If I Had a Vote…
By Ron Patel
Before yesterday, if I had a vote in the US Soccer Presidential election, I would have had no idea who to vote for. There are 8 different candidates running in the largest, most high profile election for the office of US Soccer President. I’ve only met one of the candidates before and that was Eric Wynalda. Eric had a great national radio show on Sirius XM FC for a while, which I loved listening to, and I met him at the national soccer coach’s convention 2 years ago. He seems like a great guy, but other than that, I knew hardly anything about any of the 8 candidates.
I received an email at the beginning of the week asking me to come to Starr Brothers Brewing on Friday afternoon. Starr Brothers is an iconic soccer bar/brewery here in my great town, Albuquerque, NM and I was invited to attend a special event.
Eric Wynalda was going to be in town and he wanted to meet with local folks involved with soccer. I have to admit, my first reaction was almost to roll my eyes, “Here comes a campaigner looking for a vote!” I thought to myself. Boy was I wrong.. and shame on me!
After arriving and ordering a beer, I pondered a few things: 1. No other candidate had come to New Mexico during this campaign season. 2. It’s actually pretty great that someone was coming to spend some time with us in a state that most people overlook with anything. 3. What the heck was he doing in New Mexico? (Especially 8 days before the election, when he should be out garnering the votes with bigger influence on the election)
I mean, the election was happening in 8 days and he was spending an afternoon in New Mexico. Our state accounts for a mere 8 out of over 500 votes that count for this election. He arrived with his campaign manager and we began to chat about youth soccer. Next thing you know, we were deep in conversation about the game and the many different issues facing youth soccer and the game as a whole.
I expected some “Programming” of sorts or him making a big speech as to why the New Mexico vote should sway to him. None of this ever happened. He was there to interact with people like him, folks who loved the game and wanted to see it grow.
A group of about 8-10 of us shared stories about the game of soccer, our experiences with the youth game, amateur soccer and Eric & others traded stories of life in pro soccer. Eric’s phone kept buzzing while we were there but I didn’t think much of it whilst it was going on and continued to enjoy the evening.
The most touching story that Eric shared the entire night was of when he played in a game against Jamaica in the late 90’s in Southern California. He told us of a boy who had been battling cancer and was brought out to the game because, in his words, “Eric Wynalda was my favorite player!”
Eric walked down the tunnel to approach the field for warm ups that night. He knew the boy was there and Eric explained how nervous he was just walking down the tunnel knowing he was going to meet him. The boy had made a bracelet for him to wear during the game so of course, he wore it. Late in the game, a penalty was called and Wynalda stepped up to the spot to take the penalty kick. He moved the bracelet from his arm to his leg and he struck the penalty kick into the back of the net, winning the game 1-0. In his celebration, he found the young boy in the stands and pointed to him during the celebration of the goal and celebrated in unison with the boy.
Wynalda told us of the feelings he felt from that game and how he had stayed in touch with the boy over the years. Later, the boy would tell Eric that the rush of energy that he felt from the goal that night energized him and motivated him to carry on. That little boy fought cancer and beat it. Then, came the bombshell Eric was to drop on us….
The young boy was from California but now lived in New Mexico. Not only did he live in New Mexico, but he was on his way down to Starr Brothers to meet us all for a bite to eat! (The reason is phone kept on buzzing was because they were texting each other) Eric’s face lit up with joy when he told us that he was going to see the boy for the first time in ten years and almost on queue, the door flew open at the front of the brewery, and there he was.
Eric ran over to the door to greet his old friend and they embraced each other with a big hug. The now, 36 year old man, introduced Eric to his wife and their 6 month old son. Then, in perhaps the greatest part of it all, Eric’s campaign manager walked over to take a picture of the moment and Wynalda simply raised his hand to cover the camera, denying the attempt for the photo opportunity.
It was in this moment that I saw the true character of Eric Wynalda. A guy that was 8 days away from an election that he absolutely wants to win was gifted with a golden opportunity to add some sparkle to his campaign. He wanted nothing to do with it…
He had no interest in a Public Relations moment. He was in Albuquerque, New Mexico sitting around a table doing what he loves to do. Wynalda was with the people, trading stories about coaching, talking about growing the beautiful game from the grass roots level and spending time with an old friend. An old friend who had inspired him for decades and whose life may be owed to the spirit and soul of #11 on the US National Team 20 years ago.
I don’t participate in much politics, certainly not in soccer politics, but if I had a vote, I know who I would want leading soccer in this country: A selfless, passionate disciple of the beautiful game. Thank you Eric, as I saw your true colors last night and it was wonderful and refreshing. Thank you for inspiring me to write this. I wish you the best of luck in the upcoming election.