It was mid May, as I entered the stadium, excited for what this season was going to bring. The crowd was buzzing with anxious energy, the smell of beer and hotdogs filled the air. As the die-hard fans I would soon become a part of proceeded with their ritual march to the stands, loud drums and singing echoing off the surrounding buildings, I saw something I wanted to be a part of. I saw something good. I longed for good, because while we cheered on this team I barely knew anything about, my entire life was falling apart around me.
The Unpredictability Of Life
You never know what life is going to throw your way. It’s usually best to invest in a mentality of adaptation and “rolling with the punches”, as they say. But sometimes something so devastating happens, you can’t help but be intensely aware of the crippling weight on your shoulders as your knees grow weak, and you feel your body crumbling under the pressure.
Since the beginning of March, this was me Every. Single. Day.
I had quit my job and begun trying to get a job in Nashville, working my ass off to prove myself for that job position. I was playing gigs all over town, delivering groceries to try to make ends meet every month, and my wife had up and moved out, and was barely speaking to me. It was during this time that soccer season began to ramp up and the city was abuzz about the upcoming first game.
I hadn’t been a soccer fan until the end of the season the year prior. But once I got into it, I was in love. It wasn’t the sport itself that intrigued me. It was the fans. It was the culture. There is something very magical and mysterious about the community that surrounds soccer teams. Any fan will tell you. You don’t want to miss a single game. This grabbed me. As I began traveling back and forth between Nashville and Chattanooga and starting to transition to a new life, I started to feel a bit ostracized from my previous group of friends. I felt uncomfortable at my old stomping grounds. My favorite bar had been ruined for me. People started treating me differently due to the inevitable public knowledge of my separation and the way it had all gone down didn’t help things.
I felt alone.
But one thing that began to be a constant in my life was Saturday evening at 7:30. It was always the same. The same faces. The same smiles. The same tailgates. The same team.
The same hooligans.
Once you know them, you never forget them. You envy them. You long to be as passionate about anything in your life as they are about the Chattanooga Football Club. I felt welcome from my first tailgate. They gathered this particular day behind the Chattanooga Brewing Company. I went from tent to tent talking to people and meeting new friends. I always had a beer in my hand and food on my plate. As the drums began to play and people gathered for the ceremonious, prophetic, triumphant march to Fort Finley, I felt uncomfortable and out of place. I didn’t know what to do. I just followed everyone else, blending in, and pretending I was supposed to be there. As the megaphone hailed the praises of the team this group so deeply adored, screams hurled into the air like fiery arrows in the heat of battle. The march began, and I fell in line with the group with a flag that had been shoved in my hand.
I was hooked.
A mere 3,000 or so people filled the stands at the beginning. But that certainly didn’t stop the hooligans from making it sound like three times that amount.
They open every game with an announcement over the megaphone:
“The tailgate has officially concluded, and its time to go to work!”
They root for their team if they win, they root even harder when they lose (which isn’t often). And they are there long after everyone else has left; singing their team off the field.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Chattahooligan culture has grown to be a mindset of service, love, inclusiveness, and good old fashioned hospitality off the stands as well. With stories of opposing teams being welcomed, appreciated, and loved, even if they beat our team, to open invitations to fans of CFC and opposing teams alike to join them at the tailgate. And even an attitude of leaving all areas better than they found them by cleaning up after themselves and everyone else. This is truly a unique group of people, even (or especially) among the greater soccer culture.
A Match To Remember
There were so many magical moments to remember from this short few months. But one Match sticks out in particular.
There’s something so incredibly romantic about sports. Not everyone sees it or understands. But both fans and players alike yearn for these special rare moments where everything comes together, and the unimaginable is accomplished before your eyes.
We had one such moment this season.
We were playing Memphis in what would be the most exciting match of the whole season. With less than 10 minutes left, the score was tied. Our fearless and humble leader called his right hand man to the front to lead the hooligans in the chants while he took off sprinting along the brick wall that separated the fans and the field.
He reaches the middle of the stadium, syncs up with the hooligans, and within seconds the whole stadium is on their feet, singing together. By this point in the season the crowd had grown from a little over 3,000 at the start of the season to over 4,600 fans. The clock ticked down with less than three minutes left, the chants grew louder, the drums beating so hard it shook my ribs, and at around 2 and a half minutes we made one of the most impressive goals of the entire season. I could’ve sworn I felt the ground shake as the whole stadium erupted into an ear-piercing roar of noise that filled the air. We hugged, we cried, we screamed so hard our throats were numb.
But there was extra time on the clock, and Memphis had a chance to tie it up. With an incredible goal attempt, we blocked the goal, and the game was over.
