Love and Elbows with Steven Lenhart
 
When I spoke with Adam Moffat on January 21, I mentioned that I’d sent an email to his brother-in-law Steven Lenhart and hoped to speak with him soon.

“I’ll see if I can find where he’s at,” Moffat said. “He’s been all over. We don’t even know…he’s just doing his thing.”

It’s two nights later and I’m on the phone with Lenhart.

“I’ve been all over the place since you and I last spent time together,” he says. 

Vietnam. Thailand. Nepal. China. Hong Kong. A backpacking trip in Japan that somehow turned into a brief un-retirement from professional soccer. New Zealand. Morocco. Switzerland. Munich for Oktoberfest. Jordan for a week of soccer clinics for Syrian refugees. Israel, resulting in an impromptu beach hangout with ex-Crew striker Aaron Schoenfeld in Tel Aviv. 

“I’ve been checking it out,” Lenhart says, apparently referring to Earth.

India beckons this summer, but before that, there’s another very special place on his itinerary. He will be returning to Columbus on Crewsmas weekend for the premiere of the updated #SaveTheCrew documentary at the Gateway Film Center.

I broach the idea and it’s an instant yes.

“I’d be so pumped to come back, dude.”

*****

MLS fans surely know Lenhart as a big, strong, bruising, antagonistic, and aggressive forward, but like the city of Columbus, he was a late bloomer. At 16 years old, he was just 5’6” tall and 114 pounds. (“Pipsqueak,” he says. “The pippiest of them all.”) He didn’t hit a growth spurt until college, then it took a couple years for him to learn to adjust to his new body. His junior year at tiny NAIA school Azusa Pacific was the first time that he was a starter on a soccer team at any level. A year later, out of the blue, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Columbus Crew in January of 2008. Professional soccer had never even been on his radar. Nor had Columbus.

“I knew absolutely nothing,” he says. “Literally, absolutely nothing. I didn’t even know the color of the jerseys, and then I looked online at the jersey and was like, ‘Fuck! We’re yellow? That’s frickin’ UGLY!’ Then I was like, ‘Alright, I guess this means I don’t have to go back to school for the second semester. That’s pretty cool. I guess I’ll do this.’”

So began a nine-year MLS career resulting in three Supporters’ Shields and an MLS Cup championship.

When Lenhart first reported to Columbus, he had no idea what was going on. Unlike California, Ohio was freezing cold. He mistook Guillermo Barros Schelotto for a member of the team’s locker room staff. Most importantly, he had never experienced soccer at anything remotely close to the level of the Crew’s training camp.

“I loved waking up in Columbus with the feeling that I had to go out there and prove myself,” he recalls. “Playing against Chad Marshall was like playing against a Transformer. I had no concept of that level before that. It was all such a steep learning curve that I needed and loved and bought into. I thought I was already on the team, and then I was talking to some guys and it was like, ‘Oh, I’m not on the team yet?’ So that was kind of fun.”

Lenhart eventually did make the team. Not only that, but by the end of the year, he was scoring a clutch dramatic equalizer in a playoff game at Kansas City and made a substitute appearance in MLS Cup 2008. In less than a year, he went from never even considering a pro soccer career to being an MLS Cup champion.

“I haven’t really reflected on that aspect of looking back on my career, but being part of that team set the standard in so many ways, and not just on the field,” he says. “Like, in the locker room, and the dynamics, and the way we made things work, and the cohesiveness, and the trust and the joy. The success on the field was what the fans got to see and what we got to experience, and that was the final outcome, but it ran deep within that team. Being a part of that is a really cool marker for me in my career. It set the standard in so many ways. I’m thankful to Sigi for creating that. I’m thankful to the Brian Carrolls and Frankies and Guilles and Chads. Yeah, man. There was so much to be learned and cherished and enjoyed on that team. It was a great experience.”

