But all that time passed and I became significantly aware of several people who just never reached out. Didn’t seem to care. Weren’t aware of my pain. I stopped being the initator to see how long it would take for some of them to finally reach out to me. The results just worsened my emotional state.
That’s the background I give for this story. Now being the tech geek I am, I was a part of an online community of sports fans. I’m a regular participant of live chats during games. These internet strangers were regularly reaching out to see how my day was. A simple thing but all the difference. I worked my way to having really long conversations with one guy, Taylor, who today is one of my real life best friends.
We met through hockey, but one day he asked me if I watched soccer. I told him the 2014 World Cup was really the first time I paid attention to the sport but I enjoyed it, and after that I tried the English Premier League. But to that point, I just hadn’t latched on to a team and kind of gave up. I had every making of being one of the “once every four year” fans. He said I should give MLS a try. I scoffed. “American soccer. Ha! Right!” But he told me Dallas had a team. “Oh really,” I said. I do love me some hometown, so sure, I’ll watch a game.
I loved it. I loved FC Dallas. I immediately wanted to go to a game. And so I did about a month later. I met up with several of my new friends and Taylor introduced me to a supporter group, El Matador. If you aren’t familiar with SG’s, they are the crazy fanatics who bang, dance, chant, and otherwise get nuts at games. I had the time of my life catching their infectious enthusiasm. And from that day, I was hooked.
I’ve been back for three other games and every trip is memorable. Pre-game tailgating, marching in, unifying in loud voice, getting behind the team. Standing together whether the match go poorly or greatly. I really can’t quite put the words to it. But the belonging gave me something to look forward to in a time when I had absolutely nothing of the sort. El Mat is about la familia. Unity. Their motto is “Siempre Contigo”, meaning always with you. Even from this distance and though I’ve only spent a few hours on a few occasions with these people, their inclusion strengthened me. (I even ended up on Univision talking about it!)
Another of those “game chat” buddies, John, reached out to me this past spring and said he was coming up to Little Rock to cover our soccer team and he thought he recalled me saying I lived there. I knew of the soccer team here but had not gotten around to going. My first thought was “why in the world would you come here to write about a Little Rock team?” But he came on up and I met him. It was the last game of the regular season this year.
Of course, we had to migrate over to the little band of supporters. All I can say is I regret never having gone to a game before that day and I’m so thankful to John for introducing me. The Little Rock Rangers won the game and their first ever bid to playoffs. I didn’t know a thing about them but when the supporters were told they could charge the field, pop smoke, fly flags, and go crazy… I was in!
I went to their home playoff game. I went to packed out watch parties for their away games. I met their bus late at night when they got home. Even got interviewed (again!) by local news on the sense of community surrounding the Rangers. I made a new friend, Ryan, the head of the supporter group Red Watch. I shared a little about how much it meant to find something like this to get behind. Once the season ended, I hoped we’d all stay in touch. (Ryan and I still do.)
I love this team! I’ve only seen a couple games and that’s what makes it kind of crazy. But it is about having motivation when I had absolutely nothing of the sort. I can get behind this, be with people, be part of a group that encourages and supports and takes pride in something. That grassroots efforts of lower league soccer is very fitting of my helper personality.
I wrote something a while back–my last blog post in fact–about those first few days of discovering the Little Rock Rangers. Give it a read, if you want to know more, but that post caught the attention of the team owner. And I’m excited to have met him and to talk about collaborating with the team this coming season!
World Cup 2018 came and I watched every single match. Every single one. At work, on my iPad. At home. Out at a pub. I loved it. That tournament is when I grew fully out of thinking of soccer as an okay sport to one that equally matched my love of baseball and hockey.
Circle back to my group of “chat friends” and when the EPL started back, I was asked who my team was. I told them I was kinda meh on EPL but one of the guys (Walker) talked me into giving it another try. About that time, several things happened to point me to a team. A couple of sports beat writers tweeted about them being fans of Tottenham Hotspur. I asked them why and they pointed me to some team info. I read their history and really enjoyed it. I think I told Ryan one day I had done that and he told me he was a Spurs fan too. It had to be fate!
So I started watching Spurs. I took to Twitter to see if there were any fans around in Arkansas. I was well aware of the large crowds world soccer drew and thought maybe some people got together to watch EPL here in Little Rock. I found an “Arkansas Spurs” twitter account and reached out. A guy named Mark replied to me. They tweeted out a meetup and not knowing a single person or if I’d just end up being there by myself, I went.
The first time it was a handful of guys from the UK and me, the American soccer noob. A little awkward. But I went back. And again. And every game since, I’ve showed up. It was noticed. And appreciated. We started talking about becoming an official “Little Rock Spurs” supporter group. I experienced inclusion in a time when I felt like I had absolutely nothing of the sort. It is good for me to be in the company of others who also look forward to seeing me.
And as a funny little aside that makes it seem all the more “meant to be”, Mark turned out to be the husband of a coworker on my team at Blue Cross. Crazy. Let me tell you, there are some solid dudes in this group. They love Spurs and they love jerking each other around. And I love watching games with them. It is always a good time (especially when we win). And then there was that moment we showed up on national TV!
All of this has meant so much I even did the unthinkable for me and got El Matador’s motto inked onto my upper left arm. A permanent reminder that I am not alone.
Belonging. Motivation. Inclusion. Becoming a fan of soccer and the resulting investment in the relationships forged in supporter groups, I began to find myself again. It was the spark I needed. The energy I drew upon to climb out of the pit. I love this game and I love these people. And they’ve guided me to a place where I no longer look back. No… finally, I look forward to tomorrow.
I hesitate putting a few names in here for fear of leaving someone out who was instrumental in my journey. Being my own good editor, I tried to focus this piece purely on soccer. But there were others in my life who rode along at the same time. My best friend John Bibbs in Dallas is chief among them. He suffered through a lot of my sobbing and spoke candidly to me when I was tired of hearing all the well-intentioned cliche talk of others. And where I lacked in local supportive relationships, some old friends reached out and reconnected. I can definitively say if it weren’t for Michael’s willingness to let me come over at a moment’s notice when I reached out in the darkest of mental places, I don’t know where I would be. And I don’t say THAT as a cliche either. Love the bros of the Sacred Square. I’ve still got a lot to work out but chapters have finally closed. I can’t talk about all of it. But I have the confidence to say I have only to look forward now.