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HILTBRAND | 'I have never seen a team like the 2020 Columbus Crew.'

How beat writers do this, I'll never fully appreciate.

This will inevitably end up as a poor Steve Sirk impression because he's entirely superior to me when it comes to writing about the Columbus Crew. I believe ceding space to great writers is what the rest of us should do more often, but taking account of my feelings is something I've been forced to do a lot recently. Coming face-to-face with mortality does that to a person with an effortlessness that's borderline breathtaking. Come to think of it, I absolutely haven't caught it yet. 

To put it simply, this year has been complete trash; unequivocal garbage the likes of which I've never seen in my 34 trips around the sun.

It wasn't supposed to be. 

It was supposed to be 'my' year, as selfish as that sounds now, given the last 12 months. I'm aware of that now. We all are, I hope. Hindsight is 2020, after all.

When I was hired as a part of the Columbus Crew SC TV broadcast team, it was the culmination of work that I started 15 years ago. More or less, the opportunity I worked to create when I started in TV at 19 was this one.

I love this team and being part of the Columbus Crew apparatus in this very specific way has been THE goal. I finally got here. I arrived, so to speak, carving out a place thanks to hard work and the selflessness of others who helped me find some recognition for my efforts. 

I'm telling you that so you won't be offended if I don't continue much beyond it.

There's hubris and there's being a blowhard, and lamenting a pandemic's influence on my job as a professional sports watcher sits nicely between those two points. I have been blessed with enough self-awareness to know first-world privilege when I see it. This story isn't about my career and its silly ups and downs.  

Gratitude derives from a very specific type of clarity and I think most of us with a working brain see our lives and relationships a whole lot clearer now. These last 12 months have been a forced prioritization and because of that, I've been fortunate to see and express a lot more gratitude than perhaps normal.

And that's really what this story is about – my gratitude.

It's about defining my appreciation for everything that's happened in the last year, the people who have made my life better in that time, and the team that punctuated this period perfectly. 

It is extremely normal for me to be around teams. I have been around many, many, many in my life, both as an exceptionally average player and as a broadcaster.

Given that, I have never seen a team like the 2020 Columbus Crew.

For one, I felt equally part of this team in a specific way I'll address later and entirely separate from it – team adjacent, if you will.

I'm always leery of using the word 'we' when describing my own position relative to, you know, the ones who actually matter, but this season, I felt a lot closer to 'we' than ever before. They, the ones who actually matter, are a big reason for me feeling that way.

Secondly, I've never been more comfortable during uncomfortable working conditions mostly because I didn't know any better. 

We've all been forced to adjust thanks to the pandemic and obviously, the Crew's TV broadcast was no different. No road trips for me outside of that extraordinary away game to a deserted downtown Seattle, about five whole minutes before the world shut down. Those road trips would normally afford me the opportunity to build relationships with the ones who actually matter, and those relationships are where good/great broadcasting anecdotes are born. Zoom can't and will never replace a hotel bar and an expense report. 

So, my role changed and that went seamlessly thanks to the exceptionally talented people responsible for literally all the good things we did this year. You know them: Neil Sika, Jordan Angeli, our producer Melissa Kulwinski, director Jeff Platz and radio broadcaster Chris Doran.

We're a team within a team and I will gladly continue to ride their considerable coattails to glory. We have made the best of this season and I think the end result stands for itself. We did some great TV. It's only going to get better. 

But that isn't the reason why the 2020 Columbus Crew felt unique and why 'we' felt obtainable. If you were 'in the room' so to speak, it was entirely impossible to ignore that this team was of championship caliber.

I'm talking, pre-COVID. That's not prescience on my part – we watched Lucas Zelarayan train during preseason and five seconds later we knew we were watching a superstar. I'm talking about the omnipresent awareness of the possibilities in front of this group and the impact it had on me.

This is probably my "Save the Crew" nostalgia talking but I'm fully convinced that this team saw themselves as a bookend.

