Sirk's Notebook: Kirk's Notebook

Emotional tributes pour out for fallen teammate Kirk Urso

15

On Wednesday night, the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy played to a 1-1 draw. Jairo Arrieta scored for Columbus. Then Robbie Keane scored for Los Angeles. That’s a summary of the soccer.

Wednesday night was not about soccer.

***

At 8:17 a.m. on the morning of August 5, the Columbus Crew released a curiously worded communiqué:

OFFICIAL CLUB STATEMENT ABOUT MIDFIELDER KIRK URSO

Having pulled an unplanned all-nighter driving back from an emergency visit to my uncle’s death bed in New York City, I awoke at about 11:00 on just a few hours of sleep. I grabbed my phone and saw the tweet, which was one of the first to hit my timeline after I had finally shut my eyes that morning. The wording puzzled me. My first thought was that Kirk must have had a setback in his injury rehab and needed season-ending surgery. But why would they announce that early on a Sunday morning? And that wording was more like the wording a team would use if one of its players got arrested, which obviously made no sense in the context of Kirk.

The link finally loaded…

Marco Rosa, the Crew’s communications manager, would later describe it as “the three hardest sentences I’ve ever had to write.”

***

I knew Kirk more through his reputation than I did through personal interaction. I now wish it weren’t so, but it would be unconscionable for me to pretend otherwise. The fact is that it’s the reality of my situation. I can’t go to training. I almost never travel with the team. When it comes to face time with Crew players, I respectfully barge into their world a couple times per month, and most of the time it is in a chaotic postgame setting where time is short. There are occasional emails, phone calls, and texts, but most of what you read is crammed into about 20 chaotic minutes 20 times per year. The only reason it somehow works at all is because of the helpfulness of the players themselves.

It’s a situation that is hardly conducive for getting to know the new guys right away. Usually, I get to know them by reputation before circumstances provide a chance to know them through conversation. In the meantime, it’s been my experience that fellow players, staff, media members, and general observation often combine to give me a pretty good general feel. And the Notebook’s annual newcomer roast, in the form of Oughton’s IntroDunctions, was conceived not only for the Kiwi comedy goldmine that it is, but also as a way for me (and readers) to learn more about the newcomers in a fun and colorful way.

Eventually, something happens that will bridge that gap. Eric Gehrig will defeat Chad Marshall to win the fantasy football championship, or Josh Williams will have a string of breakout games that will prompt me to dig deeper into his improbable journey from Copley to Cleveland to Columbus.

I hadn’t gotten there yet with Kirk. And now I will only know Kirk Urso through his reputation, through the stories and reactions of others, and through my own fleeting impressions from our brief encounters.

***

The last time I set foot in Crew Stadium, the theme of the night was giddiness. After Aaron Horton and Ben Speas scored against Stoke City, it was a night for celebrating the unpredictable nature of sports and reveling in the first blossoms of promising youth.

I never could have imagined that my next trip to Crew Stadium, giddiness would be replaced with grieving. That instead of celebrating the unpredictable nature of sports, I would be lamenting the unpredictable nature of life. Instead of reveling in the first blossoms of promising youth, I would be mourning at a wreath commemorating a promising young life cut short.


Photo by Steve Sirk

This photo of Kirk with Lamar Hunt looking over him gets me every time. Since I was paying my respects to the Crew’s fallen, I also wandered over to the west side of the stadium to visit Tom Fitzgerald. I’ll never understand why, but now Fitz has a captain to coach.


Photo by Steve Sirk

And since I received a phone call 20 minutes before leaving for the stadium informing me that my uncle passed away at 2:33 Wednesday afternoon, I wore two Kirk Urso wristbands. I wore one normally, while the other I turned inside out as a black wristband in memory of my uncle. It was no disrespect to Kirk, but rather an acknowledgement that these two overlapping losses have been inseparable in my mind and in my heart. And now on my wrists.

