'I couldn't have lost my dad and then lost this team'

I meet with John Zidar to talk about how grief can explode into a type of joyous relief on a Friday afternoon awash with clouds. We're sitting at a desk in one of the higher floors of the Chase building, overlooking the city, with its AEP building pushing into the endless grey, and the faint spectre of the Arena District hovering beyond that. At one point, Zidar excitedly points to the area.

“That's where we built our stadium plan from — back there, behind the AEP building,” he said. “That space has been empty for years, and there could be a new Crew stadium there soon.”

The “we” Zidar is referring to is the #SaveTheCrew movement, a collective he's been a part of since its inception, almost a year ago, shortly after Precourt Sports Ventures announced its intention to move the Crew to Austin. The ensuing months and efforts have been well-documented, culminating in the news last month that plans were moving ahead to keep the Crew in Columbus. When I mention how this was a grand uplift after immense pessimism, Zidar agrees.

“We've sat here for our entire lives and watched teams move pretty much without any resistance,” he said. “I battled with pessimism myself, but I think when you're trying to win a fight like this, you have to push those feelings to the side.”

On the day the fight was won, as I furiously scrolled Twitter looking for any concrete news from a grounded airplane in Toronto, I saw Zidar post a tweet. It was a picture of Zidar on a couch, smiling. A man who shares his face and same easy smile has his arms wrapped around Zidar. The tweet read:

“2 months ago I lost the man responsible for me being a Crew fan.

Today with people who are both fellow @Save_The_Crew leaders & my best friends, I was able to announce on live tv, while wearing my dad's old jersey, that we've Saved The Crew.

We did it dad. I love you so much.”

***

To talk about loss — the concrete, actual impact of loss — is a grand ordeal. To get down to the real mess of it without drowning it in gentle platitudes. Loss is not always soft. With any luck, it bends towards a softening, through whatever memories one can attach to it. And so, John Zidar cannot talk about his father without talking about keeping the Crew alive in his name.

Jeff Zidar died unexpectedly on Aug. 3, while John was out of town. “It was overwhelming due to the sudden and unexpected nature of it,” Zidar said. “Not that losing someone in an expected way is easy, but to have it sprung on you is a shocking pain that I didn't know existed. The only way I knew how to keep going was to throw myself back into something that I knew meant a lot to both him and me.”

Zidar's father was one of the original Crew fans, the people who were there from '96, watching the games in Ohio Stadium and wondering if the team would have a sustainable future. This, too, is a fascinating thing about the Crew: That the team is now old enough to have developed a generation lineage through its fan base.

“My family was never really into sports, you know?” Zidar said. “My dad got season tickets when the Crew first started, because I was transitioning from Little League baseball to [youth] soccer. The Crew came to town and my dad was all in on it. He'd get season tickets from us every Christmas, and he'd take us every year. And from there, I was hooked.”

Zidar said that as the fight to save the Crew ramped up, a big part of his role in the journey allowed him to share the news of progress with his father, still an avid follower of the team, who had grown pessimistic about the team's chances to stay. “He was just like so many other people here,” he said. “It was a roller coaster of high positivity and low negativity. But I told him we were going to keep working.”

The week that Save The Crew released its stadium plan was the week Zidar lost his father, and he took the time to check out entirely. But shortly thereafter, he went right back to work.

“I was more driven, because now that he's gone, this is one of the biggest connections I can have to him — this team and these people,” he said. “It means the world to keep this team here. He's gone and that sucks, but to have a place and a community that I can go to so that I can be comforted and stay connected to him, it's invaluable.”

Grief is both memory and then endurance beyond the memory, I suppose. A person can only rebuild an affection for the lost through recollection for so long before the need arises to have a concrete life that acts as a tribute to the people who are gone. In this way, Zidar has unlocked something that, for some, takes years.

***

Zidar's Crew-related work is notable, but in some ways relies on a behind-the-scenes presence that doesn't always get him the credit he deserves. He is a co-host of Aces Radio, a Crew podcast that has been running for the past three years. It places its focus on fans, and the fan voice — a welcome addition to the team-based podcasts that center on the Crew. He is an active member of #TIFOSWEAT, a group of artists and fans who paint the massive banners that blanket the Nordecke on game days. “I'm heading to the stadium tonight,” Zidar said. “We're going to be there from about 7 p.m. until whenever we finish painting.”

He also designed the community kit, which came out last year shortly after the potential move was announced. And in many ways, he is one of the people responsible for the aesthetic of both the team and the movement to save it. For this, he doesn't really want the spotlight. “I have never really been one to take a lot of credit,” he said. “I just saw it as an opportunity to do a bunch of cool shit with my friends.”

Beyond that, he is – of course – an avid fan. The best parts of our conversation come when we can banter back and forth about the sport and the team. I tell him that Justin Meram's sometimes erratic play on the ball leaves me frustrated, and he counters with the fact that he loves how Meram fearlessly attacks, which I suppose is a good point. We both laugh when Zidar insists that he loves Gyasi Zardes, because he loves any striker in the Crew system who can score goals. We talk about Federico Higuain, a player we've both watched closely for years, and our conversation turns to the sobering reality of aging.

“[Higuain] seems to be more frustrated this year,” Zidar said. “Sure, frustrated with his teammates, but it also seems like he's frustrated with himself and the things he can maybe no longer do. I mean, I'm 31 years old and I just play casual soccer, and I'm frustrated with my own body sometimes. So I get it.”

All of this leads to an inevitable truth: Zidar imagines the Crew as a full ecosystem, beyond the games, or beyond the stadium, or beyond the work going into making the atmosphere what it is. What heals him, and continues to heal him, is how he has found a place of warmth in that ecosystem, even greater than whatever role he plays in it.

“This may seem foolish to say, but the Crew is like a family to me,” he said, a somber smile stretching across his face. “I see some of these people at games more than I see my blood relatives. They are a second family in every single way. There's emotional support there. It's hard to describe, because it is easy for so many people to be shut off from each other. But this community is the exact opposite of that. I've seen some of these other fans grow up. I've been in their wedding, and I've played with their kids. I can walk into that stadium and plop down anywhere and feel like I'm at home. It feels cliché to say, but losing the Crew would have been like losing another family member to me. I've spent so much time in service to this team and this community. I couldn't have lost my dad and then lost this team. I don't know if I could have done that.”

When the talk shifts to moving sports teams, the stakes are rarely discussed as individual. It's often about money, or land, or entire monolithic fan bases. But at the heart of all of that are stories like this one: a person fighting to keep a family together while a part of another family drifts away.

One of my favorite Crew memories happened in October of 2015, with the Crew on the doorstep of the MLS Conference final. In a game tied on aggregate against Montreal, in the final moments of extra time, Kei Kamara headed home a deciding goal that put the Crew ahead, cementing their path to glory. Kamara ran over to the Nordecke in celebration, standing on top of the fan barrier. I didn't live in Columbus at the time. I watched from my apartment in Connecticut, overwhelmed by celebration. In a moment, with the camera focusing on Kamara and the fans reaching out to congratulate him, I noticed a familiar face in a bright yellow hat. There was John Zidar, as happy as I was, miles away. It's the small things that make you feel like home, even through a television screen.

Correction: An earlier version listed Aug. 6 as the date Jeff Zidar died rather than Aug. 3. Alive regrets the error.