*****

Lenhart also had a great experience with the city of Columbus. Being born and raised in Southern California, it was all he ever knew until fate unexpectedly whisked him away to Central Ohio. 

“I loved the size of the city,” he says. “The people were very open in their own Midwestern way. It was also my first time living outside of California so I didn’t really know much about the world or the rest of the U.S., so that was kind of my initial landing pad when I ventured outside of my home state.”

I ask him to elaborate on the people of Columbus being open in their own Midwestern way.

“Like, open and interested in my story and my background,” he says. “When you say Midwest, what comes to mind is here’s some cornfields. Here’s something simple and maybe not too on the cutting edge of things. A lot of home-cookin’. That’s all awesome, but the contrast and just being from California and we have people coming up with vegan restaurants and we have yoga everywhere and some eastern influence and a little more ‘out there’ and other cultures flow through the state a little easier. But just feeling like there was an openness despite my pre-judgements. There is real authenticity to who they are. And a curiosity.”

Lenhart quickly felt at home, whether it was constantly hanging out at Cup O’ Joe or starting a crocheting club with elderly ladies at a retirement home, producing beanies affectionately known as Homies’ Hats.

“I felt really safe and secure in Columbus,” he says. “It was a really good place to start my career.”

And then there were the fans.

“I thought they were awesome,” he says. “I thought they were the best fans in the world. They are so overly passionate. It’s like, ‘Don’t you care about your kids? Do you guys have families?’ I loved interacting with the fans. It was great. They knew more than I did, that’s for sure.”

*****

A little side story that demonstrates something about Steven Lenhart. Well, I suppose the week of doing soccer clinics for Syrian refugees is already illustrative, as is starting a crocheting club with old ladies in a retirement home in Columbus. But here’s one from my own personal life.

In 2012, one of my closest friends, Rob, moved to the Bay Area. I timed my first visit to coincide with the Crew’s trip to San Jose that year. I arranged for Rob to have a field pass so I could take him down on the pitch for warmups. I thought that would be a fun experience for him. A few of the Crew guys came over to say hi, which was nice. Lenhart, then of the Earthquakes, took the field, saw me, and came over for a quick chat. Or what I thought would be a quick chat. I introduced Rob as a new arrival in California and then Steve took over. He asked Rob tons of questions and offered his own insights as to living in the Bay Area. They talked for five or so minutes like I wasn’t even there. Rob, a guy he’d never met until that moment, was the sole focus of his attention. But that’s Steven. He’s genuinely curious and caring of other people. He saw a chance to connect with another person adapting to a cross-country move like he once made in reverse, and he also seized an opportunity to make that on-field access a little more personal and memorable for my friend.



I snapped the above photo thinking I could possibly use a Lenny photo for Sirk's Notebook. In retrospect, I wish I would have backed up and shown that he was having a conversation with Rob. In the long run, that's the memory I took away from that day.

As we talk on the phone, I don’t think of that story specifically when I tell Steve that his status as an MLS villain always amused me given what I know of the real Steven Lenhart, but it’s in there. I always chuckled at the hate that came Lenhart’s way due to his aggressive and irritating play. I mean, I completely understood it, but it was also funny that the kind, caring, curious, joyful, and hilarious person that I know could be so reviled.

“It just goes to show that they didn’t really have an outlet for their anger, and I did, so they just hopped on board with mine,” he says of opposing MLS fans. “They were just pissed at me because I found a good outlet for my anger. I think that’s ultimately what it was.”

*****

As the subject of the Crew’s relocation comes up, Lenhart presumably finds another outlet for his anger, even if subconsciously.

“I’m just chopping wood right now,” he says. “I’m starting a fire in my back yard.”

I can hear the chopping in the background as we speak. When we talk relocation, goofy, loveable Steve goes into game mode and once again has his elbows up, ready to battle.

