—by Travis Hefner
Author's Note: Originally written around Thanksgiving of 2015 as a sappy note of thankfulness during the holidays.
Part I: The Time Before
I like soccer. A lot. I find entertainment in just about every skill level, style, and type. I kind of proved that by, some might say insanely (they're right), staying at my local soccer bar, Piper's Pub, for sixteen straight hours once upon a time.
See, there's a team I love above everything else when it comes to soccer: the Portland Timbers. The things I've felt for this team, in traveling to see them, sharing small talk, laughter, and eventually other parts of our lives with fellow fans, and living and dying with every touch of the ball are near indescribable. Especially considering, at that point, I'd never even been to Portland, Oregon.
This irrational love shouldn't exist, it shouldn't matter, right? But it does. It matters because of all the people you know involved. You know their happiness. You know their sadness. Joy, frustration, bemusement, all of it you know because it is yours, too. All of these emotions that you group together with friends and family become more than it ever would be on its own. Why does it matter so much? Because we all make it.
So, I sat at a bar for sixteen hours because of it. I watched soccer while I waited to watch MY soccer. I watched a bar of Spurs and Gooners sing and chant during the North London Derby. I watched...less during La Liga and Serie A matches. Less still during women's college soccer. I perked up slowly as MLS playoff games began. It wasn't my team yet, but teams in the same league, at least. DC United went out. Montreal went out. Seattle (hysterically so) went out. Portland was staring me in the face. Something happened, though, first.
My friend Bobby walked in. He, despite being a Sporting Kansas City fan, came to the pub for solidarity. I'd been drinking by myself for a bit as there aren't too many MLS fans in Pittsburgh, PA, so the company was welcome.
We talked about soccer. We remained stunned over the penalty kicks between Portland and Kansas City. We talked about travel.
I'd never been to Portland. My days with the Timbers Army had always been with the wonderful people of the East Coast Platoon. DC, Philadelphia, Columbus, New York Red Bull, New England, New York City FC, and Toronto have been my games. I'd never been home.
Not a game goes by without being reminded of this. "When are you going to Portland?" "You gotta get to a home game!" "Fuck, Travis, go to Portland already!" I honestly love the reminders. To a certain extent, it meant I was as special to the people in this group as they were to me. There was no malice in these reminders, just the strong desire to share something so special with someone else.
Bobby had experienced this emotion and was about to again. He had recently flown across the country to see the NFL team he follows in person. He would, the next weekend, go to South Bend to see his beloved Fighting Irish. "Just fucking go," he said about his reasoning for this. "What else are you doing? What's holding you back?" This wasn't about me, but at the same time, it was. I knew what I had to do. Just one problem still: Vancouver.
The Timbers, however, didn't see the Whitecaps as much of a problem. They were brilliant. They scored their goal and then never let Vancouver sniff a strong chance. Diego Chará put it out of reach late. I grinned, I beamed, I sang to no one in particular and everyone. Portland versus Dallas was going to happen.
I got home. I slept on it. I posted a screenshot of prices for flights from Pittsburgh to Portland. From there, it was all formalities. East Coast Platoon became Enabling Coast Platoon. I drowned in kind offers of tickets and places to stay, not to mention constant “Yesssss!”s and “Do it do it do it do it do it”s.
It had to happen. A few mouse clicks later, it did. Years of loving a city from a far, a city I'd never been to, would finally come to a close. November 22nd the Portland Timbers would play FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals. And I was going to be there.
I was going home.
Part II: The Rose City
I got into Portland after an adventure. Wind and ice in Denver made my flight to PDX a bit more nervy than I thought it was going to be. It didn't matter, though. The turbulence didn't matter, the hours of flying didn't matter, the fear of takeoff and landing didn't matter—all because the Rose City was on the horizon.
In between grins when we touched down, I mouthed songs to myself. My elation mixed with delirium due to the long day of travel, but landing in a city you had only dreamed of prior will give you a second wind like you can't believe. Portland and I were occupying the same time and place.
Due to my Denver shenanigans I expected to travel downtown to where I was so graciously put up for the weekend by Scott Brown. A text waited for me, though. The next light rail downtown left soon, and we'd better be on it. The other part of that "we," of course, was Scott Brown.
If you're ECP, you know Scott. If you're ECP, you've been helped by Scott. If you're ECP, you owe Scott. My debt, now? Astronomical. Scott will shrug this off with a smile like he does when we chant his name at the end of away days, but fuck it, I'm writing it anyway. Scott Brown is an excellent person and I'm privileged to know him.
