Thursday afternoon, the day before Atlanta United’s kit unveiling event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, I emailed the show’s emcee, Roger Bennett, to see if he’d be willing to do a short interview beforehand. I was fortunate to even have his email address on hand — one I’d procured for a story I wrote last year following the Men in Blazers live show during the week of the MLS All-Star game. Knowing Bennett was likely busy preparing for Friday’s show, on top of whatever other projects he’s currently working on, my request was more for shits and giggles. I didn’t expect a response.
Minutes later, I get a message back from Roger: “Dirty South Soccer is fantastic. Before the show would be best. I’ll work out how to get you backstage.”
Wow. Okay. My plans have now changed. I proceeded to communicate with two members of Atlanta United’s staff who helped facilitate the interview I was to have Friday. We planned to meet at 6 p.m., an hour before he was to go on stage at 7.
Fast forward to Friday. I arrive at Mercedes-Benz Stadium around 5:30 and make my way inside only to become disoriented in seeing the pitch converted into Club Arthur, fully equipped with a DJ and lights show. Eventually I find the respective team staffers who I’d corresponded with and they whisked me away to the green room — the stadium club lounge located behind the stage. They told me to just hang out and grab Roger whenever I see him.
Waiting was a bit awkward with a media badge hanging from my neck. Josef Martinez and Pity Martinez were hanging out having some dinner. Frank de Boer was standing around chatting. I said hello to Darren Eales. I strike up conversation with Justin Velduis and some other communications staffers if for no other reason than to make this all seem normal. After 20 or so minutes, I start to get anxious that I’m missing my opportunity for an interview I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to secure in the first place. In the same email thread in which we coordinated the interview, I tell Roger I’m in the green room wearing a red checkered shirt. Again, I doubted Roger. I, for one, would not be checking my email a half hour before I was to go on stage in front of thousands. Once again it took only minutes for Roger to respond.
“You are not. I am in a diff area.”
Turns out “the green room” and “Roger Bennett’s green room” are two entirely different things. By what felt like an act of God, we found someone who knew where Roger was, and she escorted me to his green room — one of the pitch-side suites located underneath the supporters’ sections.
As I’m making the short walk over, I’m kicking myself. With the clock now ticking past 6:40, I know there’s nowhere near enough time for us to do an interview. I walk into Bennett’s quiet, quarantined suite where I see him pouring over his cue cards and scripts. I walk in introducing myself.
“Joe! Welcome mate, have a beer,” Bennett says in laughably quintessential fashion, immediately placing a chilled Budweiser across the table toward me. (Does he walk around everywhere with these things?) “This is my producer J-Dub.”
“Jonathan,” says the producer, shaking my hand.
Before I can get a word out, Bennett engages with me immediately. He needs my opinion on something — something I can tell he feels very strongly about and will be absolutely critical to the reception of the show from the thousands in attendance and the thousands more watching online.
“What is your reaction to this?” he asks as he slowly pulls out a suboptimally-printed picture of 21 Savage’s face from his breast pocket. “People don’t hate this guy, do they?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I immediately replied with a veneer of confidence. It quickly dawned on me what the prop was for and I began to irrationally worry people would hate it.
The Free 21 button is most optimal. pic.twitter.com/Nn1FLhig3h— Footie Mob (@FootieMob) February 16, 2019
After we shot the shit for 5 minutes, I realized that this was going to be all I was going to get as far as any sort of interview was concerned. A shame it turned out this way, but at least I got this brief experience for my effort.
Never doubt Roger Bennett.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “We don’t have enough time to do this properly and for me to give you the time you deserve. So let’s just do it after, if you can make it. After the show, we’re going to go over to Waffle House by the Ferris wheel. Let’s just do it there if you can.”
Can I? Are you kidding me?
“Yeah, I can do that. I’ll just see you over there,” I replied.
We gave one last toast before I hopped and skipped my way back out onto the field with my bottle of Bud.
After the show, I hustled out of The Benz, cut through the CNN Center to dodge some of the rain, and power walked across Centennial Olympic Park to the Waffle House.
Once we’d rendezvoused, we did the interview over eggs, hash browns and grits. (For the record, Roger ordered a two egg breakfast with grits and an additional side of hash browns scattered, smothered and covered, with no assistance from yours truly.) That interview is what I thought this story was going to be about. I came to realize afterward that this was one of the cases where the journey was much more interesting than the destination.
We talked soccer and Atlanta United, of course. Roger gushed about the club, the stadium, Arthur Blank and Darren Eales, Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. We talked about the boldness, the bravado, the ambition of the club. We talked about “the model,” and the beauty of being a selling club. But to be honest, what we talked about wasn’t anything special — it’s stuff that we’ve been talking about here on this site for years.
What was more interesting to me, and what I hope to convey here, is how much Roger Bennett cares. He cares. He cares about the game, but more so he cares about the lives the game is affecting. Like mine. Like yours. He picked up my tab. He made friends with our waitress. And this was all after a long day for him — a day where he toured all over the city before ending it by hosting a live event and interviewing a billionaire and the league MVP, among others. If he had the time, I’m sure he’d like to spend it with each of you and hear your stories just as he heard mine.
But not before he hands you a Budweiser.