Frankie Comes Home
The Columbus Crew’s most beloved player returns to the front office
By Travis HoewischerPublished June 1, 2012
In his playing days, Frankie Hejduk prowled the pitch like a hyperactive lion, with an unrivaled zeal.
But that wasn’t the only thing that made him a semi-god to Columbus Crew fans. With his shoulder-length surfer mane, dashing good looks, and penchant for the finest ales and lagers, he was a fan’s player. The rarest of combinations, he was a good-time guy with a smoldering desire to win in his belly.
Now, the guy who once famously chugged a beer during a Crew tailgate with fans while serving a suspension is back in Crewland as the team’s Brand Ambassador.
The Crew have had many fan favorites over the years, but none as beloved as Hejduk.
“I’ve just always embraced it,” he said. “A beer? Heck yeah, I’m gonna have a beer with the fans. They just screamed their lungs out for me for 90 minutes. The least I could do is toast them after the game, and say, ‘Hey, thank you. Right on.’ Now, I want to carry that over to the front office.”
That doesn’t mean that Crew headquarters are being converted into a kegerator-fueled rumpus room, but Hejduk insists that “being real” with the soccer fans of Columbus is the best way to get more butts in the stands.
“I’m not gonna shy away from it,” he said. “I love talking about soccer; it’s my passion, it’s their passion. And you learn a lot from talking to the community. I want to hear what someone has to say about the Crew at a coffee shop. I’m gonna engage them and say, ‘Hey, they were awesome, or 'Hey, they stunk.’ Believe me, it’s happened. Even if it was something bad, I always tell them, it’s okay. Maybe I agree with them, maybe I don’t. But, I want to hear Columbus’ opinion. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Hejduk certainly feels an even greater appreciation for the Crew and what he can contribute to the club’s future after a stint on the West Coast. When he skipped town to join the L.A. Galaxy to play alongside David Beckham, the connection with the club’s fans paled in comparison to Crew Stadium’s rowdy Nordecke faithful. Even though the UCLA grad was back in his old stomping grounds, in many ways Columbus feels more like home. After two World Cups, an MLS crown, and a storied career, he’s treating his front office role the same way as his former role on the field.
“I’ve known one way, and that’s hard and fast,” he said. “I was super passionate about anything I’ve done for my whole career – and I still am. I think some people feel bad for me, like, ‘Oh, man, that sucks you can’t be out there on the field.’ But, I’m embracing it. Let’s take this to the next level. Let’s find a way to get more people in the stands for the guys that are on the field now.”
It’s a fairly heady stance for a career athlete so recently removed from his cleats, but Hejduk sees his new opportunity as a way to make up for all the time he didn’t get to spend interacting with the fans. Back then, you could have imagined him running right out of the stadium and high-fiving every single one of them on their way to their cars.
“I want to do everything that I wanted to do when I was playing that I didn’t have time to, or because my body was sore,” he said. “You never got to do all those things for the fans.”
He also sees himself, along with former teammate Duncan Oughton, who joined the club’s staff last year, as a unique conduit between the stands and the suits.
“As a player, you have all the answers in the back of the bus,” he said. “Why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we doing that? Now, after games, we can bring that into the front office and make suggestions – whether they be positive or negative.” His new job has given him a new appreciation for club’s management, too. “I’ve only been there three weeks, and I realize these guys work their asses off.”
Hejduk wants to focus heavily on the area as a hotbed of college students, seeing them as a great untapped base for new Crew fans.
“In Columbus, there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t sell out every game – even if we’re not in first place. I’ve said it before: we have 100,000 students within a 20-mile radius. You’re telling me we can’t get 5,000 of those kids who are energetic, rowdy, fun-loving young people in the crowd? I think we can get even more than that.”
A captain as always, Hejduk is a natural leader, a man to rally around, and hanging up his cleats has done little to slow him down.
“It’s just an extension of the side I was on before. It’s winning, it’s energy, it’s fire in the stands – it’s passion. I want to get that back,” he said. “I feel like I’m still part of a team. Now, I’m just part of a bigger family. I love getting out and doing this – having a beer, talking about soccer. I can’t wait to do this all over the city. I feel like it’s a dream job – again. I’ve been absolutely blessed.”
The Crew faces off against Real Salt Lake on June 30th, Sporting KC July 14th and DC United July 21st. For more information, visit www.thecrew.com.