They say you don’t pick your club, but that your club picks you.
Before I dive into one of the most mind-bendingly, full-circle, picturesque and surreal experiences of my life: please afford me a bit of backstory.
Back in the 90's in my hometown of Joplin, Missouri, a company called British Soccer Camps came to our little corner of the world. They stayed for 3 or 4 days, brought players/coaches, ran drills, and bedazzled the lot of us with their other-worldly skills. We were sore amazed. The finale of the week was always a small-sided match pitting the coaching staff against the best and brightest older players. It was never close. After attending a successful one of these as a 'wee lad', a ragtag group of families and a willing coach decided to put together what seemed like the holy grail for a young aspiring player:
A traveling soccer team.
It was the first of its kind in the area, and while we had a pretty good idea of what was going on, no one really knew what they were doing. Open tryouts were held, kids came out, everyone's skill level was assessed. In the small pool of talent he had to pull from, the coach felt as though he could field a team. Unfortunately we had so few players at a competitive level at that time that the age range couldn't exactly be pinpoint accurate. They named the club Joplin Lightning, got kits on order, and decided to start entering regional tournaments in the U-13 division.
I was 9.
Some of the dudes I was playing against had mustaches. Some of the dudes had private school scholarships. ALL of the dudes, were better than me.
It was a pretty tumultuous couple of years. I got made fun of. A LOT. Not just by opponents, but by my own teammates. I was a dramatic kid (read: loud), a sensitive kid (imagine that), and a nerdy kid. Mix those in with a sub-par playing level by the youngest kid on the team and you've got a target on your back the size of a big box retailer.
Kids can be cruel.
While 4 years difference isn't much in this life, between the ages of 9 - 13 I may as well have been crab walking the pitch. My parents were still supportive, even when I'd come home from practices fighting back tears week after week. They told me I could quit any time. I was, of course, too young to realize how much of an energy and money suck it was for them at my age: long traveling weekends with more driving than playing time, having to assume the part of the brooding loner during off-pitch activities (that I was somehow always just missing invites for). We were never a rich family. My parents did just fine, thank you, and I would pit my childhood up against any comer, but on a team full of doctor's and lawyer's kids who always had the newest gear, the nicest cars, the hippest vacations, we were easily on the lower-end of the pay scale. Looking back now, I'm sure mom and dad knew full well what was happening. It must have been difficult for them to watch. But even through my bleary eyes and gaping maw, I couldn't. I just couldn't quit.
I really, really loved the game.
I used to receive an allowance. $2 a week. I was never one for buying things, and I learned at a very early age that if I could delay my instant weekly gratification at the $2 range, I could buy something that would resemble a pretty killer toy having saved up: if only I could wait a month or two. But even in the $20 range, there was always something about my purchase that was a letdown. The store visit was grand, the ripping open the plastic as soon as I'd arrived back home was a hoot, and the first couple of minutes with it out of the package were heavenly. But as inevitably as my regular bedtime, the buyer's remorse would overtake my pre-teen heart. The fun I'd have with that toy was always fine, but always short lived. The delight would always fade. It was never quite right.
Never really worth it.
It would get to the point that I'd force myself to play with the toy longer to prove to me and my parents that I'd made a good decision. As if I could somehow will the mistake into a positive just by having the car's death defying leap smash through the refrigerator box fort one more time, or having the T-Rex eat the unsuspecting teddy bear on the carpet with all of the other toys sitting on the couch arm staring in wonder like an infantile Roman coliseum. I would do so, all the while pondering what I might have gotten, what I could be doing...
If only I had held out longer.
It was this mentality, along with being extremely stingy with my Christmas and Birthday monies, that sent me on a path to 'The Great Save'. I didn't have anything particular in mind that I was saving for. I just knew that whatever it would be would have to be EPIC in order to justify zeroing out my top desk drawer crammed with $1 bills. The longer I saved, the more epic the gift would have to become.
I eventually got better at soccer. I grew, which helped immensely. I went to multiple soccer summer camps to see what I was up against elsewhere in the state, and kept on keeping on with Joplin Lightning. The great benefit to me was that the older kids decided to start their own club and it gave me time to catch up to my age range. I was eventually 12 playing in a U-13, and it was everything I had hoped it would be.
