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Commitment - Lessons from Lamar Hunt and the Crew

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There have been dark days in Columbus soccer before. True commitment made the difference.

MLS: FC Dallas at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Sirk is a local writer who has written two previous books about the Columbus Crew. Massive Report is pleased to bring these excerpts on Crew founder Lamar Hunt from Massive Features, his upcoming book of collected Crew stories.

INTRODUCTION

On Tuesday night, not even 24 hours removed from the breaking news that Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt is openly considering the relocation of the Crew to Austin, Texas, I thought about a chapter in my upcoming book “Massive Features.” (Which, sad to say, is probably on hold for a bit due to more pressing matters.) After every Crew game, my ritual when exiting the stadium is to visit the Founder’s Park memorials to Kirk Urso, Tom Fitzgerald, and Lamar Hunt to give them a loving pat and a one-sentence summary of how the game went. In going through my archives, I had written about Urso and Fitz after each had passed away, but not Lamar. In light of this, I thought it would be fitting to write a brand new chapter about Lamar to create a complete “Founder’s Park” section for the book.

There are three bits of that Lamar chapter that immediately came to mind on Tuesday, and they are all excerpted below. (They don’t have titles in the book, but Massive Report editor Patrick Guldan has come up with section titles for the purposes of this preview.) The first excerpt is the story of when I first met Lamar Hunt. It’s a story I’ve told many times over the years and it will be obvious as to why I thought of it on Tuesday. The second excerpt started as an exploration of what I feared was an apocryphal tale that I’d heard through the grapevine, but was delighted to learn, in even greater detail, that it was true. The third excerpt is a related offshoot of the second. The second and third excerpts are based on a phone interview with former Crew president and GM Jamey Rootes. That interview took place on May 2, 2017. At the time, our chat was all about fun Lamar stories for the book. I certainly couldn’t have imagined the resonance some of this would have five months later.

When I read these excerpts on Tuesday night, they provoked tears. When I reconsidered them on Wednesday, I felt something else entirely.

*****

EXCERPT #1

a.k.a “Lamar’s Reason”

Hunt’s pioneering vision is most visible to us at the northern edge of the Ohio State Fairgrounds, where he constructed Columbus Crew Stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium) with $28.5 million of his own money. My own personal Lamar Hunt story is one step before that.

After voters shot down a downtown hockey arena and soccer stadium proposal in 1997, Hunt set out on a new plan. The idea was to build a 25,000-seat stadium off of Cosgray Road in suburban Dublin. On September 29, 1997, Hunt held a public meeting on one of the indoor soccer fields at the Soccer First facility near the proposed stadium site. Artistic renderings and a model of the stadium were placed in front of one of the goals. Rows of folding chairs lined the Astroturf playing surface. Several hundred Dublin residents came out to hear Hunt and city leaders talk about the plan and to answer questions from the citizenry.

As a resident of “Dublumbus”—Dublin address and schools, Columbus city taxes and services—I could not vote in the upcoming Dublin election, but I attended out of curiosity and liked the idea of the Crew playing so close to where I lived. After the meeting concluded, I lingered to look at the drawings, waiting for the crowd and the parking lot traffic to dissipate. That is when I first met Lamar Hunt. At the time, I had no idea I would be covering the Crew a few months later. I couldn’t have envisioned any of that ever happening. I was just a random 23-year-old Crew fan looking at renderings of the proposed stadium.

Once Hunt finished a conversation with some folks, he started walking my way, so I jumped at the chance to introduce myself to an American sports legend.

“Hi, Mr. Hunt. My name is Steve Sirk and I’m a huge Crew fan.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Steve,” he said as we shook hands. “And, please, just call me Lamar.”

Now that we were instantly on a first-name basis, I immediately started babbling to thank him for not giving up on the Crew after the downtown arena and stadium vote failed. I explained how two years earlier, my beloved Cleveland Browns, a longstanding civic and NFL institution, had been ripped from the city and moved to Baltimore because of Art Modell’s incompetence and greed. I pointed out that with Hunt having no local ties to Columbus, having the arena and stadium vote fail, going through the lawsuits with the local business titans surrounding the ownership of the city’s NHL team, and with the Crew having no place to play in 1999 due to stadium renovations at Ohio State, he had infinitely more reasons to skip town and move the Crew than Modell did the Browns. Lamar easily could have turned up his nose at our city, so I was grateful that he was still trying to make it work here with the Crew, especially as someone who had recently endured the unjustifiable heartache of losing the Browns.

He listened to my rambling, then paused for a few beats to process it before responding.

“Well, Steve, let me explain it like this,” Lamar finally said in that soft Texas drawl of his. “In the time the Crew has been in Columbus, there are many people who have bought tickets, come to games, and have become attached to this club. They are a part of the Columbus Crew. I owe it to those people to do everything I can to keep the club here.”

It blew my mind that Lamar Hunt showed more personal consideration for the newbie fans of a fledging club in a non-traditional pro sports market in a start-up league than Arthur B. Modell showed for the millions of rabid fans of the Cleveland freakin’ Browns.

*****

EXCERPT #2

a.k.a. “Lamar’s Vision”

That Dublin vote failed. Hunt was then 0-for-2 in terms of finding a home for the Crew. Surely THAT would be the final straw, right?