Anyway. My flight was supposed to arrive an hour earlier at the same time as Scott's. Pretty easy plan from there, yeah? Nope. Mother Nature fucked some things up. Still, Scott waited, and we got on the light rail.
Portland lay before me. Places that I'd only seen on TV and shady internet streams; places that I only knew existed because friends told me as much, were now in my personal eyesight. I whispered them all with varying degrees of reverence: "Mt. Hood," "Moda Center," "Burnside," but only one name got caught in my throat. "Providence Park."
The tears welled, the voice failed; the body kept going, though. Around midnight that special Friday, I got off the light rail. I ran (as well as a 5'11", 220-pound dude can, anyway) to my personal heaven. I touched it for the first time. I grinned. I giggled. Scott laughed. I was home. Two days later? I'd get to go in. But my love of the Timbers extended to the city itself, and getting to explore it was going to be incredible on its own.
I always say, "It was the Army that kept me," when people ask how some jackass from Pittsburgh became a diehard Portland Timbers fan. No, it wasn't the chants or the size or my fellow supporters' diehardness (that's a word, shut up). It was the community. Years ago, when I first started watching the Timbers on TV, I always loved the atmosphere. But, what always touched me the most was seeing gay pride flags waving in the crowd. Those flags expanded to banners and eventually to tifo. The Timbers Army, for me, is about acceptance. And, it's never been lip service. The phrases "Spread the love," from Timber Jim, and "If you want to be Timbers Army, you are," were never empty words. In the city, and eventually at the match, I was once again reminded of this.
I hadn't seen the city save for the street lights. Lucky for me, I was still on Eastern Time, so 5AM seemed like a good idea in terms of when to wake up. While we were waiting for Blue Star to open (I was hanging with doughnut connoisseur Scott, recall), I got to walk in the city and just experience it all. A sunrise by the river and the Rose City slowly came into view. It's a beautiful city, you guys.
After doughnuts (double doughnuts, actually, cause we might have gone to Voodoo, too...) I had to explore for myself. So, naturally, the guy with a history degree went to Powell's. It was there that all that acceptance I spoke glowingly about came so into focus.
I hear the f-word a lot still where I'm from. I'm sure some of you are saying "Yeah, it's still here, too," but, I can assure you, it is not the same. I'm sure for most of you in Portland, seeing an openly gay couple in public is so normal that it doesn't even register with you. It registers with me. I saw, in my short time in Portland (honestly just browsing Powell's if I'm honest), more openly gay couples that I have in years where I come from. What's better? I seemed to be the only one caring or taking notice of this fact. For everyone else? Totally normal happening. Because it fucking is. Truly, Portland is the accepting place it always says it is, and the soccer club within the city is a reflection of that.
This belief in community, in acceptance, in doing all you can continued into the night. I heard about the Special Olympics/Timbers Army game that was going to be played at Lincoln High School. I had to go. I was amazed by the amount of people there despite factors such as the cold weather. As the uncle of a special needs child, I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to be a part of a group that not only does events like this, but does them because it's just the right thing to do. There's no patting oneself on the back here, merely "Uh...yeah? Of course we did?"
I had had my day in the Rose City. Prior to going to bed, I took one long last stare at Providence Park from the window. I went to sleep with a smile on my face. Not only because tomorrow was match day, but because the city was everything I had thought it was. The Rose City has my heart.
Part III: Match Day
Finally. Finally after years I get to go in. I get to stand in the North End. I get to lose my voice during a home game.
I get to be a part of #LineCulture.
Waiting in the wristband line was something I was always excited to do. I had no idea why until I actually did it.
Everyone had a buzz about them. Everyone had a story to tell or a smile to share. Spots were saved as someone jumped out of line to go grab coffee or breakfast for those around them. Friends saw each other as they walked the line and embraced. Cars and the light rail chimed the tune to "When I Root." It was incredible. Apparently I waited in that line for hours, but it didn't feel that long. As we approached the staffers handing out the bands, the emotions rose again. It was almost time. The band was placed around my wrist, number 656, a number that will forever have an irrational importance to my life, and my whole body quaked with anticipation. A mere few hours from now, I'd be inside.
But first, let's have a drink.
