After a year caught between his employer and an angry fan base, the beloved Columbus Crew brand ambassador is breaking his silence. “I feel alive again, dude.”
Columbus Crew SC held a press conference Jan. 9 at Miranova to introduce the team’s new owners, coach and president, confirming what once seemed impossible: Instead of moving to Austin as threatened by the prior regime, Major League Soccer’s original franchise would remain in Columbus under local ownership for the first time.
It was a joyous occasion for anyone who had hoped to #SaveTheCrew, and perhaps no one was happier that day than Frankie Hejduk. “I feel alive again, dude,” the former Crew defender told a reporter, beaming with his usual surfer-dude enthusiasm. “I was dead for a year.”
Hejduk, a veteran of two World Cups and two Olympics, spent eight seasons with Columbus, serving as captain during the 2008 championship season and scoring a phenomenal goal to punctuate the Crew’s MLS Cup victory. As a player, his gregarious nature made him an avatar for fans; during that ’08 title run, he once pounded beers with tailgaters and partied in the Nordecke, the Crew’s hard-core fan section, while serving a red card suspension. That role continued in retirement when he became the Crew’s first brand ambassador, a sort of living mascot charged with sharing smiles and pints around town to promote the team and riling up fans on matchday.
“I’ve dedicated my life to the Crew,” Hejduk tells me by phone a month after the Miranova event. His kids have grown up around the team, and he now counts many of the core Nordecke supporters among his best friends. Thus, he was crushed by the prospect of the franchise ceasing to exist. He says he never considered moving to Austin if the Crew relocated: “I go where my heart has ties to.”
Team employees were expected to keep their opinions about potential relocation to themselves, which was hard for a heart-on-sleeve character like Hejduk. While the Crew’s future was in limbo, he often sought solace by fishing at Alum Creek. “That was my therapy for everything that went down,” he says. The pastime continued after the Crew was saved. In fact, Hejduk caught a saugeye about an hour before our interview, and he was still there fishing when I called.
Despite these Alum retreats, some of Hejduk’s pent-up frustration came out last October in a series of tweets at Alex Stec, the Crew’s former brand journalist, who’d taken a job with FC Cincinnati two months earlier. Among other insults, Hejduk called Stec a “fake” and a “traitor.” In hashtag form, he wrote, “I stay on my boat until the end.”
At the front office’s direction, Hejduk called Stec to apologize the next morning. He says they’ve since high-fived, hugged and laughed over drinks. “Probably not a great moment in my career,” he recalls. “At a certain point, things hit a boiling point for me. Twitter can be dangerous at times.”
His anger would soon become euphoria. Two days after the Twitter tiff, MLS announced new owners—the Edwards family of Columbus and and Dee and Jimmy Haslam, the owners of the Cleveland Browns— were negotiating to buy the team. Hejduk says he heard the news when the public did. “I’m usually the last one in the office to know,” he says, because co-workers know he can’t keep good news to himself.
If Hejduk was stoked on the Crew before, he’s off-the-charts excited after watching fans, business leaders and politicians come together to carve out a bright future for the franchise, the subject of a feature in the March edition of Columbus Monthly. “There’s not a thing that I’m not excited about,” he says. “It’s just everything.”
Hejduk eagerly explains why each of the next three years will be special: 2019’s celebration of the Crew being saved, 2020’s final full season in historic Mapfre Stadium, 2021’s introduction of a new Downtown venue. A San Diego native and lifelong surfer, he loves that the new stadium will be on the waterfront. As someone who appreciates Mapfre’s history as the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS and the site of many key U.S. Soccer victories, he’s also happy to see the venue being preserved as the Crew’s new training facility.
Perhaps most of all, Hejduk appreciates that Dr. Pete Edwards Jr., the Crew’s team doctor since the beginning, is the face of the new ownership group. “He’s done five of my ankle surgeries,” he says. “He kept my career going an extra five or 10 years.” And now, by taking over the Crew, he’s kept alive Hejduk’s career as brand ambassador, too.
The old Frankie, the one whose zeal cannot be contained, is back. “It’s a pinch-me moment,” he says. “This is all I ever wanted when I first came here.”
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