Franke Hejduk
Nathaniel Smallwood

Sirk's Notebook: Dude of the Ring edition

I’ve known Frankie Hejduk for over a decade now. Pretty much everyone in Columbus has met or hung out with Frankie at some point. The one thing we can all agree on is that if Frankie didn’t exist, all of us sitting in a room and imagining outlandish tales still wouldn’t be able to make him up. This story is example number eleventy-billion of Frankie being Frankie.

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On August 23, Vince Langhirt took his 11-year-old daughter, Brooke, to see the Crew play the Houston Dynamo. Vince’s parents have been Crew season ticket holders since 1996 and are at every game. Working around his children’s activities and a family business, Vince brings Brooke to Crew games as often as he can.

“The Crew’s been part of our life the whole time,” he said.

Brooke is an active athlete who simultaneously plays both softball and soccer. According to her father, she can’t get enough of the beautiful game. When soccer practice ends, she still wants to play. On the eve of her fall soccer and softball seasons, Brooke was excited to spend a night out with her dad, watching her hometown professionals play a sport she loves.

Brooke wouldn’t see a minute of the game.

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Frankie was doing Frankie stuff at a pregame appearance when, as if summoned by some inner Dude Signal, he looked over in the distance and saw people attending to a young girl. He rushed over to see what he could do.

Brooke had been playing with some other kids while waiting for the game to start. She got upended and an awkward landing broke two bones in her arm. Hejduk would later describe the fracture, in non-medical terms, as “gnarly.”

“She was a trooper, man,” Hejduk said later that night. “Her dad was telling me that she’s a goalie and a catcher, so she takes pain good. You could tell she was tough and was trying not to cry, but she was shaking because it was painful. Her arm was broken, dude, so I was trying to think of anything I could to take her mind off of it.”

Enter one of Frankie’s most prized possessions—his 2008 MLS Cup championship ring.

“I showed her my ring and was like, ‘Check this thing out! We won this!’ Her eyes got directed to the ring and I think and hope it took her mind off of the pain for that moment.”

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Some championships rings stay locked away for safe keeping. Others are only worn on special occasions. Then there’s Frankie Hejduk’s 2008 MLS Cup championship ring, which is worn every single day in almost any situation. It has barely left his hand since he got it.

When MLS Cup 2008 rolled around, Hejduk was 34 years old and the clock was ticking toward the end of his career. He was still a tremendous player in 2008, but there were many more games behind him than in front of him. In his sixth season with the Crew, ninth season in MLS, and 13th season as a professional, Hejduk had yet to hoist a championship trophy at the end of the season. He had won the Supporters’ Shield with the 2004 and 2008 Crew teams, and retroactively won another in 1996 with the Tampa Bay Mutiny a few years before the Supporters’ Shield was actually created, but he had never stood on the podium at MLS Cup. He had never held that trophy over his head. He had never bathed in that confetti shower or been soaked with celebratory champagne. He had never gotten that ring.

On November 23, 2008, he scored an iconic goal to seal the Crew’s 3-1 victory over the New York Red Bulls, captaining Columbus to the club’s first-ever MLS Cup title. It was a storybook afternoon to cap a storybook season in the latter stages of a storybook career.

One of my favorite memories of that day occurred more than an hour after the game, when I watched Frankie wrap up yet another interview. He had been talking to one reporter after another. I had already worked most of the room and was saving Frankie for last, as was our custom. When I wandered over, he said, with exhausted, pleading eyes, “Dude, can I be done now? I just want to be done.” We clinked beer cans in a brief toast, then he wandered off to collect his then ten-year-old son, Nesta. He whispered something in Nesta’s ear and then wrapped his arms around the boy as the two of them watched the celebrations continue. Always the hyper-magnetic center of attention, Frankie wanted to step out of the limelight and just soak up the moment. It was obvious how much that championship meant to him, and he wanted to share it with his son.

Having witnessed that scene, it comes as no surprise that Frankie’s championship ring is practically glued to his finger. As such, it’s taken a beating along the way.

“I’ve never ever taken my ring off since I’ve worn it,” he said. “It’s something that’s very close to my heart. There’s a diamond missing out of it because I wear it everywhere and it clunks around things and I hit it and it’s treated just like that Crew team was that year…a bunch of fighters and scrappers.”

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As Hejduk continued talking to the fighter and scrapper with a broken arm, he became concerned again when it came time for the paramedics to get Brooke off the ground so they could take her to the hospital to get her arm treated. He figured any sort of jostling or instability would cause even more pain, so he decided to increase the distraction level. He took off his 2008 MLS Cup championship ring and slid it onto one of her fingers, telling her, “Here! Wear my ring! See if that works! I just need it back!”

A disbelieving Vince was grateful that Hejduk would go to such extremes to help his daughter, but he didn’t have his wallet and therefore didn’t have access to a business card that he could leave with ring’s rightful owner.

“He had no reason to trust us,” Vince later marveled. “He had no reason to know who we were.”

It didn’t matter. Frankie reassured Vince in the most Frankie way imaginable, saying, “Hey bro, I’ll see you when I see you.”

And so it was that father and daughter were off to the hospital with Frankie Hejduk’s cherished championship ring. Frankie didn’t have their names. He didn’t have their phone number. He didn’t have anything, except belief.

“It’s one of those things where you just have to trust in humanity a little bit these days,” he said later that night. “It was a father and a daughter, and if that were my daughter, I’d try to do anything to keep her mind off the pain. She still has the ring. They’re Crew fans. They’ll bring it back.”

His demeanor matched his words. Frankie Hejduk didn’t appear to have a worry in the world.

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Vince and Brooke talked about the ring all the way to the hospital. Once there, word spread that the mentally tough girl with the broken arm had a special, glittering visitor.

“I want Frankie to know that her first smile…I mean, she was hurt, but the first smile I saw on her face was at the hospital,” Vince said. “The doctors were all coming by and some of them were saying, ‘We heard you have Frankie’s ring!’ so it made her special. It helped her. I told her, ‘Let me a get a picture with you and the ring, Brooke,’ and that was her first smile after her arm was broken.”

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Two days after he had entrusted his ring to strangers, Frankie sent me a text update.

“It’s in Dan Lolli’s office as we speak!! Crew family!! I knew it was coming back!!”

The ring had served its purpose in Brooke’s time of need, so Vince wanted to get it back on Frankie’s finger as quickly as possible. He left work a little early that Monday and returned the ring to Crew Stadium, along with a thank you note penned by Brooke.

When we spoke again later that Monday night, Hejduk was just happy it all worked out for the family.

“To be honest, dude, I wasn’t worried about it at all,” he said. “Her and her family were probably just as much a part of that championship as we were, with their cheering and growing up with it and supporting the Crew and all that stuff, so hopefully it was a cool thing for her to be with the ring, you know? I connected with them. Her dad’s been a huge Crew fan since day one. I wasn’t worried about not seeing the ring again. I suppose it could have happened where someone would have kept it, but I feel like we have a huge Crew family and that was a family member that was injured at the time, so I tried to help her out.”

For Vince, that family feeling is what makes soccer special.

“With all the trouble in life, it’s nice when someone helps someone out when things are tough,” he said. “That’s what’s important about soccer. It’s a family thing, but it’s so big. The family extends to everyone who likes soccer.”

In a moment of misfortune, Brooke and Vince learned that their loving soccer family legitimately includes a one-of-a-kind surfer dude.

“Even though he’s retired, he’s still making a difference in the community for the Crew,” Vince said of Hejduk. “That’s how good of an organization the Crew is. If you’re retired, you’re still there helping out. That’s important to me. This is a sport my daughter wants to grow up with and he just sealed the deal. He just showed her how good everything can be.”

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Brooke and Vince surely haven’t seen the last of Hejduk. Next on Frankie’s wish list is a reunion under better circumstances.

“Hopefully I see her and her dad again,” he said. “Hopefully I get to see them again so I can get a picture of her and me and the ring and her cast or whatever. We definitely need to get a picture with all of us together. It was a team effort, so it was cool. The paramedics did their job, she was so tough through the pain, the ring…dude, it was like Lord of the Rings.”

Frankie Hejduk: Dude of the Ring.

“Hopefully it’s just part one!” he said with a laugh. “Hopefully there’s only ever one part to this story!”

But that’s the thing about Frankie. Even if “Dude of the Ring” stops at part one, there’s always another story just around the bend. And as Brooke and Vince can attest, we’ll never be able to fathom what it’s going to be.

Questions? Comments? Ever find a stray championship ring diamond somewhere around Columbus? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk


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