So many people have made being a Timbers fan incredible and easy. Andrew Simon extended a hand and a beer in welcome as I nervously approached my first away day in Washington DC years ago. Brian Fiore-Silfvast grabbed me to help him assemble flags for that same game when he noticed me quietly drinking by myself. Ellen Wallin grinned at me and shouted, "You don't say stupid things!" when she realized who I was from the East Coast Platoon Facebook page. Jade Chen always gave me someone to talk to about soccer, whether serious or a completely ridiculous joke. All of these people are special. All of these people probably don't even realize such simple acts of kindness make a world of difference to someone.
In Portland? Happened all over again. Alex Leeding, someone who I'd certainly met before in my travels but didn't know that well, didn't think twice about inviting me into his apartment to share beers with friends both old and new. Again, it's such a simple thing, but it means the world.
It's a weird thing, when you think about it. For me, all of these people I see a handful of days a year. But, at the same time, because of social media, you feel like you know them better because even when they aren't around, they kind of still are. So, because of the Portland Timbers, strangers (and honestly people I shouldn't know at all based on where I'm from) are actually really good friends.
This group of people drank together, laughed together, worried together, and got ready for the match. It was finally time to head into the stadium. I, however, had two more stops before that.
The No Pity scarf is magical to me. It was a physical embodiment of the Portland Timbers in Portland. When I first started as a Timbers fan, the scarf was never sold online. You had to be in Portland. You had to go to the No Pity Van. This was the talisman of my pilgrimage. And, at long last, I got one. I really don't remember anything except how the fabric felt in that moment; the ground wasn't there and the voices talking to me were distant. Holding this scarf in my hand I finally felt like a legit Portland Timbers fan (maybe I already was one, maybe I never will be) and it was amazing. I turned, grinning, for my one last stop before going into the stadium. The Fanladen.
I'd seen what my money does in being a member for 107ist in person. It was time to renew my dues. Makes sense to do that in person, right? I walked into the Fanladen and Sheba was there to guide me through it all. Sheba, someone I'd known only as a legendary persona on Twitter, was right here in front of me, explaining to me the beauty of the place. I had another moment, not going to lie. Everything that I've spoken about when it comes to the Timbers, comes from right here. This is where everything that makes the Portland Timbers more than 11 dudes kicking a ball around a pitch comes from. It was incredible to be in there, even for a few moments, and renew my dues happily. Never am I more sure that I know my money is going to good things than when I give it to 107ist.
I got lost in the stars. Scott, my guide (and at times, babysitter) that weekend, slapped me on the shoulder as I stared at everything in the Fanladen, "Dude, we gotta go!"
Oh, right, the game.
Never before had I seen so much green and gold in my life. Years of knowingly nodding at someone wearing Timbers gear was thrown at the window. I didn't have to nod today, everyone knew. We lined up and slowly made our way inside. I took a shuddering breath before I took that final step through the open door.
I stepped. Holy shit. Holy shit holy shit holy shit. I was in the home of the Portland Timbers and I had no idea what to do with myself. A hand, I'm pretty sure it was Scott's, grabbed my shoulder and guided me to the North End. I immediately looked at the ground. I stared at the ground as I walked down the stairs to our seats, knowing I'd lose it if I looked up even once. Finally, I got to my seat (well, where I was going to stand, anyway). I was in front of the drums. Wayne's World played in my head. I'm not worthy.
Another friend made sure I had this place. Maggie Williams was also the first to check on me when I finally looked up. I lost it. Jesus, the field was right there. I covered my mouth, my eyes went wide as they filled with tears. I was home. Maggie smiled that easy, knowing smile and put her hand on my arm. "You having a moment?" she asked, then added, "I understand." Everyone did. Everyone let me have it. It took damn near until kickoff to regain my composure.
It's weird, being a Timbers fan from the other side of the country. You know people in Portland without ever having been there before. I awkwardly said hello to Shawn Levy, someone I had met by happenstance in New England before he traveled with the Timbers on their Champions League run (remember that? Good times). He grinned and welcomed me, so happy that I could finally make it out. I embraced Darren Lloyd like someone I'd known for years (which, I guess, is kind of true), after he came down from his drum. He was so excited for me. In asking around for Darren, I made a new friend, Lexi Stern, who listened to me ramble and babble (not unlike what you yourself have been doing at this point) about how I became a Timbers fan and how important and special it all was to me. Doing that, saying why I was here, brought me back to Earth a little bit. Thanks for that, Lexi.