Former Crew President and General Manager Jamey Rootes, now president of the NFL’s Houston Texans, recalled that Hunt rented a ballroom on the night of the Dublin stadium vote because one is always hopeful for a positive outcome and a celebration afterward. Once the negative outcome was assured, Hunt and Rootes made their public remarks and then departed. As Rootes drove Lamar back to his hotel near the airport, they both agreed that they were hungry since they hadn’t eaten at the non-celebration. They pulled into the McDonald’s near the airport for a quick meal. Then something amazing happened.

“As I go up to order,” Rootes said in 2017, “I look back and Lamar’s standing in front of this map of Columbus on the wall and pointing at different areas. You can see he’s kind of processing and thinking.”

Rootes approached Hunt and asked him what he was doing.

Hunt replied, “Well, I’m trying to figure out the next location for our stadium.”

Rootes was bullish on Columbus and the Crew. He was all-in and had no desire to turn back, but as the club’s president, there was only so much he could do. It was out of his hands. If Lamar Hunt wanted to pull the plug and move the team, it was going to happen. When Lamar said he was looking for a new place for the stadium, Rootes felt hopeful.

“I said, ‘So you mean we’re not giving up and moving?’ And he looks at me, and he had a funny way of that, and he said, ‘WHY in the WORLD would we do THAT?”

And with that one incredulous retort in front of a Columbus wall map at an airport-adjacent McDonald’s, Rootes knew what he needed to know.

“It was so inspiring to hear those words from him,” Rootes said. “It’s not like he said, ‘Nah, I don’t think we will.’ It was like, ‘You’re being ridiculous. We’re not going anywhere.’ That’s so contrary to what you would think. Losing twice at the ballot box and all those other issues, he had every right to feel that it was time to go, but he wasn’t having it. He was such a special person.”

The next morning, as Rootes made the rounds on the radio, answering questions about the second failed stadium referendum and the future of the club in Columbus, he was able to speak with unwavering conviction because he had heard the words from Hunt himself.

“If people asked if we were moving, I would say, ‘Absolutely not. This is a spectacular city, we’ve got a great fan base, we’re on a tremendous run…we just have one problem, and our goal right now is to get that one solved.’”

Almost immediately, Rootes’ office phone and fax machine lit up with communities and business entities offering help to find the Crew a permanent home, be it close to the city in Gahanna or as far away as London, Ohio. The fateful call came from the Ohio Expo Center.

“They said, ‘We have an idea we’d like to share with you,’” Rootes remembered. “So we went out to that big field that was used for parking for the Ohio State Fair. That’s really all it was used for. They said, ‘Would you consider this?’ It all proceeded from that.”

Five months after the failed vote in Dublin, the Hunt Sports Group broke ground at the Ohio Expo Center in July of 1998. Columbus Crew Stadium would open on May 15, 1999, privately financed by Hunt. The Crew beat the New England Revolution, 2-0, in the inaugural match, behind goals from Jeff Cunningham and Stern John.

“It was a culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and a tremendous commitment by him, to turn this dream into a reality,” Rootes said. “That opening game was spectacular. It was a similar kind of feeling to that first game against D.C. United in 1996. There was so much doubt, so many obstacles to navigate, and then you finally arrive at the day and it was even beyond your most optimistic expectations for the community and for the game.”

And it all started with a freshly re-defeated but unflappably determined Lamar Hunt looking at a wall map before ordering his dinner at McDonald’s.

*****

EXCERPT #3

a.k.a. “Lamar’s Commitment”

Shortly after the Dublin vote failed and Lamar expressed his unwavering resolve to stay in Columbus, Rootes came across a quote titled “Commitment.” The quote, as found by Rootes, was attributed to German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but there’s only the slightest morsel of connection in that attribution. The lineage starts with a poem within Goethe’s 1808 play “Faust, Part One.” In 1835, an Irish poet named John Anster published what historians have deemed to be an “inventive translation” of Goethe’s poem. It was Anster’s inventive translation that caught the eye of Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray, who cited it as inspiration when writing in his 1951 book “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.”

Two decades after discovering it, Rootes still has the following quote, actually written by Murray, hanging in his office.

“The moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

For Rootes, it’s a daily affirmation and a reminder of what he experienced firsthand under the tutelage of Lamar Hunt in Columbus.

“It's just, in a nutshell, everything that Lamar’s commitment to that community inspired,” he said. “Everything just fell into place. He fell in love with Columbus. He fell in love with the people. He fell in love with the vibe of the Columbus Crew. He saw the potential of Columbus and wasn’t going to let one challenge deter us.”

*****

EPILOGUE

You are probably not a super-wealthy sports team owner. Or the CEO of a powerful corporation. Or the commissioner of a pro soccer league. Or a city or state politician. That’s the orbit in which life and death decisions for a civic institution like the Columbus Crew are made. Because of that, it may seem futile to fight for what is 100% yours in the heart and 0% yours in the law. Some might even reasonably ask if you are just going to move on and give up.

If they do, look at them in a funny way and say, “WHY in the WORLD would we do THAT?”

After all, if you have bought tickets, come to games, and become attached to this club, you are a part of the Columbus Crew. And because of that, you might feel that you owe it to yourself to do everything you can to keep the club here. Our club’s founder and very own history have shown that to have any chance to make the providence move, to potentially unleash a stream of events in your favor that you never could have imagined would come your way, you need to commit. I am among the many who have done so. The ranks are growing by the day. Be Massive, my friends.

#SaveTheCrew

#ForColumbus

Editor’s Note: There will be a rally on Sunday at 12:00 pm at Columbus City Hall to #SaveTheCrew. Additionally, SaveTheCrew.com is a website centered around organizing support to keep the Crew in Columbus.

Steve Sirk can be reached at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk