By Aidan Rogers
It was the first informed opinion I expressed about soccer, words I found only moments after some other little superstar wannabe kicked me in the shins at the first whistle. We were nowhere near the ball.
I walked off the field, sat in my mother’s lap, and declared my intentions to quit soccer forever; a bold declaration that lasted maybe five years.
Then something drew me back to the field, a new energy for the challenge of the sport, I guess. I had played basketball and softball and volleyball; I swam and swung a tennis racket. It wasn’t enough. I wanted soccer, and soccer wouldn’t let go of me.
Kind of the same way soccer won’t let go of Indianapolis,
Even most fans in the Indy community may not know that we had professional soccer here once, about fifteen years ago. The Indiana Blast men’s and Indiana Blaze women’s teams, in a league somewhere south of MLS, used to kickoff Friday nights at Kuntz Stadium. My dad and I were almost always in those stands. And I learned a thing or two about soccer fans.
Soccer fans are kind of a quiet bunch, comparatively. Dad and I had been to hockey games, basketball games, baseball games and they had always been hard for a short kid like me because everyone was always standing. The soccer stands were the only place I could ever sit down and still see the whole game. Everyone was watching intently the action on the field, cheering of course, but keenly aware of the fans around them and respectful. Wanting everyone to see.
Soccer fans are also a noisy bunch. This was well before World Cup South Africa, but fans still arrived at Kuntz Stadium with their own vuvuzela, or the American version of such a thing, as well as cymbals and shakers and noisemakers. If you didn’t have one, you could buy one down at the concession stand for a dollar or so, because soccer isn’t the same without it. My apologies to the neighbors.
Soccer fans are a humble bunch. All of these NFL and NBA and MLB teams keep getting bigger, better, grander stadiums and arenas in which to play. Soccer fans aren’t so high maintenance. Kuntz had bleachers, like a high school field might have. Under the bleachers was a small concrete bunker that was part-concession stand, part-locker room and part-restroom with a tiny little patio in case you wanted to eat and not watch the game (but why would you go and not watch the game?). That’s all. The game was the thing, not the stadium.
Soccer fans are international. This little dinky stadium in urban Indianapolis brought together the most incredible mix of people I’d ever seen in my life. People of all races, all ethnicities and all languages came to enjoy this sport. My dad met a man name Jorge and another one named Salas who eventually came to my little rural town to help coach a Boys & Girls Club soccer team with him. Sheltered by such a small community, where else was I ever going to find a Jorge? Honestly.
And perhaps most importantly, soccer fans are die-hard. One particular Friday night, one I will never forget and wouldn’t want to, severe weather rolled through Naptown just as the Blast were kicking off. The sky turned this weird green color that I‘d never seen before and haven’t seen since. The rains were pouring hard, and the stands were just as packed as they ever had been. More than a thousand people braving the storm to see their little-known team play. Then the clouds started to swirl and a funnel formed in the distance, and the announcers ushered everyone into that tiny concrete bunker. I squeezed into the very back corner of the locker room, pressed in by thousands of people content to wait like sardines in a tin, hoping the game would be back on in minutes. That’s hard-core.
They are the same traits I think about when I think about my little town, which isn’t so little any more. These are the kind of people I think about when I consider Indy as kind of a quiet, noisy bunch, humble, diverse, and hard-core. As soccer continues to grow worldwide and makes a comeback in America, I am excited to see it growing here, where we are a people primed and ready for it.
It’s a little bittersweet, though. It’s a moment I won’t be sharing with my dad. He died thirteen years ago from a brain tumor, and it kills me that he won’t be seeing this. Dad was a guy who continued to coach teams I wouldn’t play on because he hoped one day to see me back in soccer. He dragged me onto the all-star team, where it turned out I was a standout goalie and can to this day block a good shot. He packed me in the car with his gear and set me on the field with his adult male indoor team to keep me on top of my game and them on top of theirs. When I was old enough, we coached together. And he always, always made Friday night at Kuntz a priority.
So it’s going to be hard without him. He would have loved this. Now, I have to love it enough for the both of us. I think I already do.
NASL kicks off in Indy in 2014. Wake up, Naptown; the time is now.
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