There's an old saying that you never forget where you came from. It's an expression of never forgetting your hometown, the place that made you who you are today.
Crew defender Eric Gehrig isn't from Columbus, but this city has shaped him in a way as if he were. Through hard work and determination, the Harvey, Illinois-born Gehrig has proven himself as a valuable MLS defender here, for the club that gave him a chance back in 2011.
Gehrig's story is one that reminds you of the fact that everyone's path to a coveted place like MLS is different. After a successful college career at Loyola University-Chicago, this particular path began at the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, where Gehrig was eligible for selection into the League for the first time.
"I was actually at my girlfriend’s in Miami at a bar," recalls Gehrig on his experience of watching the SuperDraft. "I figured I wasn’t going to get drafted, but I knew I was in the draft pool. We were watching alone down in Miami, kind of half-heartedly hoping something would transpire. Deep down, I knew it probably wouldn’t have happened, and it didn’t happen."
Undeterred, the defender latched on with the then-Kansas City Wizards as an undrafted free agent. He trained with the Wizards for some time before the club decided to go in a different direction, so he went back to Chicago to finish his degree. Several teams made him an invitation for the 2011 preseason, including the Crew, but Gehrig opted to return to Kansas City because of his familiarity with the organization.
While in his second stint with Kansas City, he continued to catch the eye of the Crew front office. The Black & Gold placed a Discovery claim on the defender, putting the wheels in motion for him to come to Columbus and eventually sign a professional contract.
"I was pretty blind," said Gehrig on what he knew about Columbus at the time he left Kansas City. "I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I didn’t know anyone on the team, to be honest. I wasn’t shaken up, but I was kind of worried in a way, because I was relatively comfortable with those guys in Kansas City and knowing those guys. Going to a new team, I didn’t know how it was going to end up.
"Of course, I was a little nervous and uncomfortable, and I think that kind of showed, but at the end of the day, three, four or five weeks at the end of the trial in the preseason, [the Crew] offered me a contract and the rest is history."
Sometimes, all it takes is one chance. Columbus was the city that granted Gehrig that opportunity. Gehrig didn't know anything about the city at the time that he received a phone call from his agent informing him of the Discovery claim. Now, he's a first-teamer and a fan favorite, a player known for the passion he brings to the pitch with each and every outing.
"Columbus wasn't writing me off right from the start," said Gehrig. "Obviously, I had some growing pains as a young player that everyone goes through, but the Crew stuck with me. I think they kind of identified with me being a Midwestern guy, a blue collar guy, kind of the brand of the club, the team and the people that live here. Four years later, here we are and I think I am right there with some of the guys on the team that have one of the closest bonds with the fans.
"I’ve been here longer than most of the guys on the team. That relationship continues to grow and I feel like I’m one of their guys and they are a big reason why I do what I do, play and care as much as I do."
The former undrafted free agent has turned into a valuable defender for Gregg Berhalter. He's made a career-best 20 appearances and 14 starts this season, showing versatility at both centerback and rightback. He's also a top-10 League passer among defenders with that many appearances.
When reflecting on his time with the Crew and the journey he's taken to get to this point, he can't help but be proud of his progress.
"Humbly speaking, I am very proud. I've put in a lot of work behind the scenes in the gym. It has been a grind to where I have gotten. Obviously, I’m not done and I have to keep going. But I am proud, it is a pretty cool story.
"I was a kid with a dream. I had season tickets growing up for the Chicago Fire. Seeing Josh Wolff and Frankie Hejduk, these are 'pinch me' moments I cherish every day."
Headed to the Playoffs for the second time in his Black & Gold career, Gehrig is eager to win MLS Cup for this organization and this city, for the club that believed in him and helped him become the player he is today.
"Even before getting drafted, there were always guys that were bigger names," said Gehrig. "Obviously in high school, I had my time to shine and I was one of the big dogs, but there were times when I was cut as a kid and shown the door. It is easy to get down at that stuff, but it means a lot when you feel the other side of that.
"I'm not a guy that needs to be babied or have bones thrown to, but at the same time it is nice to be acknowledged when you are working hard and doing good things."
For the believers. For Columbus.