***

“You just don’t realize how much people touch you until they are gone. You go back in your head and you think about the little conversations that you had, or the little quirks that he was known for, you keep that in a special place. I think everyone shares that same feeling right now.” --- Danny O’Rourke

Crew director of team operations Tucker Walther talks of Kirk’s “smirky smile.” I remember my first encounter with it. Like I said, I rarely travel with the team, but earlier this year, I got to do so when the Crew chartered a flight to Toronto. Road trips can be a good change of pace because it’s not as harried as the postgame locker room.

On that trip, for example, I got to have some fun chats with Cole Grossman about our Toronto experiences, and with Cole and Josh about their ceaseless LeBron talk. I got to see Ethan Finlay attack all of his rookie grunt work like it was the greatest and most important job in the world. He happily explained his role as the luggage tag collector, and he also loaded up and pushed around overstuffed baggage carts with exuberant zest. It reinforced my original training camp impression that Ethan is a happy, hardworking kid. Based on what I would learn of Kirk, it made sense to me when I found out that they were roommates.

My memory of Kirk from that trip was that he sat across the aisle one row away from me on the flight home. You know those times where you see or hear something stupid or weird, and you look around to see if anyone else caught it? It happened a few times on the flight, and whenever I looked around to see if anyone else caught it, that person was invariably Kirk and his smirky smile.

My heart aches to recall the details of what prompted these non-verbal interactions, but they were totally insignificant at the time. The only significance I attached to it at all was that I came away thinking, “Urso pays attention. I think I’m going to like that guy.”

***

The members of a soccer team aren’t immune to tragedy, but it’s something that happens in the real world. It’s something that happens outside of soccer. It’s something that occasionally impacts an individual, who then receives the support of his teammates.

Within the four walls of that locker room, in the collective sense, heartbreak means dropping points after allowing a stoppage time goal; missing a teammate means the guy got traded or released; an unfathomable and inexplicable loss is something that involves the Dayton Dutch Lions.

But not anymore.

***

Here is the only time I quoted Kirk in the Notebook. It was after he collected his first career assist in the Crew’s 4-1 home loss to the New York Red Bulls on April 7.

One unfortunate side effect of such a romp is that it casts a pall over some otherwise cheerful milestones. For example, Kirk Urso picked up the first assist of his MLS career on Marshall’s goal. Urso has been the Crew’s corner kick specialist, and it seems a rite of passage for that role is to watch Chad Marshall thump your service into the net with his noggin.

“I know that’s part of my role on this team,” Urso said. “I am always looking to play good balls and to find Chad in there. It was definitely cool to get an assist, and I’m glad to help the team out, but with a 4-1 loss, it didn’t give us the help we needed.”

***

In the days that followed Kirk’s passing, I was overcome with what I described to friends as a tsunami of empathy. The loss of a 22-year-old man who had only begun to scratch the surface of what he was going to accomplish in his career and in his life is tragic under any circumstance. And to think of his parents, Mike and Sandy, and his brother Kyle…I could not even begin to fathom what they were going through, but even if I couldn’t comprehend the torment, I knew it existed.

I thought about all of the guys in the locker room, reeling from the loss of their dear friend and teammate. I thought of Robert Warzycha, whose son Bartosz is Kirk’s age, and how Kirk’s passing had to hurt on multiple levels, conjuring the old nightmares of Bartosz’s life-threatening cancer diagnosis in 1998. I thought about how, incalculably, Danny O’Rourke has tragically lost a young friend and teammate for the second time in his life. I thought about Ben Speas, Ethan Finlay, Rich Balchan, Eric Gehrig, and other young players who were especially close to Kirk, many knowing him from before he joined the Crew. To see them bravely push past their own pain in order to open up to the world in print and on radio, sharing their love for Kirk, was as heartbreaking as it was impressive. They did Kirk proud.

I could go on and on. And in reality, I did. My heart broke with each new ripple in the Crew’s ocean of tears.

***

“Sirk, get over here,” Tucker said in a mostly empty locker room. Kirk stood next to Tucker, who sat on a bench drinking a beer. “If I asked you for your phone number, what would you say to me?”

“I’d say ‘(Bleep) you, Tucker.’”