I admit that as I sit here writing about it, it feels less magical. But there’s really no way to translate something so great into words on a figurative page, right? How could I? You had to be there, I guess. But suffice to say that this moment was the kind of moment they make movies about, and it’s a moment I won’t soon forget.
The Perfect End
From the moment you get to the stands, the screaming, dancing, and cheering begins. The energy is inspiring, and the team is even better. I honestly never thought I’d love soccer as much as I do. My first game was the Championship semi-final last year. This year was my first full season as a CFC fan.
I looked forward to it every weekend, even once I was living in Nashville. It was the only thing I looked forward to.
In the midst of what was first a separation that eventually became a divorce, to figuring out how to settle and split up every shared thing in my life, to dealing with legal matters, to helping my family take care of my grandmother, etc. CFC became the consistent beacon of light in my life. The positive. The good.
What would turn out to be the last game of this season for the CFC was really the defining moment for me, and was really somewhat poetic, really.
You see, the first game I ever went to was the championship semi-final of last year’s season, so it is only befitting that my last game to attend this year is the same championship semi-final.
As the fans filed into the stadium one by one, we met in the big pavilion beside the stadium to tailgate. I started off the day feeling a little off. It was two weeks after the divorce. For me, it seemed the dust had finally settled long enough to assess everything and begin to feel all that I had buried for so long and suppressed. It all was going pretty well. That is, until just before the march into the stadium. As I listened to the ceremonious speech given by the hooligans’ fearless and humble leader, I began to feel it rising up. I started to realize just what all of this was to me. But it wasn’t until the march that I fully realized it. As the singing began and the drums grew in volume and intensity, we approached the gates of the stadium that would be filled with over 10,000 fans, and I began to tear up.
It was almost over.
It’s just a game though.
Was I really that upset about soccer being almost over? It felt much deeper.
That’s when it hit me…
This whole thing has represented a season in my life. It represented the only consistently good thing I’ve experienced in a long time. My life had been pretty tough for the last few years.
But in this moment I felt like I was good.
That match represented more than just the end of a soccer season. It represented the end of this season in my life. It represented the end of a chapter. It was the official period at the end of the last word at the end of the last sentence. The tears weren’t sad tears. They weren’t happy tears. They were merely a sign of a cup overflowing. I had felt so much for so long that I hadn’t allowed myself to really deal with it all. That day I was so thankful for a bunch of strangers being a part of my life that I couldn’t really fully express it, and it led me into feeling everything all at once.
I entered the stadium and had to go sit by myself for a bit. I sat there taking in the smells, the fading warmth of the setting sun, the suffocatingly thick humidity, the flags held high and the voices being lifted to the sky as an offering to the gods for blessing and favor during the imminent battle. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was feeling in that moment, but I ultimately settled on pure overwhelming gratitude. I was grateful for my life, my friends, my family, and my new brothers and sisters in these stands. This place would forever mean exponentially more to me than it ever did before, and it was that fact I was grateful for most of all.
The Untold Stories
This is probably my most personal post on this entire blog. I wrote most of it while holding back tears with partial success. It was painful, terrifying, and emotional to write this, but this is a story I chose to make known. I hope people I know read it. I hope strangers read it. I hope the CFC and the Chattahooligans read it. If, for nothing else, just to take away some encouragement that this is more than just a sport. It’s more than a tailgate. It’s a community that has the power to make things better for someone, no matter what is going on in their life.
I can’t help but wonder about the people who chose not to make their stories known. The people who had maybe been going through far worse than me, and found solace in such an unlikely place.
I think about my Dad, who had never been so visibly and audibly passionate about anything in my entire life until I talked him into coming to his first CFC game just weeks before. It took him about five minutes to become a pure-blooded hooligan. I think about how his face is now plastered all over the Chattahooligans’ page, the news articles, and the promo commercials, because he was in the front row every game screaming and jumping up and down and slinging a scarf over his head in one hand, while ringing a cowbell in the other hand until his hands are blistered and bleeding.
I think about my mom who can barely walk, braving the heat and the humidity, and the often long and strenuous march into the stadium, just so she can see my dad act like a crazy person, so she can be with her family.
I think about the faces of the people I see at every match. I wonder about their story. I wonder what makes them want to show up every week.
I wonder about Galen Riley, the fearless, humble leader of the hooligans. I wonder about what makes him want to get up and scream so loud, dance so hard, and give of himself so much that he literally passes out (remember to drink water, buddy).
The team may never know what they are doing for their fans, but the hooligans know.
The rowdy Chattahooligans.
They made the worst season of my entire life something I felt like I could endure and survive. They helped me look forward to something good every week. And they made me feel welcome in a city where I felt forsaken otherwise.
Chattanooga will always be home for me. But come soccer season, my home is in Fort Finley, and my family wears blue and gold.
To the next season.