The spring of my 12 year old year a letter came in the mail. It was a marketing piece from a company called British Soccer Tours (a subsidiary of the camps, I’m sure) and in it was an invitation to go, with a group of kids from around the country, to play soccer in England. It was only a two week trip. Two tournaments, in my age bracket. A chance to see the land that birthed the sport, and my favorite comedians (Monty Python), and travel overseas for the first time ever.
I had never wanted anything more in my entire life. I wanted the experience of this thing far more than I wanted a drawer full of green paper. This… this could change everything.
My lifelong obsession with British culture would only serve to be deepened by the experience. My love for the game and its ability to bring together so many diverse people under one common purpose would continue to grow.
I would go on to play competitive, traveling soccer in the states for 13 more years with a nod at the All-State High School First Team in Missouri and 3 years in Missouri’s Olympic Development Program. My senior year in high school was amazing, and the best I’d ever played in my age group. I felt as if my skill had developed, my game smarts were honed, and I was up to make my way into the greater footballing world.
But a political decision in my final year with Missouri’s ODP left me falling short of the squad, regardless of my goal-scoring prowess in that period, and my hopes were essentially dashed at continuing to pursue soccer as a profession. It was, in a sense, my only shot. It was all I knew. It was the only way I saw to getting where I wanted to go. But it was then that this boy from a small town learned an important lesson about what needs to be done to pursue a dream: you must put yourself in a place where the opportunities to succeed are plentiful. To hang your own personal success on only one opportunity would be the death of that dream. To keep it alive, you had to give it everything, learn as much as you can, and get continually better.
I just didn't realize there were other options.
I decided to quit the game. Rather than fight my way though some scholarship offers from Division 2 and 3 schools in the US, I decided to take the full-ride academic scholarship money from Missouri State to pursue my higher education, without soccer. It was during this period that I fell into a University run a cappella group called the Beartones, and eventually formed a band with one of the other members. He told me of a magical place called Nashville, where careers in music were not just a dream, but a reality. I had to make plans to get there. It was the new object of my desire. It was a chance at redemption.
While I did eventually play at University, I knew that the chances of going pro or semi-pro in the states after graduation would be next to impossible, and I found myself at a crossroads at the age of 21. I had really moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music, and while it would serve to be my most likely long-term path, I will always be grateful to Belmont’s coach, Earle Davidson, for allowing me the opportunity to walk on and be a part of his Division 1 squad before finally putting away my first love for the pursuit of another.
My passion for soccer would still stay strong, but would have to exist from a fan perspective. My girlfriend (now wife) and I would backpack Europe and attend all of the US Men’s National Team matches during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. We would plan our honeymoon around the 2010 World Cup in South Africa only to have those plans go completely awry (a story for another time) and wound up laid up with bandaged bodies, hyped up on pain killers after a late-night hospitalizing scooter wreck on the island of Kos. We were left watching the matches we had already bought tickets for in German on a Greek television set in a hotel board room.
Things don’t always turn out how you plan. But I digress.
My desire to be a part of the greater soccer community would grow into a group called the Middle Tennessee EPL Fan Group where I would learn the ins and outs of the Premier League game. The rivalries, the personalities, the history, the banter. It was a crash course in a whole new world that would serve to satiate my desire for more and more football. I missed it.
Only, I didn’t have a club.
When making a decision of this gravity, it couldn’t be arbitrary. It needed to have its meaning. It would have been easy to pick a typically top-4 squad with a large supporter’s group already in the States. But I’m obviously not a fan of easy. As I watched week-in and week-out, and chatted with people from all walks of life and levels of support, it was the stories and personalities of the Tottenham fans that always spoke to me. There was a reverence for the game, and its history, and a sort of gallows humor for when things weren’t going right. The term ‘Spursy’ would somehow explain away any otherwise incredibly frustrating happenings. There was something very pragmatic about it. I loved that.
But also to hear about the part of London that Tottenham was situated in spoke to me: A rough and tumble, very diverse, and not very well-to-do area. The fan base was loyal (This is my club, my one and only club.), and showed a passion that was not based on recent successes (as there weren’t many to speak of unfortunately.) They were in the middle of a long string of manager sackings and always getting close but never really having a breakthrough season.
