Quite some time ago, my great grandmother on my father’s side fell. It wouldn’t have been that remarkable an occurrence aside from the fact that she was several months pregnant with twins at the time.
One of the twins did not survive the fall. The other did.
My grandfather was born months premature and spent the early months of his life living in the NICU, in a shoebox if you can believe it, with a heating lamp to keep his five pound body warm. His diet consisted of a few drops of formula and a single drop of whiskey at each feeding. He grew up to become a state champion pianist, a church organist, and an 80-year old man, spending most of his life in my family’s hometown of McRae, GA.
He is still alive.
How things come to be is a weird thing to consider.
We have no memory of a time when were not. We are haunted by the time that we will no longer be. Yet, here we are, stuck in some sort of feinted eternity. We choose so little of what we are and of where we come from, which is no small part of why I think we find sport so enthralling. For sport, at its root, is, as one theologian put it, “a liturgical celebration of our contingency.”
Sport, at its best, is a celebration of the time we have been given, in this flesh, on this earth, with these people.
This is my small attempt at celebrating the past two seasons and what they have meant to me.
Three years ago, I emailed Sam Franco and asked to be a part of a blog called 21 Peach Street.
It was the first real Atlanta United blog I had come across, and I think all of us that joined knew that Rob Usry was going to turn that blog into the official ATLUTD SBNation blog. We all wanted to be a part of it.
I couldn’t write much at the time (I still can’t) but I could get on the phone most nights and talk to Sam and this guy named Eric Quintana, whom I had never met, on what we then called the “Mouths of the South” podcast. Heck, I hadn’t even met Sam, come to think of it, but we talked once a week before we had even bought Chris McCann.
There was a running joke back in those days, the days before anything had really gotten real yet, that I would “tell Darren what to do” at the end of every pod.
It would be a final segment where I would tell Darren to buy a certain player, or hire a certain coach, or do something or other. Most all of it never came to anything.
The only time it ever got real was when Atlanta United almost signed Oscar Romero. I had said, after the Copa America, that we should sign Oscar. And lo and behold some months later we were rumored to have signed him. But then a Chinese Club sniped him from us, and the funny thing is that, at the time, we thought this would become the pattern—that Chinese clubs were going to snipe players from Atlanta year after year.
Ha, how things change.
Two and a half years ago my wife and I walked into the Vanderbilt Midwives and were told we were in labor. The “we” here is kinda stupid.
My wife was in labor.
The plan was to get her an epidural as soon as we arrived at the hospital, but given the fact that we were going to a midwives practice, we wanted to be hardcore and labor at home. The last thing we wanted was to arrive at the hospital and be turned away. So we waited and timed the contractions.
We didn’t know that my wife had a ridiculously high tolerance for pain. We also didn’t know, or at least I didn’t, that sometimes you never get the 5-1-1 (Contractions coming 5 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute, for one hour), which is the key sign that its time to go to the hospital.
Sometimes you move from opening labor, to real labor, to transition (the time when things get *real*) without ever hitting anything like a consistent timing.
So some hours later we were flying down I-440 in Nashville, me at the wheel, Rachel in the passenger seat, in the throes of transition. We careened into the Vanderbilt Hospital parking garage with our Doula following behind us trying desperately to keep up.
The baby was coming. We just didn’t know it. We thought there was still time.
We were checked in and told to wait with another woman who was in labor. She was, as far as I could tell, very early in the process.
My wife was at the point where you can’t use words and mostly want to rip people’s throats out.
It just so happened that at the time there was a LifeFlight nurse helping out at the check-in. The other nurse wanted to send the other woman in labor up before us, but the LifeFlight nurse insisted that my wife go up immediately.
He pushed Rachel, in her wheelchair, into the elevator and then into her delivery room with little regard for the line. He is the only reason we didn’t have the baby in the waiting area.
I am still convinced, to this day, that if I had walked back down to the check-in area and asked to speak to the LifeFlight nurse on duty someone would have said, “Sir, WE HAVENT HAD A LIFEFLIGHT NURSE IN THIS HOSPITAL FOR FIFTY YEARS.”
Anyway, up we went, into the elevator, to become parents.
When we got to the delivery room we were told my wife couldn’t have an epidural.