“No seriously, if I asked you for your phone number, what would you say?”

“I’d say, ‘Why the hell are you asking me for my phone number when you already have it?’”

“What if I lost my phone? What if I need your number because I lost my phone?”

“If you lost your phone, how are you going to call or text me?”

The more agitated Tucker got, the bigger the smirk on Kirk’s face.

“Okay, what if Kirk asked you for your phone number? What would you say?”

“I’d say it’s 614—“

“A-ha! So you’d start with the area code!” Tucker then turned to Kirk. “See! He uses the area code!”

“Yeah, I always start with area code,” I said to Kirk. “People move and you never know what area code someone might have.”

“See! Use the (bleeping) area code!” Tucker added for extra reinforcement.

Kirk smiled, and then off he went. He was one of the last players to leave the locker room that night despite being out injured.

I couldn’t tell who enjoyed the conversation more. Was it Tucker for receiving validation for his bombastic busting of chops? Was it Kirk for getting Tucker all riled up in mock outrage over something so trivial? Or was it me for being an unwitting two-way foil in some sort of ridiculous, out-of-context, faux showdown ?

In the end, I think we were all winners in whatever that was.

***

During warm-ups, Crew players wore t-shirts with Kirk’s initials on the front and his number 15 on the back. Kirk’s number was also mown into the playing field. Aaron Katzeman snapped an achingly poignant photograph of Ethan Finlay carrying on in his friend’s honor.


Photo by Aaron Katzeman

***

Before the game, the Crew held a moment of silence and showed a video tribute to Kirk. The entire team, not just the 18, dressed in uniform. Even William Hesmer, Tommy Heinemann, and Bernardo Anor, who are out for the year. The entire roster joined the starting eleven on the field, with arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, as the following video played on the scoreboard:

“I had the option of watching the video before the game, and I did,” said goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum. “I watched it and it gave me chills up and down. The thinking there was that you wouldn’t be as affected when they showed it before the game. That is not the case at all. I lost it on the field. It took everything to try to hold it in. You could hear it. All the guys were breathing a little heavier. All of the guys were emotional. It was difficult.”

“There were definitely some emotional moments in the first part with that video,” Eric Gehrig told TheCrew.com’s Cody Sharrett. “I know it brought some tears for us."


Photo by Sam Fahmi

***

I saw some of Danny O’Rourke in Kirk. I will elaborate.

Back in 2008, Crew coach Sigi Schmid made the decision to switch O’Rourke from midfield to center back. Danny had to learn a new position on the fly, and results were not always pretty at first. There was a seemingly endless parade of penalty kicks. There was that game against Kansas City where he made a foolish low-percentage attempt to cut out a long pass and came up empty, resulting in the game-tying goal. There were lots of unpleasant learning experiences along the way, but the thing that Sigi knew, and the thing that a lot of people knew about Danny, is that he is a winner. That he is tough enough to learn those hard lessons without being broken by the failures. That he would take responsibility. That he would work relentlessly to navigate his way around that steep learning curve. By the second half of the year, it seemed like O’Rourke had been playing there his whole life. His transition to center back was one of many integral parts to the Crew’s championship run.

In 2012, Urso found himself in a similar situation. It’s exceedingly rare for a supplemental draft pick to find himself in the opening day lineup. Especially at an important spine position like defensive midfield. Especially when that player isn’t a defensive midfielder by trade. But Crew coach Robert Warzycha knew about Urso what Sigi once knew about O’Rourke. Kirk was a winner. Kirk was tough enough to learn hard lessons without being broken by failures. Kirk would take responsibility. Kirk would work relentlessly to navigate his way around the learning curve.

Kirk got off to a better start at defensive mid than Danny did at center back. He made his share of rookie mistakes, and he was the first to admit it, but there is little doubt in my mind that he would have found success like Danny did before him. It’s who they are.