I know how humans are drawn to success more than quality. I know that there are brilliant, perfectly lovely people, striving for their goals and very well may never reach them. For every story of brilliance, there are a million stories of heartache and loss. For every Gold medalist, there are tens of people who never made the final, and thousands who never got the invite to the games. But I didn’t need championships to satiate my devotion. I needed a community. I needed a reason. Tottenham gave me one. It wasn’t fair weather. It was deep-seated. It was long-suffering.
I liked that a lot.
I know a little something about being overlooked. I know a little something about having spurts of brilliance without ever really getting there. I know the mentality inside and outside of a situation like Spurs can be, and how the mentality itself turns into folklore. How the feeling around a club can be infectious and spread. I knew a person or an entire organization could be type-cast at being the ‘almost’ achievers.
And I also knew that none of that was real.
It was all conjecture.
It could all be turned around in the blink of an eye.
All you really need, is a win.
In the Central Timezone of the US, the air times for matches range anywhere from 6:00am and 11:30am. My wife and I will get up with a lovely Spurs Family nearly every weekend (when we’re in town).
We and several of the Nashville Spurs contingent went to Denver in 2015 when Spurs played the MLS All-Star match. We caught a training, took a completely goofy picture with Harry Kane, and attended our first Legends Night. It was such a brilliant weekend.
So as we awaited the release of pre-season calendar for 2017, we hoped to have an opportunity to see our beloved Spurs in America once again.
Upon closer inspection, however, was a dumbfounding name. Sitting right next to Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City was the word: Nashville.
You’ve got to be joking.
How on earth has my love for soccer, and my love for music converged in my adopted hometown? How could I be so lucky?
I couldn’t wait to cheer them on from the stands in the 3,000+ Spurs supporter’s section and show exactly how much passion there was for our boys in the states. We would also get to host supporters groups from all over the country and show them our hospitality. It was just a magical time with so much promise for such a wonderful atmosphere.
We were over the moon.
My information was sent along for consideration to sing the national anthem at the match, as they would be hard pressed to find someone in Nashville who had more deep-seated ties to both soccer, and the music that gives Nashville its reputation. This, along with the recent Rolling Stone write-up I received, presented a strong case as to why I was the right man for the job.
Only I didn’t get the job.
Although the club responded very positively to the music, and the story, the decision was ultimately out of Spurs hands.
We said thanks very much. Looking forward to seeing you all do your thing just down the road from us.
And off we went.
It was mid-July. I was at home resting with my family back in Missouri when the call came in from the club about a different kind of opportunity.
It wasn’t the anthem, and there would be significantly fewer people, but would I possibly be available to play the team dinner?
An immediate rush of panic and excitement overwhelmed me to a point of stress overload.
At this point in my career I’ve played literally hundreds of shows, many of them with my dear friend and dobro player, Josh Matheny, In front of 2 people and in front of thousands. So while the gamut has been run, playing for friends, family, and strangers is a whole heck of a lot easier than playing for 40 people you get up wayyyyy too early on a weekend for just to watch every week. I don’t need everyone at a show I play to love what they see. But I really, really wanted to make an impression on this squad, and this manager, at this moment in time.
I needed to think of a way to make the evening something very special.
Which also meant I wouldn’t sleep for days.
So in my preparation for the most nerve-wracking gig of my life, I arranged an 8 minute medley of all of the classic tunes and player chants I knew, as well as a few that I had written/co-written with some of my fellow Nashville Spurs week-in and week-out as we support the club from afar. It got pretty well rehearsed, as I needed to make sure I could still perform it during a rush of blood to the head near passing out from elation at the opportunity.
The evening came. I was taken to my green room next door to where everyone would be dining. I was then told that the players weren’t aware of my coming in. As massive celebrities under a strict curfew, there was no going out on the town in Nashville, as much as they might have loved to. So it was the staff and coaches’ decision to bring in some entertainment while they were in town.
That was me.
I walked in, and to break the ice, started with a zippy number from Garth Brooks, introduced myself, and then played a couple of my tunes to the very respectful, and Instagram story-capturing crowd.
I knew the players didn’t really know what to think at first, as I was told they’ve never really had entertainment at a team dinner before, but it wasn’t long before everyone was warmed up and we arrived at the pivotal moment in every concert: song number four.
Next time you’re at a show, pay attention. The first three songs are gimmes. Everyone’s so excited you’re there, and they’re settling in to the situation, and the adrenaline is pumping, or if it’s a new artist to the crowd, people are trying to see what you’re all about and sizing you up, so to speak. Their grace will only go about 10 minutes, and it’s at that point that you need to re-engage them and give them a reason to hang on for another 10 minutes. Luckily, I had song 4 figured out.
