After a storied 16-year playing career that included two World Cups, two Olympics and two MLS Cups (including the Crew's 2008 championship run), Frankie Hejduk has retired and is assuming a new role as the Crew's "Brand Ambassador." I sat down with the former Crew captain three days ago at his favorite local haunt, Barley's, to click pints and talk about his new job. Here's our full 25-minute conversation.
Alive: I was surprised to roll up and just see you with a water.
Frankie Hejduk: Well, I wait til official business meetings to drink beers. (laughs)
There’s a lot to talk about! How’d you decide it was time to shift from on the field to off the field?
I don’t know if I wanted it to be time yet, but you know, my body was telling me it was time. You know, there was a few factors in the decision of actually retiring because, like I said, no player actually wants to, ever. I kind of sat back and made sure that I thought it was going to be the right decision. Like I said, it was made easier by the fact that I had an existing injury in my ankle, a microfracture that I need to get surgery on. That’s an eight-month recovery. So that figured into it. And I also have a wrist injury. It was a three-month recovery from that. So, just being broken, basically, is kind of why I had to retire in a way. But saying that, the other factors came into it to, in terms of going out the way I wanted to go out, the way I felt I should go out in my career. It was kind of, in a way, a storybook ending for me, personally. Obviously it would have been awesome to have been here and to have been able to win one last one with the Crew and retire a champion with the Crew. But you know, circumstances didn’t let that happen, which is — it’s business. Which, to be honest, it’s not even — it’s sports, you know? And it happens. Like I said, it would have been perfect to do it here, but for me, in my career and the way my career went, in terms of playing in San Diego, being born and raised in California, and then almost getting to do full circle and go back there and end my career there and end my career with probably the two people who were the biggest influences on my career besides my wife and kids and all that, which are my mother and father. To be able to let them and my friends and that side of my family, they were able to come see me play every weekend, or at least see me every weekend. Whether I was playing or not, that was a different story. But, you know, obviously the minutes at the end were winding down a little bit, which is another reason that led to retirement. So I took everything in, and at the end of the day, I said, “Hey, you know, it’s not a bad way to go out.” Winning the cup in L.A. there and kind of actually literally riding off into the sunset.
Yeah, I figured that if you were going to leave the Crew and go somewhere else, L.A. would probably be the dream destination.
I mean, to be honest, that was the only other team that I would have gone to, probably. It made perfect sense to go back there. But yeah, like I said, it just ended in kind of a storybook fashion for me, personally, and for everyone that’s seen me play over the years that is from that area. So it was cool to go out that way. Did I want to retire? No, I didn’t want to retire. But it eventually has to end. And actually, talking to Mark through that whole last year — we had had discussions for almost a year about after when I was done playing. So there was always something back here I was always going to come back to. We never sold our house. It was planned that we were coming back. When we were coming back, we didn’t know, and it ended up working out perfectly because now my next career is transitioning into a career that I already know a lot about.
Yeah, what all is under the banner of “Brand Ambassador”?
(laughs) Yeah, it’s a pretty cool title. It’s a new role, which is really cool because I don’t think any other team in MLS has that role yet. It’s basically, to me, it’s a role of being able to give back, to be honest, to the game and to the fans that brought me so much love over my career. So now I can give back to them. And if it’s certain things in the stadium, with just meet-and-greets with fans at the stadium, giving high-fives to people, taking pictures around Crew Stadium, you know. Kind of just actually being around the stadium on game day. As players, your time is hard pressed, really. It really is. And we always want to give back, but there’s times when your body’s sore, you’ve got to do rehab later, or where you’re not able to give as much back to the community that watch you and love you so much. And you want to always give back. And now I’m able to do that in this role. And I can give back for the players because their time’s hard pressed. I feel in a little way that the fans do feel like I’m still out there a bit. They feel like I’m still on the team, and it’s someone they can connect to, and like I said, take a picture with. Just be around the stadium and making the fan experience that much more cool, and making the Columbus Crew Stadium experience that much more cool for all the fans. And that entails maybe having a beer or two with them, or, you know, taking some pictures, and making sure everyone’s really comfortable and having a good time.
