Jun 14
Tabitha Blankenbiller cheering on the sounders

Writers Watching Sports: Sounders Till I Die

Tabitha Blankenbiller header

The Interview

1. When did you become a soccer fan?

It was the summer before 6th grade, when we moved from the big city of Tacoma to a rural town up by Mount Rainier. I didn’t have any friends and I was twelve, which is a terrible time to exist, anyway. Maybe my dad felt sorry for me, because he started offering me tickets to see these Seattle Sounders he loved so much in downtown Seattle. At first I just tagged along because I loved any excuse to see the bright lights of somewhere people could actually name on a map, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the guys who were out there on the field, playing their guts out for a crowd that was, at that time, “paltry” on a good day. Compared to the other major league teams in the city, the Sounders were the underdogs. I remember getting a t-shirt with their now-retro orca whale logo on it and wearing it to my first week of sixth grade. No one knew what the fuck it was. Spoiler alert: I did not go on to make a bunch of friends at Elk Ridge Elementary School. But I never stopped loving the guys I saw as “my” kind of underappreciated overachiever.

2. I haven’t seen you talk about any other sports besides soccer, is soccer your one true love?

I’d have to say yes. My husband Matt is an NFL fan, and I like the happy warm fall feelings that go along with football. Making the snacks, wearing the jerseys and knit hats, ribs. I just get frustrated with the business and bullshit from so many angles, like the fact that Seattle Seahawks tickets (even in the furthest tiers of the stadium) have become absolutely unaffordable. We can’t justify going to any home games just as the two of us, who are childless and dual income. You can’t be a low- or middle-income family with kids and see your team play in person. That would cost you a thousand dollars minimum. I see parents walk by outside Centurylink’s gates and tell their kids, “That’s where the Seahawks play,” and you know they’re probably not going to be able to actually go all together and fall in love with real, live play. It’s just another sign of how egregious the class system in Seattle has become and continues to divide itself into. And I’m sorry, but baseball bores the shit out of me, and basketball courts smell like bowling shoes.

3. What is great about the MLS?

It’s not perfect, but I think there’s a slight cap on the greed that you see in other leagues. I like that they support causes and viewpoints that are generally progressive, like last year when I attended the Sounders’ second Pride Match. They handed out rainbow Sounders flags and people waved pride scarves and Funfetti cupcakes, and I know none of that is going to magically create equality, but it felt GOOD to be standing there with tens of thousands of people acknowledging and celebrating Seattle’s pride month in the wake of the Orlando Pulse massacre. To see our team captain Brad Evans with the pride armband on the field. We got our asses kicked during that game, but it’s still one of my most appreciated Sounders memories. Plus, the players are HOT and they talk shit about Trump on Twitter.

Tabitha Blankenbiller and her dad

Sounders Till I Die

Last summer, Clint Dempsey vanished. One Sunday he was scoring three goals against our arch nemesis the Portscum Timbers, and then he wasn’t. Our workaholic with bravado, the conduit of 60,000 screaming soccer fans to the field. He rolled his eyes with us, tore up a ref’s notebook in a fit of rage. His hate for the opposition and love for Seattle were as indefensible and ridiculous as our own.

The next week after the Portland game, Dempsey didn’t fly to Houston. He vanished from the training grounds. What curse had befallen us now? The early season was marred by the team’s worst record in history, culminating in the exit of longtime coach Sigi Schmid. With a new leader and a magnificent triumph over our most despised rivals, hope was eking together a nest. We were just winning again when our star suddenly went dark. Irregular heartbeat, the team finally admitted. His status was indefinite as ambiguity hinged on the cruelties of genetics. This could be a setback, or the end. He could recover, or he could retire. We, the adoring public, would be the last to know.

There are no gods. Even in sports.

***

“Take my picture,” Dad hollered at me as he bouldered his way to the stage.

“I can get you with it now,” I said, sardined between guys in black Gore-Tex rain jackets skewing their new retro-kit jerseys. I was wearing the same one, bought in a fit of MLS Cup Champion joy in the off-season of the Sounders’ most insane, unpredictable year. Not only had they lost Dempsey, they’d almost lost the Cup itself, if it weren’t for the physics-jumbling save by keeper Stefan Frei. I framed my autographed jersey and the scarf I’d worn for years, the one I was sweating into while watching the game in a Portland bar surrounded by other Seattle ex-pats, clutching the arms of strangers as our hopes funneled down to penalty kicks. We had defied every prediction, all the SB Nation thinkpieces. Our hearts had mended.

“No, holding it!” He barreled forward toward the silver cup, which had just moments ago been lofted by part-owner Drew Carey and left under the gaze of a sullen security team. My 56-year-old father hopped the fencing with the ease of one who’s developed a daily yoga practice. The grade school kids posing with faint interest wandered away, and his hands gripped the cup’s silver wings.

“Of course he made it to the Cup,” I muttered to myself, taking 20 iPhone burst shots. Dad was an unstoppable, mythical fan, the kind that would find himself next to the first Sounders coach and debate English clubs for an hour. He was the one who bummed around their first training center for years and made friends with the maintenance guy, who hooked him up with the team’s original field placard after they moved. It’s his mysterious ticket source (which he’s still never revealed to me) that brought us right behind the goal in an unforgettable 2012 Portscum away match, where our screaming, smirking faces were broadcast nationwide on ESPN.

I was my father’s daughter. I was the one he offered a ticket to in 1996, during the summer of being peak-adolescence twelve and bereft. “Wanna go into Seattle and see a soccer game?” He asked.

