Ed. Note: Greg Rucka is an award-winning writer of comics and novels who has called Portland his home since 1998. His comic book series STUMPTOWN, published by Portland’s Oni Press, will debut on ABC this fall, starring Cobie Smulders as Portland private investigator Dex Parios.
Rucka is also a proud Portland Timbers season-ticket holder and annual member since the team's inaugural MLS season in 2011.
On the eve of the re-opening of an expanded Providence Park this weekend, Rucka writes about the power of place and what this stadium means.
It’s autumn 2010, and I am in a very dark place. I’m suffering from undiagnosed clinical depression, the result of several professional setbacks that have left me reeling, and in the black swirl of that turmoil, I cannot see the way out. My family is feeling the strain, and my good days are few and far between. I am finding it very, very hard to work. A writer writes, and I am not writing. A writer who is not writing ceases to exist.
I’ve lived in Portland twelve years, lived in Oregon for just shy of twenty, at this point. I’ve gone to a handful of USL Timbers games, but my most lasting memory of – at the time – PGE Park, is attending the U.S.-Germany Women’s World Cup semi-final in October of 2003 with my father. I barely remember the game itself. I remember the energy and the crowd, and I remember our seats were bad, but I was there with my Dad, and I didn’t much care. We were sharing soccer.
I remember this day in 2010 acutely: my two children are attending Winterhaven K-8 in southeast Portland, and I’ve driven down to pick them up from school, and since I’m not writing and generally miserable, I’m in the habit of getting down there a good hour early, just to walk around the neighborhood. It’s Portland autumn, sunny after a rain, the leaves have fallen, sodden carpet of orange and brown and red plastered to the sidewalks. I am aware, at this point, that Portland is gearing up to join MLS, but for the reasons I’ve stated, I’m not paying that much attention.
Since misery loves company, I’m looking at Twitter instead of the world around me, and I see that there are still season tickets available, and I decide that this will make me feel better about myself and my life. What I need, I decide, is season tickets for myself and my family. My bride, God bless her, does not shoot down this idea. I suspect she – like me – is looking for anything that will help me climb out of the hole I’m in, and if these so-called MLS Timbers are going to be the rope, well, it’s worth a shot.
I make the call, get connected with a very eager and friendly man by the name of Dan Zusman. I do not know who Dan Zusman is. I just know that he’s helpful, and in short order, I’ve got four tickets, and a date on the calendar to look forward to, and I start actively tracking developments with the team. My son, who loves soccer, is excited. My wife is excited. I’m excited. It’s infectious. Even my daughter, seven years old at the time and absolutely not interested in anything that has a ball as the center of attention, is excited. We go stand in line and get our pictures taken holding prop chainsaws and axes.
We are counting down to opening day.
I grew up in a farming community in central California. My father played college football for UC Berkeley, not because he wanted to but because that was the scholarship that got him there. In exchange he got a degree, met my mother, and made it to law school. It cost him his knees.
As a kid, I was encouraged to try all the different flavors of sport out there except hand-egg – American football to the uninitiated. Hand-egg would get me disowned. Hand-egg was forbidden, which was fine, because I liked watching it just fine but didn’t much care for playing it. It was soccer that my father pushed me towards most, though admittedly he didn’t have to push very hard. It was the only sport I was passably good at. I wasn’t particularly talented on the ball, but I was dogged and I would run and run and run, so I played midfield most of the time, and since I liked the position, I’d sometimes play in goal. I played through high school. Every game, Pop was always there, on the sidelines.
When I was growing up, you didn’t get much by way of soccer on television. In those rare instances that a game was televised, broadcasters didn’t know how to handle it. They’d cut away from the game every seven or eight minutes for ninety seconds of commercials and you’d come back and the score would’ve changed and that was it. It was not an effective way to grow a fan-base. These were the dark ages, before banner ads and chyrons.
The only soccer I watched consistently, therefore, was with my father on Saturday afternoons. Our local PBS affiliate ran a one hour clip show of the previous week’s Bundesliga matches called Soccer Made in Germany. My father got me a shirt for pledging to the station, and I wore it to tatters. It was green with white stenciling of a soccer ball rolling across the front, beneath the words “Soccer Made in Germany.” On the back it read, “More than just a kick in the grass.” Half the time, I didn’t know what I was watching. For the better part of a year I quite sincerely believed that “Beckenbauer” was a position, not a player’s name.
In hindsight, one could argue I wasn’t wrong.
It’s opening day, April 14, 2011. Up until now, watching the Timbers has been managed on computer monitors with accompanying shouts, cheers, and laments. But tonight, this is it. Tonight, we’re in the park.
It is pouring rain. Even for Portland, it feels excessive, as if Mother Nature has decided to get into the act, dialing things up to eleven for the night. The noise in what was then known as JELD-WEN Field is unlike any I have ever heard. My son doesn’t know if he should be watching the Timbers Army or the match, and is trying to figure out how to do both at once. The energy is palpable, a coursing, restrained joy lubricated by beer and the unique sense of community that comes from gathering together in one place for one purpose. We’re here to root for the Timbers.
I have, in my mind’s eye, a picture-perfect memory from that night, this one image that stands out in the blur of all the rest. It is of Kenny Cooper coming down the sideline, into a slide tackle that sends a sheet of rainwater arcing from the pitch, glittering as it catches the stadium lights.