One of the more illustrative impression-forming moments came to me during my interviews after the Crew’s 2-2 draw with Houston on April 21. O’Rourke’s return to the lineup that night sent Urso to the bench. As expected, a seasoned veteran playing in his natural position brought about improvement from a rookie who had been shoehorned into the role. But what struck me that night was that when I asked players about the importance of O’Rourke’s return, they went out of their way to mention Kirk, and to emphasize that singing O’Rourke’s praises was not meant to diminish Kirk.

That always stuck with me. To me, it said that they knew what they had in Kirk Urso, and they believed that the best was yet to come. I filed that away in the “impressions” sector of my brain.

***

Wednesday’s game marked the second Crew match day since Kirk’s passing, but it was the first time the Crew took the field. The game originally scheduled for August 11 against Toronto FC was rescheduled for August 22, allowing the players to attend Kirk’s memorial service and funeral in Illinois.

The guys in the Crew locker room have done Kirk proud in many ways over the past two weeks, and this was just another example. Postponing a game is not an action that is undertaken lightly by the league or its clubs, and there are a lot of moving parts to the logistics of such a decision, but the players were resolute in their determination to be in Illinois to honor Kirk and to be there for his family.  To them, it was non-negotiable.

“We said behind closed doors that there was no doubt in our minds,” O’Rourke said. “We had to do this. We were adamant about it.”

There had been initial talk of chartered flights and a delayed kickoff in order to accommodate the needs of the players and the Ursos while still playing the game, but none of those proved feasible, either logistically or emotionally. So the Crew, Toronto FC, and the league worked together and did the right thing. On the day that Kirk Urso was laid to rest, Crew Stadium sat empty.

“It was difficult with going to the services,” Carlos Mendes said. “That had to come first. It’s so emotionally draining, and everyone handles it differently, so it would have been tough to play on Saturday. Kirk’s family had to come first. That was more important. The league and Toronto worked with us to reschedule the game.”

“Looking back now, I don’t see how we could have played that game,” Eddie Gaven said. “It was definitely in our best interests, and Kirk’s best interests, and his family’s best interests for us to be there. It allowed us to just focus on that without having to worry about playing a game hours later. It was the right call.”

There’s a reason human beings hold funerals. They are an important first step in the healing process. Much more so than a soccer game could ever be.

***

For the community at large, a soccer game can indeed be a big step in the healing process. I know Wednesday night was helpful for me personally, just as it surely was for many of the fans in attendance. There is strength in community.

On August 5, while most of the Crew community was still at a loss for words, Crew fan Justin Bell (@MassiveCityFFC) somehow managed to cobble together these touching words on his blog:

These young men, we get to know them quickly. They may be with us for many years, or maybe only a season or two, and, this being Columbus, we inevitably get to know them as friends. It's one of the many qualities of this sport in this city that make it the best sport in the best place in the world. We supporters know their names and faces minutes after they sign on to our team, and, after a couple of seasons, they often get to know our names and faces, too. They mean a lot to us. They mean more to us than athletes in other sports and other cities with whom a fan might identify as heroes, because we identify with them as friends.

Kirk Urso was here for less than a year. We knew him by name and by face and by number. Our time with him was sorrowfully short. Who can have any doubt that he was going to be our great friend?

This young man, we didn't get to know quick enough; but he will remain with us, and he will Be Massive.

Be Massive, My Friend. Always.

***

Those would-be friends in the Nordecke outdid themselves in a fan tribute to Kirk. As soon as the clock hit 15:00, the Nordecke fell silent. The rest of the stadium followed suit. It was at that moment that I understood what the term “deafening silence” meant. It is so quiet that the effect is that you yourself are deaf. About the only things you can hear are your own heartbeat, your own sniffles, and the occasional oblivious beer vendor.

The Nordecke held up dozens of “KU 15” banners during the moment of silence, as well as a series of banners that read “Kirk Urso. 1990-2012. Forever Massive.”  As the minute of silence reached its conclusion, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.” I think the plan was for everyone to sing, but too many lumps in too many throats left the bagpipes to wail mostly without accompaniment.


Photo by Greg Bartram


Photo by Greg Bartram

“The crowd was unbelievable with their signs, and then they were quiet at the 15 minute mark,” O’Rourke said. “Nobody knew that was happening.”

