The news is bad. Germany. Ghana. Portugal. It’s the 2014 World Cup draw, and the United States men’s national team has been selected as the fourth member of the dreaded “Group of Death.”
Yet here sits Frankie Hejduk, all smiles in the corner of Hendoc’s Pub on High Street, assuring the gathering of soccer fans that this is not bad news at all. If you want to be the best, you must beat the best. He’s stoked.
Frankie is a displaced California surfer who made his bones playing soccer for the U.S. national team, Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, and the Columbus Crew, among other MLS clubs. He won the MLS Cup with the Crew in 2008, the championship ring proudly displayed on his right hand. He and his wife, from nearby Springboro, raise their three children in Westerville.
We have beers at Hendoc’s and then change venues to The Crest Gastropub, where we order more beers and Frankie gets truffle mac and cheese with bacon. It’s in danger of going cold in front of him because he doesn’t pause long enough to eat – nor does he ever pause much at all – while he discusses the joys of his work, the inevitable rise of soccer in the U.S., and his desire to surf Lake Erie this winter with a Crew flag in hand like a foreign conqueror.
Before we begin, he stuffs the thin window curtain up over the rod; he wants to watch the snow blanket his view of Clintonville. It’s nothing like California, but he loves every bit.
You’re a brand ambassador for the Crew. What does that mean? I’m guessing you don’t get to start every day at Hendoc’s…
To me it means gettin’ the brand out in the community the best way that we can, whether it be through going to elementary schools, whether it be through holding soccer camps or soccer clinics with the Crew Juniors, the Crew Youth Academy, or whether it be doing charitable stuff around town that’s helping communities.
I’m not in the office that much, put it that way. It was a great thing by Mark McCullers, our GM at the time, and the Crew organization to say, “Hey dude, we have a guy here that the community knows, the fans know, the [supporter group Hudson Street] Hooligans know. He’s one of them, basically.
A professional fan.
A professional fan, basically. And I have no problem with that. People are like, “Are you a cheerleader?” I’m like, “Hell yeah, I’m a cheerleader!” Dude, I’m 100-percent, I’m bleedin’ black and gold, and I love the Crew. Yeah, I’m a cheerleader, and I have no problem sayin’ that. I’m just tryin’ to create an energy around the sport.
What’s your favorite part of your work?
Working with kids. Puttin’ smiles on faces. That’s kind of what I always say. I’m like, “Hey dude, that’s what the Crew’s all about. We wanna put smiles on faces,” and I’m constantly saying that, and it’s just honest.
What is the Crew Soccer Foundation and what do you do with them?
The Crew Soccer Foundation is a nonprofit organization that we’ve started to help give back to the community of Columbus. Our first project was refurbishing three fields in communities around Columbus. I hope [the kids] play soccer, and that’s what the Crew wants, but you know what, at the end of the day, it’s all about them playin’ and giving them the opportunity to play on a field.
Do you see a big opportunity for growth in center-city neighborhoods where they may not have been exposed to soccer in the past?
You go across the street in an inner city, what do you see? You see a basketball hoop. So what are the kids gonna play? They’re gonna play basketball. So let’s give ’em a basketball hoop, and now let’s give ’em a soccer court. Same dimensions, same everything, and we’ll provide them with that.
The Crew is coming off a season in which the team struggled, but attendance actually improved by 11.7 percent. What do you attribute that growth to in a time when the team wasn’t playing great?
How am I gonna word this? I think the average fan has become more and more knowledgeable about the game, that they’re getting more and more into the game, and now you’re seeing generations of fans. So before, we used to have our Hooligans [who] were in the front row, and they were partyin’ guys and they were young dudes. You know what those Hooligans are now? They’re sittin’ up at the top, and they have three kids in their hands, and all those three kids are wearing Crew uniforms.
I saw ’em every game, and there [were] games when we had lost three out of four. And I’m like, “Ahh, they’re still coming!” That’s called passion. And this city has a passion like I’ve never seen before. The numbers are growing just strictly on people wanting to watch the sport and enjoying the sport because, to be honest, the product last year wasn’t the best and we had record numbers.
Do you ever get a chance to talk to the players, give advice to the players?
I still feel like I’m one of ’em, to be honest. I still kinda go out with the players, and I’m supposed to be on this other different role, and it’s a little bit weird for people, but it’s not weird for me. Some people go, “Dude, now you’re this guy. You’re on the office side, you’re not that guy anymore,” and I’m like, “What do you mean? What are you talking about? I’m both guys! I’m the same, dude!”
[laughs] You’re just a player who doesn’t play.
I’m just a player who doesn’t play anymore, but now I’m working for the front office. I’m gonna still go hang out with [the players] and talk shit and f*ck around and drink beers. So that’s my philosophy a little bit, and it might be a little bit different than some other people’s, but I’m very lucky that the Crew’s accepted that; ’cause they’ve basically said, “Hey dude, go be you, and do what you want,” and not a lot of companies, I don’t think, or organizations, would do that just to anyone. So I’m honored in the role I have; I love the role I have.
You’ve played in every MLS stadium on the continent at this point. How does Crew Stadium stack up?