Enter the medley.
The rest, as they say, is history.
You’ve seen the video. As the confines of Twitter and Instagram only really allow for 1:00 or so of video, SpursTV picked a few of the more lively (and family/friendly ;) chants for the masses to highlight, but the full 8 minutes looked an awful lot like what you’ve already seen. It was other-worldly. It went better than I could have ever imagined. To see their interaction, and having the players rib one another as they waited to see who’s song was coming up next, was just a thing of beauty. It was truly a delight for everyone. I’d never been so happy.
As I left the stage after an asked-for encore, a presentation of a signed jersey from the squad, the standing ovation, and the chants back to me from the dim light of the hotel ballroom, I felt as if I were literally outside of my body. Like I was watching myself do all of this. I couldn’t feel a thing as thoughts and emotions were racing by at a click I couldn’t really keep up with. But I was really fricking happy for whoever that guy was up there having the time of his life. He must be enjoying himself beyond what he could have ever expected. That guy, has got it made.
Besides the obvious elation, the best part of the whole evening, by far, was seeing the camaraderie of the men in that room. Their love for one another. The respect for the coaches. The kindness of these men. It turns out that this squad, this gaffer, this club, is filled with people who are exactly who we thought they were. Hard working, resilient, hopeful, caring, good men.
I like to see good men do well in this life. I like to see underdogs find solace in building something together. Because the life of a perpetual underdog isn’t all that bad. It keeps you humble. It keeps you hungry. It makes you stronger. Being an outcast makes for tougher skin, a harder work ethic, and a lack of reliance upon the words and praises of fickle men. Being a flash in the pan must be a fate worse than death. To have it all and then be cast upon as a fluke, an accident, a mistake. Creating a legacy that can withstand the storms of bitter words and doubt, that continually rises above naysayers and trolls, that has even the would be haters tipping their caps to the undeniable existence of your achievements must be an inseparable feeling from heaven itself. To create an empire built on the tenants of goodness, and class, and fair play may seem a bit idealistic, but by God, someone has to dream. Someone has to fight that good fight. Someone has to try. And try we must.
This is not just football. The drama of man’s struggle is being played out before our eyes week in, and week out. As television is scripted, as reality is fluffed, as politicians flounder, as words lose meaning, a free-flowing, tactical, game of both brawn and finesse, of both mind and heart, of real time drama, quick decision making, and besting an opponent without grey area is a necessary component to civilized life. Football is the great equalizer. There is no lobbying for a better result on the pitch. There is no amount of nepotism, or favor, or chumming up that can make a net ripple after a 23-pass string. The results are what they are.
Man consistently finds ways to muck things up. To take things further than he should. He finds loopholes, he challenges existing tenants, he breaks laws. If left to his own devices, he would do ANYTHING to win. And in a world that has no problem allowing for uneven playing fields, those would-be battles of the bulge have the scales so tipped that the answer is a foregone conclusion. There are some uphill battles that have been, and will be, losing ones. So when I say trying to make something of lasting quality, toattempting to bring people under one common flag of football purity is a daunting and difficult task is a grave understatement. To build something instead of buying it, would be to turn the whole world and its reasoning ways on end. It would have men question the goodness of ill-gotten money and power. It very well could have him seeking the source of our happiness, rather than letting it be overrun by one who would claim to sell it.
So to say that we’re just trying to win a title by a different set of rules, may seem like a miserly approach to existing inside of a system flush with the green stuff that toys with men’s desires, but I can assure you that it's much more important than that. We're fighting a game of mercenaries vs. family. Of power vs. will. Of smugness vs. determination.
All it takes is one win.
The game, like my love of music, can't be about money. Please let it be about more than money. Let it be about striving, and hard work, and tenacity, and daring to do. Let it be about tradition, and history, and respect for the beautiful game. Let it be about bucking a system, carving your own path, and creating something real. Let the cream rise to the top. Let unity conquer a smattering of individuals. Let the whole be more than the sum of its parts. Let a man's character play a role in his success. And please, oh please, oh please let the game be about glory.
"It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory." - Bill Nicholson
And that... is how Spurs picked me.