“Open your eyes, Mr. Owner, and see the Columbus Crew as a wonderful revival project,” he says. “What is he doing? This means I don’t have a frickin’ city to go back to and just watch a game? Honestly, that bothers me. I don’t really support this. Yeah, it’s all business and everything, and that’s ultimately what all this is. I’m just kinda annoyed. I don’t like that part of soccer. I never have.”

The relocation justifications espoused by ownership or MLS Commissioner Don Garber sound familiar to Lenhart.

“So now the fans get a little glimpse of what it’s like to be a player in MLS,” he says. “Generally, people in management only do what works for them. Bottom line. We all think we’re a part of something, but at the end of the day, it’s all smoke and mirrors, man. I mean, we ARE a part of something in the fact that you and I are on the phone, laughing and experiencing joy, but the ground is not as firm and sturdy and safe as you think it is.”

I suppose an Earthquake would know about earthquakes, right? Rather than reducing the Crew to rubble, Lenhart would love to see Precourt Sports Ventures harness the talent and devotion of the #SaveTheCrew movement to build up the club for the community’s benefit.

“It sucks that somebody doesn’t understand the culture and the way it brings a community together and has sustained a lot of people. It sucks. Like, it would be so cool if he got some of the community together and the longtime supporters together and brainstormed ideas on how to make this thing better. Like, if he really gave it a good effort and made people feel involved and committed and honored that commitment for a while. Just make the Crew better!”

Should the Crew relocate, it would also wipe out so much of the league’s founding history. First club, first draft pick, first training facility, first soccer-specific stadium, first scoreboard fire, and so on. For a league that’s barely 20 years old, such history would seem to be of value. Then again, maybe not.

“The history is important to the everyday people,” Lenhart says. “I guess that’s not a very good phrase, but the history isn’t as important as the money. If there’s anything that’s the league’s foundation, it’s that it wants more and more and more. It doesn’t care about tradition. It’s not number one on their radar.”

Lenhart believes in the history and tradition of the Columbus soccer community. He wants it to survive and flourish. He wants Crew games to come back to. He would love to see the #SaveTheCrew movement succeed.

“If it is important for you to keep the Crew here, do everything you can,” he says. “Keep going. Don’t stop. They’re not gone yet.”

I shudder to think what would happen if they are eventually gone. Lenhart offers an alternative in an apocalyptic post-Crew landscape.

“LAFC, man,” he says. “Come on out. I’ve got my season tickets already. NOT!”

*****

We’ve been on the phone for 9o minutes. We’ve laughed so hard. We’ve talked about so much stuff that has nothing to do with anything, other than we’re just having fun talking to each other. We share travel stories, whether it’s my recent trip to New Mexico or his European hitchhiking exploits in college. I tell him about some of my other calls as part of this project, most notably about hearing Guillermo Barros Schelotto attempt to sing the “We Love Ya” song. I express gratitude for all my experiences, even if the team may be taken away and my longtime passionate side-job gets taken right along with it. And Steve gets it. He truly gets the heart of the matter.

“I mean, monetarily, it’s more than that,” he says. “Money can’t give you a fucking Guille recording on your phone. That’s pure joy. Fuck yeah, dude. Furthermore, dude, just to be totally frank with you, like, the amount of relationships, not to mention the joy that you’ve already received from the years of being in it, and even just the pockets of joy created by this movement…I mean, you and I would not have chatted tonight. And who knows where your relationships that you’ve already forged over these last however many years you were part of this thing, who knows how those unfold, you know? Like, the Crew may not be there, but those relationships are still pulsing with life. You still get those. It’s just changing. I don’t mean to preach, but it’s just changing how you interact with the Crew.”

No matter the outcome of the relocation saga, and no matter who you are or how long you’ve loved the Crew, it’s true that those Crew relationships will pulse with life for as long as each of us does likewise. Team or no team, the following mantra will ring true:

Columbus ‘Til I Die.


 *****

I can be reached at [email protected] or via twitter @stevesirk

If you would like more information on the #SaveTheCrew movement and how you can help, please visit www.SaveTheCrew.com