I love it. There’s a reason why our stadium gets the U.S.-Mexico game, which is the pinnacle game for U.S. soccer. They could go to every new stadium. They can go to Red Bull Arena. They can go to Sporting KC. They can go to all those places, and you know where they come? They come here. Why? It’s not because the stadium’s new and improved – it’s passionate, and it has a history of winning, and there’s a sense of, “This is our home field.”
This stadium that we play at – and a lot of people don’t know this – kept the league alive. There was a phase there – the league started in ’96 – ’98, ’99 it started kind of almost dipping a little bit and going in a really weird direction. The Hunts [former owners of the Crew] came in and said, “Boom. We’re building a stadium. The first soccer-specific stadium [in the United States].” And you know what? It f*ckin’ kept soccer in America alive.
Why did them making that commitment keep it alive?
It’s not a real sport until you have your own stadium. So when you’re renting from other stadiums and other venues, that’s minor league a little bit, you know? Lamar [Hunt] had the huevos to do that and say, ‘You know what? We’re gonna do it, and I believe in it, and it’s gonna work.’ And it did. It kept the league alive.
So Crew Stadium is essentially home field for the U.S. men’s national team. What does that mean for the organization and the city?
What an honor. Like I said, to have this older stadium – it’s a great stadium, it was the first one – but they have a lot of new ones to choose from. It’s not a 90,000-seat stadium. It seats 20,000. They make it bigger for the U.S. team … but to have them go, “You know what? We don’t care how many people we get. We don’t care what revenue we get. We need to win and that place that we go to, those fans are so passionate. For whatever reason, they love soccer, and we’re going to a place where they love soccer, and they love soccer here.”
In October 2008, you showed up at a fan’s tailgate to drink beer while you were on a one-game suspension. What inspired that?
That was an opportunity where I can show them some love and actually go, “Hey man, thank you guys very much, and I’m one of you. I’m a fan and a player. And I’m a normal dude so, you wanna slam a beer, let’s slam a beer. No problem. And I’ll slam another one if you want.” [laughs] So that’s how that evolved. But I think the fans connected with that, and to be honest, that’s who we are. That’s who the Crew is. We feel like we are a community-based team, literally, we thrive off of the community around us, and that’s what makes us who we are. So the least I can do for them is slam a beer. [laughs]
What drew you back to Columbus after you retired from the L.A. Galaxy?
I actually knew that I wanted to be here just because of how the city really [has] made me feel. I feel they’ve embraced me so much over the last 10 years that I was like, “I can’t leave this place.” For one, I love it. For two, I won a championship here, and for three, I want to win another championship but on the other side of it. So I felt like I owed it to the club a little bit to come back and try to make it work on that side of it.
I kinda feel like Norm from Cheers sometimes when I go into places [in Columbus]. And who doesn’t want to feel like that, you know?
You’ve traveled around the world. What’s one thing that other great cities have that Columbus is missing?
A wave pool. Yeah, a beach. [laughs]
Wave pool might be easier.
I’ve been tryin’ to preach that. To be honest, I can’t believe no one’s come up with a wave pool. Like, how has that idea not come here? Disneyland has one that makes 10-foot waves, so you can do it. Do you have millions?
Not yet. Maybe after this interview.
Do you know someone? It’s a good theory, right? Let’s try to find someone, dude.
That’s the thing about Frankie – underneath his soccer scarves and knit caps and surfer dude smile, he’s a salesman in a three-piece suit. He’s selling soccer to America, and the Crew to Columbus. And then when you come to talk to him about his job and a World Cup draw, the man sells you a goddamn wave pool. Always be closing, dude.
So when you’re traveling, what’s the one thing about Columbus that you miss? What’s the one thing that you wish you could bring with you?
Just the friendliness of the people. It’s a happy-go-lucky town, dude. How do I explain it? Yeah, no, that’s the best way. I’ve never felt so loved in any city, and I probably felt loved in others cities, too, but for whatever reason I connect with the people here.
Everyone likes to have a good time here, everyone’s nice, everyone likes to have a pint or two, and everyone likes football, everyone is getting to like soccer, and that’s where I’m at. Good food, good restaurants, lakes, rivers, beer, coffee, women – how much more do you want?
That’s the whole list, right?
Yeah, that’s the whole list, dude. It’s a little mini-utopia.
Let’s be honest, 15 years ago, it was Columbus, Ohio – Ohio State. Now it’s whoa, you know, home of Ohio State, home of the Blue Jackets, home of the Columbus Crew, home of the Clippers, home of The Crest, home of breweries, home of coffee shops. It’s become eclectic, young, cool, hip, and it’s a football town still, but it’s much more. Way, way more.
Dude, look it, we’re drinkin’ a beer, it’s snowing, it’s all white out, it’s angelic out. On the opposite end of it, okay, California has the sun…
Tomorrow we might wanna see the sun, but for today, this is perfect.
Today, this is great dude, you know?
That’s it? [laughs] Was it good? Do you think we did good?
The Crew will add a few new faces to the Black and Gold January 14th at the 2014 MLS Draft, right before training camp kicks off on 24th. For more visit, www.thecrew.com.