"It was definitely super special,” Finlay told TheCrew.com’s Cody Sharrett. “I actually didn't really realize it at first, and then all of a sudden, the Nordecke went silent and so did the stadium. You could hear a cricket out on the field. It was definitely special.”

"It was amazing for the crowd to do that,” Gehrig told Sharrett. “It just shows how much the fans, for one, love us, and they love Kirk. It was a classy sign of respect. I know Kirk was looking down. I know his family was here and they really appreciated it too. Everything that was done today for Kirk was really good.”

Speas tweeted the following reaction: “Thanks so much to @Nordecke for making it so special for us who knew him, it really meant alot. Boys fought hard tonight, just like #KU would.”

“I can’t say enough about what the fans did tonight and have done to honor Kirk Urso,” said Grossman. “It’s pretty special to look up there and see all the 15’s and KU’s and all the various tributes. At the end of the game, just looking up there almost brought tears to my eyes. The fact that they care so much about one of their own is very special.”

For the players on the field, their focus was on the match, although they were no less appreciative. Josh Williams was aware that something was going to happen, but regrettably got too swept up in the game to notice.

“I heard they were going to do that,” he said, “and I tried to remind myself to watch the clock and then check over there to see what it was like, but once the game got going I forgot.”

Focus is not forgetfulness.

***

“Let’s go Crew!!! Huge game tonight!!!” – Kirk’s final tweet, sent at 3:46 p.m. on August 4, 2012, hours before the Crew kicked off their game at RFK Stadium against rival D.C. United.

Wednesday’s game against the Galaxy was huge too, but its immensity had nothing to do with the result. While it would have been a fantasy tribute for the Crew to beat the Galaxy 15-0, the reality is that the act of playing was a victory in and of itself, regardless of the result. Taking the field was a welcome respite and a brief return to normalcy.

“It was a very difficult emotional week,” said Marshall. “To some extent, guys were probably excited to get back on the field and play in memory of Kirk. It’s been a hard experience. It’s something I’ve never had to go through in my life.”

“It’s really hard to explain,” said Williams. “You just feel like you have a hole in heart. It will heal, but it’s going to take some time. It was good to get back out there and compete in his honor. To be honest, I can’t stop thinking about it. Every little thing seems to remind me of him. It was good to get your mind off of it and play to honor him. Unfortunately we didn’t get the three points, but tonight was a much bigger thing than three points. The most important thing was playing our hardest and putting in a good night’s work for Kirk. You don’t want to forget him, and we’re not going to forget him, but in a way it was nice to get out there and escape reality for a little bit.”

“Even though we didn’t get the result we wanted, it was a night that was more about one human being that it was for three points,” O’Rourke said. “Everybody fought hard tonight. There was no doubt about that, and it epitomized who Kirk was.”

“It was just so much to process,” said Gaven. “So many different feelings and emotions. This game was about so much more than soccer. This whole year is going to be about so much more than just getting wins. It’s about playing for Kirk and trying to honor his memory in each and every game and each and every training session. Tonight was the first step in that. It would have been nice to get a win, for sure, but the team worked extremely hard tonight and if we play with that kind of fire we are going to win more games than we lose and we would be honoring Kirk’s memory pretty well. Those are my thoughts for right now. I just need to go home and sit down and try to process all of the emotions from tonight.”

Warzycha was proud of how his team responded under such difficult circumstances.

“I think if you look at performance, I think they did well,” he said. “I think that is the right way to do it. We talked about focusing on the game and that it will be something we won’t forget. Obviously, the three points were not the most important thing today. I think there was a bigger thing we were playing for.”

***

After the game, Danny O’Rourke took one of the “Urso 15” banners and held it up to the crowd, as if he were returning Kirk’s love and affection.


Photo by Sam Fahmi


Photo by Greg Bartram

***

Word spread before the game that Kirk’s parents, Mike and Sandy, and his brother, Kyle, had made the trip to Columbus. They would be there to see the outpouring of love for Kirk, and they would be there to support Kirk’s friends on the Crew, just as those friends had supported their family back in Illinois.