It was too late. She was going to have to have a natural birth.
What happened next was both beautiful and traumatic. It was beautiful because it brought our daughter into the world, but it was also terrifying because we were realizing how little control we had over what mattered the most to us. We both cherish the memory and are still processing it even now.
My wife and I arrived at Vanderbilt Hospital at approximately 10:20 PM Central Standard Time.
Our daughter Amelia was born at 10:56 PM.
She was born, as luck would have it, the day before my grandfather’s birthday. He still wishes she could have waited four more minutes so that they would share, in the Eastern time zone, the same birthday.
There was no NICU trip and no drops of whiskey (at least not for her).
There was only an entirely new world, filled with grandeur and pain, and I felt more a part of it than I ever had.
Two years ago I was exhausted and standing in a pub in Charleston, South Carolina.
I hadn’t slept in weeks. My daughter was not sleeping and I had still, somehow, been doing this podcast through it all. We had decided that we should show up in person to the first real match that some of Atlanta’s players would play.
This was a friendly between the Charleston Battery and Glasgow Rangers in July of 2016.
Before the match we were standing in the pub attached to the Battery’s stadium, waiting in a buffet line, when Sam Franco noticed that Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra were in the room.
We walked over and said, “Hi.”
Sam and Eric had met Darren already. They had interviewed him some weeks earlier and had hung around afterwards to talk with him. He was (and probably still is) an exceptionally generous person with his time.
But I had never met him. So I walked up and introduced myself. As soon as I shook his hand he said, “Oh yes, Jason, you’re the one with the baby!”
I had been talking about my kid on the podcast since she had been born, and Darren had been, at least for a few episodes, listening. At that time Eales hadn’t even hired a manager. We hadn’t even signed Tito yet. We would do so two weeks later. So you know that all of those balls were in the air. And yet he knew that I was the one with the kid and he remembered to ask about it.
That night it felt like all this could fall apart.
But I knew in that moment, as the thunderstorms at long last cleared from the South Carolina sky and that match got under way, that this team was mine.
A year and ten months ago I was still exhausted and driving around Chattanooga looking for a power strip.
The Mouths of the South had, at long last, found their way to the proper location near Finley Stadium where the inaugural friendly between Chattanooga FC and Atlanta United FC would take place. We would be broadcasting live, but we couldn’t at the time because the outdoor pavilion only had one power outlet available. And we needed lots of outlets to power the laptop, the board, the mics, etc. you get the idea.
I ran into Elder’s Ace Hardware off Broad Street and grabbed the strip with the most plugs possible and ran back to my car.
The Podcast was joined that day by Jason Longshore. He was a writer for the blog at the time and he had this thing about wearing Kangol hats everywhere. I found it odd at the time, but also a thing I wished I could pull off.
He went on to be the color commentator on the Atlanta United radio broadcast, a role in which he shines.
That day, the whole blueprint for the squad was already there. In fact, it is remarkable if you go back and watch the highlights of that match to see all the seeds of Tata’s ultimate strategy already present, even in a friendly with a group of players who had barely even met.
Miguel is still the engine. Tito is still pure speed. Josef has his usual flair. Gressel is bossing people around. It looks like the same team, even then.
They won. Tito scored the first goal. Yamil scored a curler that almost got Eric and I thrown out of the press box for cheering. Andrew Carleton scored a goal and ran into the small bunch of folks that were then known as the Terminus Legion.
We had barely heard of the Legion or the Faction or Resurgence or Footie Mob at that point. We talked down about their coordination and chants on the pod. We worried about whether this very unorganized group of Atlanta supporters, with very little evidence of coordinated chants, could get themselves together in a full stadium atmosphere.
Time makes a fool of us all.
Eric, Longshore, and I sat in our press booth and took calls after the match. It had turned dark by then and we were alone looking down on an empty stadium. We were sitting there in the quiet hoping someone, honestly anyone, would call in and give us something to talk about. We got a few calls from Georgia area codes and took those first. They were mostly folks who read the blog. True die hards. I can still remember Eric queuing them by area code.
“404, what’s up?”
“678, you’re on.”
About midway through, this odd area code came up on the board and Eric left it on hold. We took at least three or four calls before we got to it. I don’t remember exactly what the area code was but I think it was a California code.
So after our second or third call debating Tyrone Mears vs. Mark Bloom at right back we finally went to the odd area code in the queue.
It was Alexis Lalas.
A year and nine months ago, the earth shook at Bobby Dodd Stadium as Yamil Asad stumbled back onto his feet after etching himself into Atlanta United lore forever.
He had tucked away the first goal in Atlanta United history against the New York Red Bulls.
It is odd how athletes become legend. Some build it up over a long career and, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Yamil worked exceedingly hard. But some athletes become legend in one single moment of happenstance.
If the wind is blowing a bit more, or Mears is shut down before he can get his cross away, or if Josef takes a better angle Yamil Asad might be nothing more than a trivia question.
Now his is a name I will never ever forget for as long as I am alive.
On that night something else odd happened by sheer chance.
50,000 people or so showed up to a stadium and suddenly had an excuse to love each other. They were not fated to be fans of this team. There was no requirement of virtue or good deeds that caused them to earn being a part of this moment.
Yet, here we all were, thrown without our consent into something good.
A year and two months ago I was sitting in my basement with my daughter when Miggy scored a goal.
My daughter looked at the TV and said “oooh steam!!” She had seen the plumes of steam shooting up behind the goal and thought it was really cool.
I said, “That’s right, sweetie. Miggy made steam.”
She said, “Miggy?”
I said, “Yep, Miggy.”
To this day, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez are still the only professional athletes my daughter knows by name. Even still, after every Atlanta United goal, even sometimes when my daughter isn’t even watching, I’ll yell out “Steammmm!!!!”
Two days ago, I was standing in the basement where my daughter took her first steps with tears in my eyes as the right color confetti at long last fell in the Benz. A team I loved had won a championship. There was no metaphysical force to be overcome, no sacrificial quest to undertake. It had just happened.
I thought that night about how things come to be.
Sometimes new things come about because of a long process. Decades, even centuries pass before the institutional inertia or deadweight of culture can be overcome by a group of committed people. There are processes like that happening right now, processes that are tectonic in both their nature and goals. In other words, sometimes people move the whole earth but they move it the way the earth moves, slowly and without our notice.
But sometimes things work a different way.
Sometimes good things just show up and say, “Hello. You have done nothing to deserve this. But this is the world you live in now. Yes, this one. Yes, you. You live here now. What will you do with it?”
One day in early May I was just another guy and then a few hours later I was someone’s Dad. Sometimes change takes a long time and is hard fought, hard won, and as fragile as the chain of moments it took to bring it into being.
But sometimes change comes like a whirlwind and, afterwards, you are suddenly looking at an entirely new world, a world unthinkable even at your most delirious.
How did that happen?
You must hear me clearly, dear ones, a championship does not change a single bad thing in the world. No injustice is cured by Atlanta becoming a championship city. No evil is undone by winning.
But sport does teach us an important lesson in this regard. It teaches us that not a single one of these damnable things is fated, written, or permanent.
Sport teaches us that every single damned thing you encounter is changeable and contingent.
This world is yours for the changing.
What will you do with it?
The day after we won, I went into my daughter’s room to get her up and she smiled at me and said, “Hi, Daddy,”
And I said, “Hi Sweetie.”
I picked her up and gave her a kiss and then said,
“Miggy made steam.”
I would like to end this piece by telling Darren Eales something and then I’d like to “tell Darren what to do,” one last time.
The first thing I have to say to Darren is,
My high school didn’t have soccer. I hardly ever saw soccer on TV. I never had access to the game in any form—nothing to get me all that interested in it, nothing to help me learn it, nothing to feed any sort of dream.
There are kids growing up in McRae today that can dream something different.
There are kids in Eastman and Waycross and Dalton and Macon and College Park and Savannah and Thomasville and Cartersville and Chattanooga and Charleston and McRae that can dream about playing a soccer match for a championship in front of 73,000 people in Atlanta, Georgia. And that is not a fantasy, not a mod in FIFA, not something for which there cannot be even the slightest hope.
It is real.
It is a thing that can really happen.
I saw it happen.
I saw a soccer team from Georgia win a Championship.
And now, Darren, let me tell you what to do one last time:
“Do it again.”