Cinderella Man: Crew SC goalie Steve Clark has fought for his chance to shine
The moment, some would argue, that goalkeeper Steve Clark endeared himself to Columbus Crew SC fans came about a year ago. The third game of the season, March 29, to be exact. An away game at Seattle Sounders FC, a team Crew SC fans have come to loathe, for many reasons, not the least of which was the team's until-then history of getting shellacked by the Sounders.
As a post-game story on Crew SC's website notes, without Clark, this one could've gone the same way. "[Seattle midfielder Lamar] Neagle, in particular, could have had a hat trick in the opening 45 minutes if not for Clark's efforts," the post-game story reads, perhaps a little too matter-of-factly.
Clark's fiancée, Carella DiMaggio, believes this is the moment the Michigan native became a Columbus fan-favorite ("I went to the office the next day and everyone [I worked with] was like, 'Oh. My. God,'" she said).
But that's not exactly how I see it. The on-the-field stuff, sure, that's important. Essential. The only thing maybe even. But Clark burned himself in my mind as a player-to-watch before the season ever started. More specifically, during the team's March 4, 2014 jersey unveiling party at Bar Louie in the Arena District.
The 28-year-old goalkeeper was the most active among Crew SC players - visiting fans, shaking hands, being engaged. I wasn't the only one who noticed.
Crew SC fan Ray Haas said as much in a comment on an April 29, 2014 majorleaguesoccer.com article.
"During the preseason kit reveal party, he was the only player I saw actively looking for people and start talking to them," Haas wrote."I could tell he was one of the most down to earth players. Very kind and easy going."
By now, most Crew SC fans know Clark was a big reason the team made the playoffs last season for the first time in years. They recognize, along with the rest of Major League Soccer, that Clark's become one of the five best goalies in the league, ranking near the top in most major goalkeeping categories.
Anecdotally, Crew SC fans have watched him almost single-handedly win games, grinding out victories by taking shots off his face or inspiring the team with finger-tip deflections. He embodies the team itself - workmanlike with flashes of brilliance lurking always.
Heading into this season's opener, a March 7 away game against Houston Dynamo, expectations are even higher.
Can Clark top last year and push himself into a spot with the U.S. Men's National Team, as many pundits have suggested? Can Crew SC go further into the playoffs, perhaps even winning a championship?
To hear Clark tell it, you shouldn't count any of it out.
Almost as well-known as his play on-the-field is Clark's now-famous post-game "Yes!" chants that were inspired by WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan. Crew SC fans recognize in the chant Clark's unbridled enthusiasm for the game and its fans, a zeal that overflows from the joy of a home victory and the smiles he played a part in making.
In conversation, all these qualities shine just as bright as the stadium lights on a Saturday night. Clark is chill, until he's not. His enthusiasm escalates, much like his famous cheer. He punctuates your words with increasingly more fervent bursts of responses: "yeah," "yes," YES." "YES!" He asks about you before ever talking about himself and his eye contact never wavers. The intensity of the conversation can be a little unnerving, not unlike trying to chat up Crew SC legend Frankie Hejduk and searching for some untapped well of energy, only to find it lacking.
"He's very intense and high strung but he's also super relaxed. He's like that with his career too," Carella said.
For most of his career that balance didn't exist, but you get the sense he wouldn't be where he is if it had. Obsession drove him, compelled him forward.
He's learned to cope with his fanatical nature through meditation, visualization techniques and Jesus ("It came to a point where it was like, 'I have to live for something else,'" Clark said).
In Norway, it wasn't uncommon for Clark to stop in the middle of a Norwegian mall, in full-on goalie stance, poised to dive for a save, Carella said. Or he'd angle himself off against a table in the couple's apartment, "like, this is my right post," Carella recalled.
"He's stopped [doing that], but at the beginning of our relationship I'm like, 'Is this guy crazy? Who am I dating?' His mind never stops."
His mind also never forgets. Ask him about a goal scored against him a few years ago, a kick that went astray or a derisive comment made about Columbus, and he'll remember all the specifics, adding another log to the fire that burns within.
"People bash Columbus, and I'm like, 'OK, I'll take note of that. I won't forget,'" Clark said. "I truly believe that chip perhaps that I have and that Columbus has, is a good mix."
Clark's carried that chip for years now, and for good reason.
He grew up in a rural Michigan town, and though his high school career was a success, he walked-on at Oakland University. To save money as he paid his way through college, he lived in a tent in the nearby woods for several months.
After college, he played or tried out for various U.S. soccer teams, ranging from amateur to MLS. He trialed at MLS side Real Salt Lake, and even trained with Crew SC when the team needed extra bodies. It appeared no one wanted him.