If you're unaware, a bookend is exactly what it sounds like, a support structure for a row of books to keep them upright. More often than not, they come in twos because you can't have an end without a beginning and some creative sometime in history decided symmetry is appealing.

But in the figurative sense, a bookend is ending.

This team felt different because they, perhaps subconsciously, knew they could be the perfect end to this story. 

The always affable Chris Doran is an international soccer celebrity and one of the more emotionally intelligent people I know. I've known of Chris for a long time but my actual knowing him as a person really began this year and I am better for it.

He's blessed with inspiration in a business where few are, and he said something in the dying moments of the Crew's radio broadcast Saturday night that slammed into me like a hammer.

It was a question, really, posed to another guy who's equally blessed with a similar insightfulness that only comes from spending years describing what you see, while expressing what you feel all at the same time. 

Chris talked about the many chapters in the Columbus Crew's resurgence story and then, in a moment of pure genius, he asked:

'Is this the end?'

Was the absolute beatdown of Seattle in front of the home fans at MAPFRE the 'freeze-frame, roll credits' moment that this club has been searching for since heroes saved it? 

It bowled me over.

It's the kind of thing you can only ask a compatriot because only a comrade in arms has the perspective necessary to appreciate and properly contextualize the moment.

For the life of me, I can't even remember what Neil said beyond answering "yes" and that's too bad because I guarantee it was poignant. Jordan chimed in a second later and despite her being a newcomer to our Crew family, I bet her comments were just as meaningful.

However, at that moment, the 'yes' was enough for me.

Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus wrote about the notion of 'we' respective to Crew fans in the days leading up to MLS Cup and it was a perfectly articulated, classy read that unknowingly nudged me closer to being comfortable with 'we'. (There go those great writers again, influencing us without our permission in the best possible ways).

By the time that final whistle blew and Chris' bit of magic went over the radio waves, that proverbial book slammed shut. All season long, against my natural disposition, I consistently gravitated closer towards using 'we' to describe my relationship with the Crew. 

And then we won. WE won.

Now, it feels right to use that spectacular pronoun because there's an exclusive and significant feeling of camaraderie that comes with it. When you combine that sentiment with everything we've gone through with this team these last few years and I can't help but be overwhelmed by a surreal amount of gratitude.

I see that so clearly and comfortably now and my gratitude is a tidal wave. This club - I'm talking about everyone here, fans, front office, players, coaches, everyone - deserves this championship because it's the bookend we earned.

I never kicked a ball and I sure as hell didn't Save The Crew, but I also feel like my efforts in supporting this club, however small, were part of so many others that helped push them to the top of MLS. 

The view from up here is dazzling.

You can see everywhere we've been along the way and that perspective has always been important to Crew fans. We're a club with a rich history that doesn't mind leaning on its past as a way to continuously build towards an improving future. There's a big shiny stadium nearing completion that embodies that idea perfectly. The past paved the way and because we were all on it together, we are eager for what's next. You can also see what lies ahead for the Columbus Crew, and that is a sight, friends.

The future is officially here now.

The scar tissue of traumas past has healed, the burden lifted. Jonathan Mensah lifting that trophy to the heavens is the curtain call. We've won, we've wrapped and we're moving on to an unbelievably exciting future that feels entirely within our grasp. 

I've never been more thankful to be part of this club. I've never been happier to be associated with such a talented and wondrous group of people. When my wife was diagnosed with cancer back in October, so many of you went out of your way to help and you will FOREVER have my gratitude. You took care of us in a dark moment. How could I not use 'we' going forward?

There's a fine line between a sermon and a hostage situation and if you're ready to flee the pew, let me leave you with this: we're not done yet. And we never will be.

That's the great legacy of this club and why the present and future will always be so bright. The great gift of our esprit de corps is the relentless desire to keep competing and to keep the party going. 

We fight. We win. We celebrate. 

We do it together. 



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