What about outside of game days?
Outside of game days that entails just getting out and making my face available just to whoever needs me. If I can match the Crew brand and name with my name and a name people can relate to, that’s cool. I’ll be starting a number of charity organizations I’ll be working with, and that will all be announced coming up. But to be honest, my job is just to be out and available and getting the Crew name out. To not only give back, but to make people aware of soccer in this area. As much as people think — there’s even more people that are unaware that we’re here, believe it or not. And if I can help that out in any way, then I’m all for it. Like I said, I’ve said this before. In Columbus, there’s 100,000 students with Ohio State, Columbus State, Otterbein, Capital. I mean, if we can get 5 percent of those 100,000 to come to the game — I mean, that might be a reach. Whatever, that’s still — that’s 5,000 kids that want to come to the game! So I think there’s some markets that I can help tap, that, maybe the kids relate to me in a certain way, whatever that way would be. Whether it would be with them watching me play over the years, or them knowing me as a national team member or a Crew member, or even them seeing me out having a beer at Barley’s or a bar hanging out and having a beer, I can chat with them there. Just stuff like that. Doing stuff like you and I are. We’re doing it one fan at a time. If it takes a while, it takes a while. But to be honest, I really believe that we’re not far off from having every Crew game be sold out. I really feel like we have enough people in Columbus, and in Ohio for that matter. I’m not just talking about Columbus, I’m talking Dayton, Cleveland. If we can get all these people in these markets that we really haven’t tapped, if we can get it through using me because maybe people knew me through U.S. Soccer or whatever, to help get people to Crew games, then I’m going to go do it.
So you’re going to be going around Ohio?
I’m going to be going all over Ohio, just hitting up areas to try to get people aware that we’re here and that every fan counts.
You mention that no other MLS teams have this role. Some of that is just because it takes a certain kind of person to do that job effectively. Some of it has to be chalked up to who you are and the kind of person you are, right?
To be honest, actually, Mark McCullers, he basically invented the position. He said, “This is what I want you to do, and this is what I think would be great for you and for us.” And I couldn’t think of a better fit either, to be honest. I love the people, I love the community, I love this area, and I love getting out and talking. And what better of a way to spread the word about us than starting one beer at a time, or one conversation at a time?
With your reputation as a “surfer dude” and your roots in California, did you ever see yourself ending up in Columbus?
No, definitely not. I mean, obviously I had visions of just being on some tropical island and watching waves past my face, sipping on some Coronas. (laughs) But to honest, I love this area. I was back in L.A., and I think a lot of people thought, “Hey, he’s back in L.A. We’ve lost him. He’s gone. Once he’s out there, he’s not coming back.” I went back there, and to be honest, in the back of our mind, we always knew we were coming back. And I think that just shows not only the amount of love I have for this city and for this area and that my family has for this area, just because I have roots here — my wife went to school here. She lived in Springboro almost her whole life, went to Ohio State, graduated in ‘04. And both my kids, my son and my daughter, Coasten and Cali, they were both born here. So my roots do run pretty deep here. I guess my point being is, I knew when I went back there, I got as much surfing in as I could. (laughs) Put it that way. And I got as much salt water in my brain as I could. We really did it that way — I mean, I think I surfed more than I ever have in my life the past 10 months, knowing that we were coming back here and whatever my next adventure was going to be, it was going to be out of here. And it so happened to be that it was the perfect role and the perfect situation in that I got to come out to a job opportunity that is very close to my heart. And you know, whenever you feel very passionate about something and something’s close to your heart, you work extra hard to try to make whatever it is better. And this job that I have now is something that’s reallyclose to my heart, and it’s something that I want to try to make better. However making it better is, whether it’s in the stadium on game day making fans happy, or getting out and doing charity, like I said, I want to make this game and this product and this thing here in Columbus start here, and we can grow from here in Ohio better. I think the sky’s the limit. I mean, I’ve seen the passion of Europe before. You know, even though I’m in a new job, I’ve been doing this for sixteen, seventeen years, and at a pretty high level. So I can take that experience with it as a player and bring that over to the business side, which for me is something that’s really cool because it’s something that I haven’t tapped into yet. I can’t wait to get out and start talking to people and picking their brains about what we need to do better, what aren’t we doing enough of, why aren’t we getting more people in this gate and that gate? Finding out little things, hearing people’s thoughts on all that stuff. I’m getting feedback daily on all of it. Good stuff, mainly positive stuff, which is good to hear because you want to hear what the fans have to say about the product. So in a nutshell, I guess, I’m going to be doing a lot of everything. I don’t really know how to explain it. So I’ll be pretty thirsty come 5 o’clock.