Image: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers
The noise of that instant, the mixture of witnessed athleticism and shared adrenaline, is with me even as I’m writing this. I don’t remember if he even won the tackle, to tell the truth, though in my memory he did. It doesn’t really matter. It is a perfect moment in a perfect place, the memory of an instant where there was nothing before and will be nothing after. There is just this instance and its immediacy. It is genuinely transcendent, something you cannot find watching a game on television. It demands being there, in the park, on the day, on the hour, on the minute, in the second, standing as witness. It is an instant that does not allow the baggage of our lives, forces us to shed all the things we carry day-to-day. In that moment, you cannot be worried about the bills, or what whoever thinks of you, or if there’ll be time to get the laundry done, or any of a million other things.
In that moment, there is only the moment. And 21,000-plus people standing with you.
Understand, I have never been a die-hard sports fan. I am an old-school nerd, a geek from back before that was ever even remotely a compliment. I may have played soccer growing up, but if I was going to go pro at any game, it would’ve been D&D. I read fantasies and mysteries and science fiction and I collected comics, and that is as likely how I became a writer as anything else. I am not a sports fan. I am a soccer fan, and more than that, I am a Timbers fan.
My father gave me a love of the game. My community gave me a love of the Timbers. While I cannot say with any certainty that my climb out of my own personal darkness was a result of the Timbers alone, I can say with absolute certainty that it was a factor. I can say that I am rarely as happy, as serenely content, as when I am sitting in the stands ninety minutes before kick-off.
I love the empty park with all of its potential, waiting to be attended. I love watching the park fill, slowly at first, the initial rush of the Army setting their ranks. I love watching the west side fill, and the pitch being watered, and feeling the energy shift throughout the park when whoever is between the sticks begins warming up in goal. I love the moment the rest of the team comes out of the tunnel and begins their kickarounds.
I love the place. I’m the guy who goes to the pre-season tournament games when it’s so damn cold I’m buying hot dogs for myself and my son and a friend to stick in our pockets as makeshift handwarmers. I just want to be there, and I don’t care where. North End or the West Side, Timbers, T2, Thorns, exhibition, Open Cup, it doesn’t matter. Win or lose, doesn’t matter, though it should go without saying that winning is always better. Cheering for Atticus or celebrating winning the Cup or losing to the fishing village to the north or hiding my face in my hands because this PK shootout cannot possibly continue and finding the courage in time to watch physics take a hike long enough for the ball to bounce off both posts….
My life now orbits around home games. When I have to travel on business, the first thing I do is check the schedule and if the Timbers are playing at Providence Park, I move heaven and earth to make sure I can be there. I have turned down guest appearances at conventions and other engagements for this reason, no lie. Those people I work with regularly from out of town now know they need to check the schedule, as well. I’m unapologetic. I wouldn’t expect them to cancel going to church on Sunday morning for me.
This is my church. I am become devout.
I imagine that what I have to say is by no means unique. I am certain that many hundreds of others have written similarly, and probably more poetically, about entering Craven Cottage or the Nou Camp or any of a thousand parks to watch a match, to, each in their own way, come home. That may, in fact, be part of its power. Each of us finds their place. I found mine on game days at Providence Park.
Have there been ups and downs? Of course. Have there been matches I’ve left feeling burdened rather than enlightened? Absolutely. Have there been encounters, on the pitch and off of it, that I’d rather not have witnessed, let alone been party to? Unquestionably. Has it kept me from returning? Not once.
I have brought friends to games – in some cases almost had to drag them – and they have left converts. I have watched matches alone, in the company of my family, in the company of strangers, in the company of friends. I have exchanged strips with visitors from Germany and Ecuador, I have formed friendships with seat-neighbors that begin and end within the confines of the park. Game after game, season after season. It goes on. There is always next year.
My father passed in the summer of 2015. He’d been retired for several years, and he loved to travel, and whenever he’d come to Portland during the season, he and I and my son would go to what matches we could together. This was as close to a regular game as my father had ever had. Growing up, the nearest we could get to “professional” soccer was a one-off trip to see the San Jose Earthquakes play the New York Cosmos, glimpses of Pelé as my father hoisted me onto his shoulder. This was something I could give back to him, and it was something we shared. I remember him at Providence Park, looking at him in profile beside me: hat on his head and strip around his shoulders, beer in hand. The faraway smile on his face as he took in the park, the pitch, in the quiet before noise. Knowing that he saw what I saw in those moments, that he felt what I felt.
My son has grown up in the park. He’s nineteen now, and attending college, but he’ll be home for opening day on June 1st and it matters to him as much as it does to me. We need to be there. There were days I pulled him from school to come to a mid-afternoon match. I have pictures of him in 107, furiously trying to finish homework and a hot dog before kick-off. This wasn’t playing hooky. This was being part of the community, and quality time with my boy. Something we’ve shared, something that cannot be taken. Something that, perhaps, he will share with his child or children.
Images: Greg Rucka
And right now, in our house, we’re again standing where we were a decade ago. We’re watching all the games on the road. We’ve marked the calendar.
We are counting down the days.
We are counting down to the day we get to come home.