As we approached kickoff, I was once again reminded of my love for the Timbers Army with two simple items: A French flag flying in the air, and a "Refugees Welcome" banner in the North End. These simple actions are by no means going to win wars, but they tell the world who we are. We are a group of people not cowed by the worst humanity can offer, but one ready to lift up with solidarity and also accept those who are in need. I am so proud to be part of the same group of people that brought that flag and banner.
The anthem. Good God, the anthem. It was real now. We were all singing, until we finally hit the end, "And the home...of the...TIMBERS!" and I stopped. I wanted to hear it, I wanted to feel it, I wanted to get lost in it. Just for a moment, as I held up my piece of the tifo with everyone else as the other pieces rose in front of us, I let it wash over me. It was everything I had hoped for. It was loud, it was joyous, it was incredible. I added my voice again, and I didn't stop for over ninety minutes.
At halftime I walked the crowd like I'd been there before, seeking out people I knew to interact with them for the hundredth time, but to say hello to them for seemingly the first. Mike Kurfis was one of the first people I met when I became a Timbers fan. We talked about soccer, beer, and even Pittsburgh sports teams as Mike is coincidentally a fan of theirs, too. All of this was on Twitter. But, that halftime, I was able to meet him and his wife for real. It was great. Friendships that had been cultivated for years online were able to be in person for that moment. It was great to meet Mike, embrace him, and tell him how good it was to meet him after so many years.
The same is true for Don Baldwin and Shecky. It was great to see them again after meeting them this year in Toronto as part of the Timbers contest to fly out with the team. I'd gotten my passport the day before I drove up from Pittsburgh, so being able to meet them almost didn't happen. I'm glad I did, because they, like so many others, made me feel so welcome in Portland. I worried about not being accepted; I never should have been afraid.
I wish I could tell you about my experiences during the game, but I can only vaguely remember them. They are flashes. Crouching down and covering my head when Dallas had a chance or the Timbers missed one of theirs. Screaming at the ref, for, well, pretty much everything. Clutching friends and strangers alike for every other touch of the ball.
The goals, though? I remember those. I remember being momentarily stunned and not sure if I should celebrate when Asprilla scored. I remember tackling anyone who was within arm's reach with a hug. I remember standing on a chair waving a flag. I remember tasting and breathing in the green and gold smoke. I remember singing.
FC Dallas got smashed by the Portland Timbers, 3-1. Dairon Asprilla scored one of the most insane goals I've ever seen. The Timbers have a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference final. And I was there. I was there for all of it.
I got to go home.
Part IV: Goodbye
This was always going to be the hardest part. After the match, I clung to the remaining hours with friends; sharing laughter, disbelief, and joy. I found myself back in Alex's apartment, watching Timbers highlights of all types: the lows of a crushing defeat to LA Galaxy and the joys of beating Seattle with goals from David Horst and some guy named Kris Boyd. Everyone else watched the Sporting Kansas City kicks from the spot again but I still refuse to watch that out of fear that the ball will go in one of these times. Instead, I pulled my hood over my head, stared at the ground, and enjoyed liquor straight from the bottle until it was over. Look, it made a lot more sense when I was doing it, alright? We also danced. To Drake. It was perfect.
These people are special. The moments I shared throughout the weekend and that night, up until the very end, were special. They were special because while they included soccer and the Portland Timbers, they also went beyond that. What started out as just me having an affinity for a soccer team has turned into friendships I never thought I'd have. Each of these moments makes the bond stronger.
As I shook hands and embraced people as they left, thanking them for their part in making my weekend one of the best of my life, I hoped I would see them all again. I couldn't wait.
But, I knew there was one more thing I had to do before I left. I had to see the park again.
I hadn't checked my phone for a while. I pulled it out just as I leaned against a pole and looked up at Providence Park. I looked down at my phone. I slid to the ground crying. I cried the best kind of tears. I had so many people sending their well wishes to me on my trip home and sharing their happiness that I was able to come out to the game. It was a Sally Field moment, if I'm honest. I felt special. I felt part of the family.
I had to get back on that plane, though. It was weird, feeling like I was going home and leaving home at the same time. I know this, though, deep in my heart. I'll be back to Portland one day. But, for now, I can finally say I understand that Viva Voce song.
I wanna be back in Rose City.
Thank you so much Portland, the Timbers, Timbers Army, East Coast Platoon,