Over the years, there seems to be this belief that you can market to a family crowd or a rowdy Nordecke kind of crowd and those things can’t coexist. You seem to be in a unique position to appeal to both sides of that.
Completely, and I’ve already been doing that. Like at the last game, for instance, I was at the game. Somebody came up to me and said, “Hey, my father’s 60th birthday is today.” They had a group of about 15 people, 20 people. Went down there, hung out with them, had a nice, uh, apple juice with them, and they were so, just, genuine. This guy’s face, when I showed up, just lit up like I’ve never seen before. And just the love that I felt, just for that little 15-people family, and they had kids. It was the most awesome feeling. We talked soccer, we talked about Crew memories, and it was all for like 20 minutes. I can’t wait to go back the next game and talk to those people again. Directly after I was with them, I went straight to the Nordecke and started partying with those guys and cheering and chanting. Those two things can coexist. It is already to a certain extent, but we can get that to grow more. We can grow numbers on both those sides. We can get the Nordecke numbers doubled, and we can get the family, you know, the people who want to come sit down and watch a good game, those numbers can also double. So those people can coexist. They have a blast with it. Everyone knows each other’s deals at games, and I think everyone is pretty respectful, for the most part, of each other’s privacy at games. You know, you have 15-20,000 at a games, you’re always going to get a couple complaints. Everything’s not always going to run perfectly, and some fans are going to be a little angry that, you know, maybe there’s a little cursing. It’s tough to please everyone, but we’re going to try. Maybe that’s why I’m there too.
You mentioned the student population. Do you have ideas about how to reach them? Is it just the personal interaction you’ve been talking about?
Yeah, that’s stuff we talk about with marketing and sales. I mean, for example, I’ll start with going to all the fraternity and sorority houses, Greek houses, making them aware of when games are and passing out tickets to them. And that’s on a small scale. That’s just starting there. Then you can also do individual teams at those schools. Hockey teams, the football team, the soccer team, all those, you know? I’m a soccer player, but I love football too. So it’s not like just because you’re one sport the other doesn’t need you. Maybe on the field hockey team two people are interested in the game. Well, that’s two more people who were not interested before. You know, you can grow numbers that way. So there’s a number of ways we can grow them. That’s just two that I just thought of right now. Don’t you agree? That’s a market. When I was in college, you wanted to go to a game and you wanted to hang out. I had $5 student Laker tickets. Me and my buddies would go to the games, go hang out.
And I know for a fact that OSU students can get Crew tickets for $8, so they should be buying them.
Why would you not want to go do that? Now, the next thing is finding a way to make everything else cheaper for them, but they find ways around that. (laughs) Isn’t that what soccer’s all about? Drinking, eating, atmosphere, having fun, singing — this is what it’s all about. And for me, that’s the perfect genre right there. They’re young, they’re energetic, they’re lively, they’re hungry. They want to support their team. So obviously I feel fantastic about getting out and trying to support those students because that’s a base that I can relate to. I know what I liked to do when I was in college. So hopefully we can break that barrier and get some of those college kids out here and get the games pumped up and rowdy and fun. Like I said, because they are full of energy and rowdy and fun people. And I like energy, so...
And if you can figure out how to tap into college students, that’s like a renewable resource.
It is. It never ends. Every year, you’re just getting more and more and more fans. And if those college kids stay and they really love the experience, in those four years they can grow as Crew fans. And then after that, five years, 10 years down the line, those people are having kids. So it can really be a cycle.