Monday, December 6, 2010

30 Days of Thanks, Day 3

Day 3: The Carolina RailHawks

In the United Kingdom, there is a stable Football League with four tiers.  Below that, there are several more tiers of non-league football, many teams of which are professional.  In the United States, however, below MLS lies turmoil.  D-2 and D-3 feature a stunning failure rate of roughly 75% and fans accept as a fact of life their team may not be around next season.  Beyond that, with the American franchise system you can even have your team yanked out from under you and moved halfway across the country where they can play in a beautiful city beautiful game beautiful beautiful club beautiful, (or something like that. We feel your pain Austin.)  It's a tenuous existence and the uncertainty of it all makes the relationship you build with your team all the more meaningful.

Sometimes, you even get to watch your team find brilliant end of the season form and against long odds clinch their conference and make a run to the League Championship Cup.

The first professional soccer game I ever watched (and the next several I saw after it) were the decorated Wilmington Hammerheads, my local team.  Like so many others, they eventually folded (they will however be reborn as a USL-PRO side in the upcoming season.)  This left me without a team until I moved to Raleigh and was able to get into our RailHawks.

While I enjoy American Football, odds are if you're reading this you know there's very little that gets me fired up, for better or worse, than soccer.  So many people have written far more beautifully than I could ever write about what makes the game great, and why it inflames such passion.  My senior thesis in college focused in large part on the role soccer played in the break-up of Yugoslavia and the fanning of the flames of ethnics tensions.  The flip to that is the epic story of the civil war in Cote D'Ivoire that ended in a cease fire because the Elephants made the World Cup.

But knowing academically how much soccer means to people is nothing compared to experiencing it yourself.  Watching our hometown guys go out and play their hearts out, week in and week out, grinding out a win, pulling out a heart stopping come back, or simply not giving up in a hopeless situation brings me more happiness than nearly anything else I can do on a summer evening.  Watching them beat a team like Montreal is enough to keep me in a great mood all week.

I'm no fool.  I know Tom Heinamann is no David Villa.  I know that Etienne Barbara is never going to be another Messi.  But I also know that I got more joy out of a last minute Heinamann blast into the upper corner to beat the impact and send our boys to the finals than I ever will out of any wonder goal Messi puts in.  I'll get more pleasure out of a Richardson first-touch-after-subbing-in goal than I will out of even the most stunning Nasri shot.  Because while I recognize and appreciate the brilliance that is regularly put on display in Camp Nou, Stade de France, Emirates or Old Trafford, those teams are not my team; the Railhawks are.

This past season we came up just short, losing in the championship to the Puerto Rico Islanders; we'd been the better team all season, but were outclassed at the end.  That's the way it goes, though, and next season, we're going to go out and beat Puerto Rico.  Then we're going to do everything we can to go back to the championship and bring home the first hardware in our team's history.

So to the RailHawks, thank you.  Thanks for the opportunity to watch quality soccer week in and week out.  Thanks for giving me the chance to watch players like Jozy Altidore score a goal (and then for coming back and getting a draw with Red Bull!) Thanks for all the good times, the great games, the passion, and the thrill of victory.  Most importantly, thank you for always playing with heart and dignity and thanks for always, always, always making our city, our region, and our state proud to call you our own.  You'll Never Fly Alone.

      Beating Montreal: So Easy A Caveman Can Do It! 
Seriously though, you're a bunch of thugs.  Go back to Canada.

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