"I wasn't really making it," he said.
And so, after living in his car for a week and with $13 in his bank account, he sold almost everything he owned so he could fly to Europe for a chance to make it there.
He trained for a month with Bradford City, then in the fourth tier of English football. When he couldn't obtain a work permit to play for Bradford, he moved to Norway, prepared to live in a hostel, if need be, setting up his own trials by cold-calling whichever club he could find contact information for. Eventually, he latched on withHønefoss BK and helped the club get promoted, before finally gaining acclaim in a pair of standout seasons.
It's all, frankly, a little unbelievable, even to Carella.
"[I thought he was] embellishing because there's no way that's true," she said. "And now that I know him I'm like, 'Of course he did [all that]. That's not even a little bit shocking.'"
When Clark first moved to Columbus, he was simply happy to be back in the States. Now that he's been here a year, he's fallen for the city.
"We came here with completely no expectations," Clark said. "We showed up after four years abroad and here we are now after our first year having an absolute blast, not only on the pitch but we've really taken to the city."
If he's not home cuddling on his couch with his pitbull/boxer mix, Ace, he's probably getting beers at North High Brewing, or maybe walking through the Short North with Ace to Mission Coffee. Sometimes he'll hit up happy hour at Arch City Tavern or Marcella's. Or attend an inter-faith prayer group on Tuesdays at OSU's St. Thomas More Newman Center. And, like the rest of us, he's fallen for Jeni's ("Every night we're debating going to Jeni's," he said).
He loves Columbus' lack of pretension, its Midwestern roots and evolution into a major U.S. city. He loves that he's close enough for family - his and Carella's - to watch nearly every home game in-person. He loves the lack of traffic and the walkability of the German Village and Short North neighborhoods.
But most of all, he loves the people, and the way they've welcomed him.
"Whenever you come to a city as a new player there's definitely a feeling-out period," he said. "Carella and I are really loyal people. So for me, if you're going to cheer for me, I'm going to be with you too. If someone's willing to call me their own, I'm willing to call them my own. The fans picked up on that."
Crew SC fan Elliott Stanek had never heard of Clark prior to Crew SC trading with Seattle for his rights in December 2013. But Stanek quickly became a fan after looking up footage of Clark in Norway, where he was named the Tippeligaenleague's best goalkeeper. And though Clark absolutely annihilated Stanek's expectations last season, it wasn't just the on-the-field acrobatics that won him over.
"Even though we're a big city, we get disrespected day in and day out," Stanek said. "Steve's the same way; it's been an us-against-the-world mentality [for both]."
Besides the game itself, Clark said this is the best part of the job, these interactions with fans. He said it's his calling, and the conviction with which he says this is convincing.
There's this moment, he said, he cherishes. It's summer in Columbus, kind of muggy. Crew SC played a good game in front of a great crowd.
"And there's this moment when people are leaving and walking to their car and they're just so happy," he said. "I get to do that. I get to put on a show to make people happy. OK, we're not curing cancer … but we're making people happy, and that's a lot of fun."
Or, there's this other moment, he remembers, from a game against Philadelphia Union on Oct. 11, 2014. Crew SC is down 2-0, and Union fans start hitting Clark hard with the "Yes!" chant, throwing it in his face, taunting him. Soon enough, Crew SC scores three goals in a flurry of action that transpires over five minutes. The game ends, the good guys victorious.
And there's Clark, "And I'm walking out [of the Philadelphia stadium], like, 'YES!' 'YES!' 'YES!'"
Or there's this moment, more recently, just prior to the Feb. 11 Supporters' Summit, a fan forum with Crew SC brass and Nordecke supporters groups. Crew SC fans have lined the front rows of the Nordecke for a photo shoot with Clark. Almost immediately, a chant begins: "We love you, Steve Clark. We do. We love you, Steve Clark. It's true."
Clark beams. Someone proposes doing the "Yes!" chant. Clark objects at first, determined to preserve the sanctity of the thing by only doing it after home victories.
"We just won this photo shoot!" someone yells out. More laughter, which then gives way to a chorus of "YES!" "YES!" "YES!" and a bouncing contingent of fans, hands propelled skyward in unison with each shout. And there's Clark in the middle, joining them, but, also, you can tell, soaking it in.
After the shoot, fans gather around Clark; some ask for pictures, others want hugs. Stanek later tweets that Clark gave him "one of the most solid hugs I've ever had." Before leaving, Clark yells out, "I love you, guys. Let's keep on fucking rolling."
Photos by Meghan Ralston
Crew SC at Houston Dynamo
8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7
First home game
Crew SC vs. Toronto FC
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 14
Columbus Crew Stadium
1 Black and Gold Blvd., North Side