I’ve often talked about how too many Americans expect an instantaneous soccer revolution, when in fact they should recognize that the sport has instead undergone a phenomenal, yet deliberate, EVOLUTION over the last twenty years.
That point was driven home to me recently in the person of longtime Chicago soccer supporter Al Hack who died suddenly Valentine’s Day morning. To me, Al represents a generation of Americans who helped escort soccer from the dark ages of the sport in the 1980s to today’s relatively enlightened era in which soccer plays an important and relevant part in the lives of the majority of Americans.
It was at a soccer game of course where I first met Al – a Chicago Storm indoor soccer match at the UI-C Pavilion – four years ago. I knew Al as a Chicago Fire and Chicago Red Stars fan, but mostly I knew him as the jovial and loving father of two soccer passionate girls. One of his daughters, Nicole, was the founding leader of the Chicago Red Stars supporters’ group Local 134.
Al’s soccer-loving path reflects the evolution of both the size and the nature of soccer’s generational movement into the American mainstream. He was a conduit of soccer’s growth in the United States. Like so many other American men he was first introduced to the sport through interaction with immigrants and opportunity to connect with his children in a youth soccer program. Al coached his daughters Nicole and Allie for a total of 13 years. He didn’t know a lot about soccer, but he loved sports and he loved his daughters, so when the Tinley Park Bobcats needed a coach, Al stepped in.
Through soccer he was able to connect with his daughters. Before you knew it, Al was taking the girls to Chicago Power professional indoor soccer games at the Rosemont Horizon. Some of Nicole’s fondest childhood memories were attending those Power games with her dad.
Al and Nicole didn’t go to the games by themselves. Al worked for 33 years at the Andrew Corporation in Chicago’s south suburbs. Many of his co-workers were European immigrants who brought their passion for soccer to Chicago with them. It was one of those co-workers, Jake Setter from Germany, who first introduced Al to soccer and went with him to pro soccer games…first it was Chicago Sting games, then Chicago Power games and later Chicago Fire games – at Soldier Field, Cardinal Stadium and finally Toyota Park. Jake and Al were later joined by fellow co-worker and Scotsman Ian Brown and then by Al’s former Chicago Fire ticket sales rep Nick Zahos.
Like so many other new Americans, the immigrant friends knew the sport well and were more than happy to share their knowledge – and opinions – with Al. Through long discussions and debates over many beers at many soccer matches, Al learned the sport and gained a passion for it. A passion that he passed on to his daughters. That transference of passion in sport from father to child had been occurring in American sports for more than a century…but now with Al’s generation it was happening with soccer.
His daughters played throughout their youth. Allie also played some in high school and excelled in gymnastics, too. Nicole continued with soccer in high school and continues to play recreational indoor and outdoor soccer today. Al and Jake attended the World Cup at Soldier Field in 1994 and longed for the day Chicago would get an MLS team they could support.
Al used the Fire to provide a social connection for his whole family. His wife Vivian and their daughters also attended soccer matches along with Al, Jake, Ian and Nick.
“Obviously, Allie, my mom and I were also his soccer buddies,” Nicole said. “He thought that soccer would keep us together as a family and I must admit it was working. The brick I bought my parents that’s in front of Toyota Park says ‘A red heart can never be broken’, and our hearts may be hurting right now, but it will never be broken. My dad was my ultimate soccer buddy,” she said.
Al became a veteran of attending soccer matches. He no longer coached, but he had gained much knowledge from his coaching, his years of watching soccer and debating it with Jake, Ian and Nick. He wasn’t content sitting quietly in the stands. He was vocal and even joined Section 8 on occassion to provide colorful support to the home team.
The last time Al and I spoke was a couple weeks ago at the Section 8 Chicago Annual General Meeting. He wasn’t one of the younger attendees, but he certainly was one of the youngest at heart. Vivian told me at the wake how much he enjoyed our conversations. I can say the same, because he always was laughing and always made me feel better about whatever was going on at that time. She then provided me with great praise by telling me that my spirit reminded her of Al. Surely, no higher compliment could be paid.
After many years of supporting the Fire, a professional women’s team came to Chicago. His daughters, all grown up by then, were thrilled and Al was thrilled. Again, he committed to supporting the team with Red Stars season tickets for his family.
To me, Al’s life seemed to center on his family and soccer. It was only at his wake where I realized the fullness of his interests and the scope of his impact. Long lines of mourners snaked around the funeral home for more than five hours to pay tribute to this wonderful man. The lines wound past dozens of images that showed his love of Walt Disney World, the White Sox and the Eiche Turners as well as the love I already knew he had for the Fire, Red Stars and family.
While Al has passed, his wonderful memory lives on in all who were fortunate to share a beer, a cheer and a laugh. His individual legacy will live on in Vivian, Allison, Nicole and his countless friends, but he is also part of a generation whose legacy was largely unforeseen 20 years ago. A generation that transitioned and translated a foreign sport to their kids and helped make it a part of the fabric of American culture as much as Walt Disney World and Valentine’s Day. Thank you Al and thank you to the millions of others who joined him on that successful journey.