“I guess.” Any excuse to leave our nowhere mountain town and descend into the skyscraping city with its ferry lanterns and Starbucks clock tower.

He kept having an extra ticket, and I kept going. The small Memorial Stadium a banging Pizza Hut kiosk. We were one of a few dozen people in the stands, watching games that had all of the polish of Saturday junior league municipal tournaments. The fullback’s wife probably brought brownies. If we stuck around after the final whistle, the Sounders players would mill around to sign programs or soccer balls, offer directions back to the parking lot.

“How come these guys work just as hard as the Mariners, but they have to play here with nothing cool?” I wanted to know.

“Soccer’s just not as popular,” he admitted.

The Sounders weren’t popular, and neither was I. The Mariners, the Sonics, the Seahawks—all fat, overpaid jocks like the beefy, jersey-clad cliques lording over my middle school. The Sounders were toiling with me in the underfunded ghettoes of theater, speechwriting club, the Model United Nations. This is how undying love begins, with ciphers to hold all of our ineptitude, our helplessness, the narrative that we are insisting could change. Could become better. One break in the run-of-play, one distracted goalie, and the entire game opens up.

Twenty years later my skinny jeans, my carpal tunnel, my winter ten pounds couldn’t squelch my need to hop the fence and trade places with Dad. “Get mine, get mine!” I shrieked, gripping the wings and screaming into the lens.

We marched with the crowd to the field and drowned the announcer when Clint Dempsey’s picture splashed onto the big screen. As his image projected along Seattle’s skyline, Dempsey jogged with his team onto the pitch along with the cup still fresh with our fingerprints. In the 28th minute, the Sounders earned a penalty kick. The goalie went left; our star nicked right.

Because this is how our story is supposed to go.

“That was the best game ever!” I told my dad with all the nuance of my twelve-year-old self as we exited the stadium, a win with three goals over the New York Red Bulls’ one. “We are so back. And we did everything! All the things! WE TOUCHED THE CUP!”

“It doesn’t get much more VIP than that,” Dad had to agree.

It was the perfect game, and I’m so thankful that it was. It was the last game that my father was able to see.

***

A few days post-victory, on a Friday, my dad was delivering his postal route when the world blurred. He suffered a stroke in his eye, a retinal artery occlusion.

“The doctors say we’ll know more in the next few weeks,” my mom told me over the phone. I was at work in Portland when I received the no-caps call me when you can text. I paced the parking lot, arguing with her as if she were a divinity.

“I was just there,” I said. “He was fine at the game.” Spotting the cup from blocks away; ninja-bolting twenty paces ahead of me. Spotting the toe out of bounds, the inches outside from the top loft of the stadium. That Saturday was now Before.

There was no press conference. My parents didn’t say anything on social media, so neither did I. The situation was parceled out in slivers, the ripples kept close to the heart. When Dempsey vanished last year, we wanted to know what we weren’t being told. We were desperate for the answers to questions we’d been politely asked not to ask. Would he ever work again? Was there a fix? What other devastations were hidden beneath the skin? I hadn’t understood before that it wasn’t simply a matter of none of our business—no one fucking knew.

By the time the next game came around, we knew that he could not drive. We knew there were no corrective lenses that could improve his vision or procedures to reverse the damage. “I can see things much better far away,” he said when I worked up the nerve to asked about the fractured world that he now lived in, that I would likely never understand. Bright green men on a field, their numbers vanished. He could see the light rail train, the staircases and kiosks around Centurylink Field, but struggled with the seat numbers. He mismatched the blurred ticket with the seat section he remembered, and led us straight into a section bought out by Seattle’s tiny constituency of New England Revolution fans.

“These seats are aurs,” a man in a Boston Red Sox hat bellowed in a Saturday Night Live Mark Wahlberg accent. “We bawt all of em.”

I wanted to suffocate him with his $10 warm microbrew—my dad just lost his vision, you fucking wanker! We corrected two sections away and watched as the Sounders racked up a three-goal deficit. “You wanna just go?” I asked him as I shivered in the early April rain stirred by a relentless Puget Sound breeze.

He stared ahead, pretending not to hear me. I fixed my gaze on number two, my great green hope. “Dempsey,” I threw into the crowd’s well of screaming voices. He was still here. Still pushing forward. Hitting the posts. Hitting the crossbar. Bludgeoning our hopes with terrible luck over and over. Still making a run at the box when we were on our faces, embarrassing ourselves in our own house.

Then, in the 75th minute, a goal. Dad was on his feet in the same breath as I was, a tether in the nerve. Ten minutes later we sang with the crowd, Come on Sounders, score a goal! Off a head, into the net. Three minutes later, another bounce, another goal. The whistle blew and we screamed louder than we had since winning the Cup last winter; it was a tie that felt like a miracle win.

“See what happens when you don’t give up?” Dad said as we exited the stadium the same way we always had before, and always would as long as we were both here and breathing with a team we’d loved for all of its eternity.

Everything. None of it. As much as we can. From the exit ramps a chorus rang: I’m Sounders til I die, I’m Sounders til I die! I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Sounders til I die!

We joined without thinking, without question. It was our heartbeat.

Tabitha Blankenbiller and the trophy

About The Author

Tasha Coryell is originally from Minnesota, home of some of the worst sports losses in history. She now lives, writes, and runs in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where she rolls with the Crimson Tide every Saturday in the fall. More from Tasha can be found at tashacoryell.com.

1 Comment

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