After the game, Duncan Oughton offered hugs and a brief conversation. Then the Ursos were led into the Crew locker room. Many more hugs followed. The touching and unexpected visit left an impression on the locker room.

“It was nice that his family was here and we got to see them,” Marshall said. “The fact that they traveled and came here with all that they have been going through the last couple of weeks, it shows what kind of people they are. They’re unreal. It shows why Kirk was such a great person. It’s where he came from.”

“I didn’t even know they were coming until I was walking out onto the field for warm-ups,” said Gaven. “It gave me goosebumps to see them there. Just to see that they would be willing to come here to see the team that their son played for, it just made me want to win the game that much more for them.”

“I’m glad they came,” said Williams. “It meant a lot to us. I’m sure it was hard for them, but it was so good to see them.”

“Seeing them before the game and after the game, it really meant a lot,” said Mendes. “It’s been so emotional, so it was really nice to have them here. Kirk was such a wonderful person, so we left everything on the field for him today.”

“I saw them before the game,” Gruenebaum said. “I didn’t know that they would be here until I got here. I think it’s really tough for them to come, probably, but I’m really glad they did. Hopefully they are just as happy that they came. They are a part of this family. Thirty years from now, I won’t be on this team, but I will still remember them. They will always be in my heart and in my memories.”

“They’re just incredible people, and that’s why Kirk was the type of guy he was,” Hesmer said. “For them to make that drive, and to be there for all of the tributes….in the grand scheme of things, we were a small part of his life, but they understand how important Kirk was to us as well.”

“I hope they will be able to follow us,” O’Rourke said. “It’s tough for them. They’re still in the initial shock phase. Hopefully we can continue to do Kirk right and his family right as well. People talk about how tonight was for Kirk, but it’s going to be every night from here on out.”

***

On Friday, August 17, the Urso family released the following statement through the Crew’s website:

During this most difficult journey in our lives, we would like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude to all the wonderful people associated with the Columbus Crew from the Hunts to their loyal fans.  While our pain continues, the support, help, memorials, words of encouragement, and far too many other things to mention helped and are still helping us adjust to our life without Kirk.  He opened a world to us that we didn't realize we had by those whom he came in contact with.  We couldn't have asked for a classier club to be associated with.  Everyone from the top down are special people.  We also want the fans to know that when you come to watch the Crew play, you are watching the most wonderful group of guys, but you are also supporting a club that realizes while soccer is their purpose, there is more to life.  We are comforted in knowing that Kirk sat in the team locker room with teammates, coaches and staff who had hearts of gold.  I wish everyone could have known Kirk the way we did.  He was a unique, inspiring individual who seemed to bring people together, and he accomplished this to the end.  He was so looking forward to getting healthy and trying to work his way back on the field.  Thanks again for making him a part of your family and giving him a chance.

We would also like to thank the entire MLS community, coaches, players, former teammates, referees, and fans who paid tribute to Kirk whether it be by coming to his hometown and paying their respects to him, posting videos, wearing arm bands, having moments of silence or other memorials.  He knew many people and loved you all. I know he was pleased that all the teams were unified as one, giving up their rivalry for single moments, while they remembered Kirk.  This would be exactly what he wanted and is smiling down that he had a hand in it.  Thank you.

Mike, Sandy and Kyle Urso

***

I know this Notebook only scratched the surface, but it is the best I can do for now. I want to offer a huge thank you to the players and staff who took some time to share their thoughts during what is still a difficult time. Also a huge thank you to the fans for making Wednesday night so special. And, as always, I will continue to wish nothing but peace and strength and love to the Urso family. I may not have gotten to know Kirk well before he passed, but I assure you that I am far from finished in getting to know him.

I could try to write some powerful thousand-word ending to his piece, but in one piece of art, Nordecke banner-making legend Rick Thomas said it better than I ever could:


Photo by Steve Sirk

Questions? Comments? Have remembrances of Kirk that you would like to share so that I may continue to get to know him? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk