Greensboro Rallies For Urso Match

TheCrew.com's Steve Sirk recounts the emotional Kirk Urso Memorial Match

Whether it was family, teammates, or an ever-expanding network of friends, Kirk Urso understood that there was strength in numbers. He also believed in the power of one person to make a difference. Sunday afternoon in North Carolina, many individuals from the Columbus, Chapel Hill, and Greensboro communities came together in a show of collective strength and love for the Urso family and Kirk’s memory.

The first annual Kirk Urso Memorial Match saw Urso’s collegiate and professional teams, the North Carolina Tar Heels and Columbus Crew, take the field in Greensboro to raise money for Kirk Urso Memorial Fund. The event raised over $30,000 for the study, detection, and treatment of congenital heart defects, such as the one that tragically claimed Urso’s life last August at the age of 22. The Crew defeated the Tar Heels, 1-0, on a 79th minute goal by Konrad Warzycha, but the real winner could be some unknown person out there who will benefit from the good work being done in Kirk’s name.

“I just thought it was beautiful,” said North Carolina head coach Carlos Somoano. “It was great to be a part of it. Our goal was not only to remember Kirk, but also to raise money for congenital heart defects and the Kirk Urso Fund. We wanted to draw attention to that because, who knows, maybe we saved one life today by being a part of this.”

And to think that as of Saturday morning, the match almost didn’t happen.

***

The day before the Urso match was scheduled to kick off at MacPherson Stadium in Greensboro’s Bryan Park soccer complex, Carolina Dynamo general manager Scott Zapko had a decision to make. A week of heavy rains left the playing surface underwater. He knew from experience that the field would drain quickly when given a chance, but the weather did not cooperate. More rain fell on Saturday.

Zapko consulted with the groundskeepers and with Greensboro United, the youth soccer club that also calls the complex home. If they opted to let nature take its course, it was still possible that the field would drain and the game would go off as planned. But staying the course would mean no margin for error. If the rain stuck around longer than predicted, the game would have to be rescheduled the morning of the event or possibly even canceled. Zapko and company began mulling contingency plans to move the game.

“We had to make a decision,” Zapko said. “The logistics of the 1:00 kickoff the next day meant that if we made the decision to relocate the game later, it wouldn’t have worked for the fan base and then we wouldn’t have made any money for the Urso Fund.”

Zapko, Greensboro United, the Greensboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Greensboro Sports Commission all put their heads together. They needed an appropriately sized facility that had a natural grass playing surface. They knew who to call.

***

UNC-Greensboro assistant men’s soccer coach Scott Brittsan happened to be in his office on Saturday afternoon, as the Spartans had just finished an offseason training session. His phone rang at 1:30 p.m., less than 24 hours before the Urso match was scheduled to kick off. It was Will Mack, a former Spartans player, now coaching with Greensboro United.

“Will asked if I had heard from anyone about moving the game,” Brittsan said. “I said I hadn’t. He told me the field was unplayable and wanted to know if they could play the game here. I told him it was hard to say.”

UNC-Greensboro has a densely populated athletic complex that was scheduled for a heavy event load on Sunday. The baseball team had a doubleheader. The softball team was participating in a four-team round robin. The women’s tennis team had a match. All three of these events surrounded the soccer stadium. The school’s small athletics department and operations staff were already going to be stretched thin.

Brittsan walked over to visit with the school’s athletic director, Kim Record, who also happened to be at work on Saturday afternoon. She had yet to check a voicemail left by the Greensboro Sports Commission, but the nature of the call became apparent as Brittsan spoke of the impromptu relocation request.

“We were trying to wrap our heads around how it could work,” Brittsan said. “A lot of other athletic directors probably would have said, ‘What a hassle. We’ve already got a lot of other events going on.’ She was anything but that. We got our facilities people in there and they said it would be tight, but we could make it happen. After about an hour of talking, we decided we could do it.”

The venue switch wasn’t official yet. Somebody had to notify the teams.

***

Arica Kress, the Crew’s Senior Director of Marketing and Promotions, had taken the lead on the game presentation for this event. She had been working closely with Zapko and the Dynamo, as well as with the Tar Heels and Crew, to make sure the game was a logistical success.

She answered a call from Zapko at 3:17 Saturday afternoon, a mere 21 hours and 43 minutes before kickoff. Zapko opened the call by telling Kress, “I have good news and I have bad news.” The bad news was that the original venue was unplayable. The good news was that UNCG was willing to host the match free of charge.

Her mind raced. Would UNC be willing to play at another school? Would the new facility be up to snuff? Would Crew coach Robert Warzycha be okay with the last-second switcheroo? The answers across the board were “yes.” The game was still on. Just elsewhere.

The Crew sent out a press release at 5:12 p.m., less than 20 hours before kickoff, alerting the world to the venue change. The Crew and Tar Heels blasted every electronic communications medium they could blast, including email lists, text lists, Facebook, and Twitter.

The good news was that the game was still in Greensboro, so anyone who made the trip was still in the general vicinity of where they needed to be. From an event management perspective, however, the game was starting from scratch.

“At about 5:30, I got a call from Scott Zapko at the Dynamo,” said Brittsan. “He said the Crew arrived and they wanted to do a walk though at the stadium. I met Arica, Robin (Ungerleider), and Keiana (Mitchell) around 8:00 that night and we did a walkthrough of the facilities. We figured out what we needed and where we could put what to make it work. We were able to muster some locker rooms. I figured our men’s locker room could be used for the Crew, and we were able to find another locker room for Chapel Hill.”

Other arrangements that had to be finalized included gate and concession personnel, EMS, campus police, referees, the PA announcer and game script, game day volunteers, rerouting of team buses and food, setting up the memorabilia auction in a new facility, and all of the other nearly undetectable minutiae that goes into putting on an event.

There was also the matter of getting the field ready for a game without any advanced notice. When Crew assistant coach Ricardo Iribarren and team operations man Tucker Walther stopped by to check on the field in the late afternoon, the grounds crew had just begun lining the field and setting up the goals. They would take a break part way through the evening so that one of the members could play in his men’s league match, but then they resumed their work at night under the stadium lights.

“Those poor guys,” said Brittsan. “They were there until at least midnight on Saturday night. Those guys did an unbelievable job.”
 
Before the Crew left for Columbus on Sunday evening, Walther would leave the grounds crew an 18-pack of beer as a token of the team’s appreciation.

***

While the grounds crew toiled on the field all night, the downtown Marriott was a more festive scene. What started as a coaches and staff watch party for the Crew’s preseason game in Orlando morphed into an impromptu social event. Kirk’s parents, Mike and Sandy, arrived, as did his brother, Kyle, and Kyle’s girlfriend, Erica. Pretty soon, the viewing area swarmed with UNC friends, Crew fans and players. A watch party of seven was now a chatty gathering of 30.

“Every time we run into the Crew, it’s like no time has lapsed and we’re friends and family forever,” said Kyle Urso, who spent a good part of the evening hanging with Duncan Oughton and Frankie Hejduk.

Near the end of the evening, the crowd eventually thinned to Kirk’s parents, Eric Gehrig, Justin Meram, and me. Sandy pulled out her iPad and treated us to numerous videos that Kirk had shot on his cell phone and iPad. Much to the players’ delight, Kirk had captured part of an epic Settlers of Catan session from last preseason, but it was the previously unseen videos that brought howls of laughter. Like the one of Kirk wowing a crowd with a killer Michael Jackson moonwalk. Or there’s one of Kirk narrating a trip to a town square in New Hampshire. He comes across a replica of the Liberty Bell, and in his total deadpan narration, he says, “And if you’ll notice, there’s a slight blemish riiiiiiiight heeeeeeeere” as he traces his finger down the length of the bell’s famous fracture. He then moves on to a statue of Daniel Webster “who was famous for his dictionaries.” In another 11-minute video, Kirk interrogates Erica while they wait at the airport for Kyle’s tardy flight. Alternating the camera between his face and Erica’s, he masterfully provokes her with one antagonistic mock-serious query after another. Erica fires back with many hilarious retorts of her own. By the time Erica expresses her worry that the airport traffic cop is going to ask them to move their car, and Kirk responds to the traffic cop’s approach by freezing still, talking through his clenched jaw like a bad ventriloquist, and urging her not to make eye contact, the video had already attained comedy classic status.

Kirk is always in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved him. But on Saturday night in the Marriott lobby, he was also in people’s eyes and ears. For those 45 minutes, he was very much alive on the other side of the glass, once again filling our earthly world with smiles and laughter.

***

Sunday couldn’t have been any more beautiful. After a week of cold and dreary rain, the sun shined down and the temperature shot up to the low 60s for one day only. For Kirk’s game.

Kress, Brittsan, Zapko, along with their respective contingents, reconvened at the stadium at 9:30 that morning. Zapko had arranged for volunteers from the Dynamo and Greensboro Youth Soccer to work the gates and concessions. Brittsan had some UNCG soccer players who also wanted to help out, plus some other members of the UNCG administration who gave up their off day to pitch in. Representatives from the Crew and Tar Heels set up their respective auction tables.

With it being preseason, many people across MLS could not partake in the festivities in Greensboro, so they participated by donating items to the auction. “Tucker (Walther) was instrumental in getting a lot of the items,” said Kress. Autographed jerseys came in from Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, and Montreal, plus a Brek Shea Stoke City jersey and a Landon Donovan U.S. National Team jersey. Kirk’s jerseys with the Crew, Tar Heels, Carolina Dynamo, and U.S. National Team were also up for bid. UNC offered up team posters and media guides that included Kirk’s autograph, tickets to a UNC-Duke basketball game, an autographed UNC basketball, and a soccer ball signed by UNC alum and world soccer legend Mia Hamm, among other items.

This is only a partial list of the generosity. The list kept growing too. Chad Marshall showed up at the game with a pair of autographed shoes. Recently retired Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer made the trip from Raleigh and brought a pair of autographed goalie gloves.

From near and far, everyone wanted to do their part to help the Kirk Urso Memorial Fund.

***

The story of Sunday morning would not be complete without a mention of the stenciling.

The Tar Heels keep Kirk’s number 3 stenciled on their field, so Kress thought it would be a nice touch to stencil the field with a 3 in front of UNC’s bench and a 15 in front of the Crew’s bench. The Crew’s stencil was made of cloth and fit into a travel bag. UNC’s stencil was made of plywood. It was not made for traveling.

Kress had arrived on the Chapel Hill campus on Friday night hoping to load the stencil into the SUV she had rented. It would not fit, as you can see from this picture:

Photo by Arica Kress

UNC assistant coach Jeff Negalha kindly offered to load the stencil into a van and drive it from Chapel Hill to Greensboro on Saturday morning, and he successfully delivered the stencil to MacPherson Stadium as promised. When the game got relocated, Negalha was back in Chapel Hill when the stencil needed to be hauled from MacPherson Stadium to the UNCG campus. Zapko had an idea.

“One of my other owners, Graham Murphy, has a truck, but it’s got a lid on the back, so that wasn’t going to work,” Zapko said. “But we were able to strap it to the rack that he’s got on the top of the back of his truck. Then we drove the five or six miles between stadiums at ten miles per hour to get it over to UNCG. It was a pain in the [butt] because he was following me and I don’t like to drive slow. It’s kind of funny, though, because he’s a Duke alum and he’s saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to move a UNC stencil.’”

Even a Duke Blue Devil chipped in to honor Kirk’s memory.

Photo by Arica Kress

***

Under normal circumstances, splitting the squad in two and playing two games in two cities in less than 24 hours would warrant an instant veto from any professional club. But these were not normal circumstances.

“Our players were totally behind this game,” said Walther. “They were willing to do whatever it took.”

That meant that part of the team traveled to Greensboro a day early, missing the Crew’s appearance in the championship game of the preseason Disney Cup in Orlando. For those in Orlando, it meant taking a detour to North Carolina instead of heading straight home, where they hadn’t been in three weeks. And for some of the Orlando contingent, it was even more complicated. Some of them had to play on Sunday.

Walther drove from Greensboro to Raleigh to meet the team flight. He then loaded Matt Lampson, Drew Beckie, Ethan Finlay, Ryan Finley, and Ben Speas into his rental, made a brief pit stop for some food, and then whisked the players directly to the UNCG campus. The idea was that those players could get to the stadium maybe a half hour earlier for compared to if they had waited for baggage and then rode over on the team bus.

So after an early flight, an hour drive, and a meal eaten in the car, those five players got to the stadium just shy of an hour before kickoff, all so they could play for Kirk.

“We have a lot of good guys on this team,” said Walther. “For them, this was all about Kirk.”

***

After all was said and done, more than 2,000 fans turned out for the event in Greensboro. The venue switch was actually a blessing in disguise, as MacPherson Stadium only had seats for 1,700 spectators. (There is additional grass seating that bumps the capacity to 3,000, but with a week’s worth of rain, nobody would have wanted to sit on wet grass.) Moving the game to UNC-Greensboro meant that the teams could accommodate the surge of ticket buyers that lined up through the 25th minute.

“Maybe (moving the game) is what Kirk was hoping would happen,” Brittsan said in response to the gorgeous day and good turnout. “Who knows?”

The game itself was a spirited affair. It was so strongly contested that Ethan Finlay, of all people, got into a shoving match.

“It was a little bit chippy out there, just like Kirk would have wanted it,” Finlay said with a wry smile. “Hopefully I didn’t upset him too much with my little outburst there. But it was really cool. UNC is a great team and there are going to be good this year, so I think they were a good opponent for us to play.”

Kyle Urso also enjoyed the fitting flavor of the match.

“To see two teams that meant a lot to Kirk present a game, and not just a friendly game, but a fighting match where people are going in hard and battling, that’s how Kirk would have wanted it,” he said. “Kirk didn’t play any other way. There was no ‘let’s take it light and easy’ with him, so it was nice to see that on the field too.”

There were no hard feelings, of course. After the final whistle, the Crew and Tar Heels spent an hour mingling with each other and the fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

“That was fantastic,” said Zapko. “We’ve had other MLS teams in, and the Crew were fantastic. Their players stayed to sign all of those autographs and to get their pictures and taken with the kids and all of that stuff. They were phenomenal. I can’t say enough good things about the Crew, and I hope that they got some new fans out of this event.”

Photo by Steve Sirk

***

As expected, Kirk was at the forefront of a lot of hearts and minds on Sunday. Tweets of remembrance poured in from across the country. Or even out of the country. Chris Birchall and Brek Shea tweeted from England, which is a long way from Greensboro. Such was the bond that Kirk had with those who knew him.

“He was the captain of our national championship team, but he was more than that,” said UNC’s Somoano. “He was a friend, a leader, a student, and one of the best representatives we had. With Kirk, I think back to the championship press conference that we had, and one of the things he said summed it up perfectly. He said even if we hadn’t won the championship, we would have loved each other and we still would have been a family. You can see by those words what he meant to us. He was one of the guys who created that environment, and it’s an environment that we still have today. It’s his legacy for us.”

“We got him as a player (for the Carolina Dynamo) straight out of high school,” said Zapko. “He was 17 going on 18 and he was a natural born leader. He came in and everyone embraced him right away. His work ethic was unparalleled.  I don’t know anyone who was as much of a soccer rat as Kirk was. We couldn’t train enough for him. We trained twice a week and played matches, but if we could have trained every day, Kirk would have been the first one to show up and the last one to leave. He was such a tremendous kid. You wish you could have 20 Kirks every year. Today was a bittersweet moment. It was a great event that we were doing, but then you go back to remember Kirk and the fact that he passed away at 22… it’s not fair.”

“You think about it every day, but days like today really make you wonder why,” said Finlay, who was also Kirk’s roommate in Columbus. “You sit here and you really wish he was on the field battling with us. I know he’s watching over us, but it’s tough when you lose someone who is so close and a part of your everyday life. Especially at such a young age. You want to experience all of these new things and you want to experience them together, so when you lose that person, it definitely hurts. Everyone had their own relationship with Kirk and everyone valued it differently, and that's something we’re all still coping with, because he was such a deep influence to everyone.”

The Urso family felt the love coming from all directions.

“It’s nice to see that people don’t forget,” said Kyle Urso. “As hard as it is to be reminded of Kirk’s passing, there are so many people that still care. You get away from it and you go back home and you kinda forget that there are people who are still thinking about you, even if they can’t express it every day. But people out there do miss Kirk. It’s not just us. He made a lot of friends, and those relationships are going to last far beyond his passing. So that’s special. As an older brother, that makes me proud to see how he is remembered.”

***

Kirk was a unifying force in all that he did. It’s why he was invariably named the captain of his soccer teams. This weekend in Greensboro, he was a unifying force once again.

“It’s special in the sense that everything came together last minute,” said Kyle Urso. “Not the event, but the venue change, and how so many people came together for the cause for Kirk to be honored. The showing was incredible. I didn’t know what to expect, but to get this many away from Chapel Hill, it means a lot. I can’t thank UNC-Chapel Hill, the Crew, and everyone in Greensboro enough for all of their work behind the scenes to make this happen.”

The Crew and Tar Heels did everything they could to make the event a success, but that’s to be expected. However, due to the flooded field, the event wouldn’t possibly have gone on as scheduled without the good people of Greensboro, who turned a potential calamity into a picture-perfect event.

“Scott Zapko was amazing throughout the whole process, and he was passionate to make sure the game didn’t get canceled,” said Kress. “Scott Brittsan at UNCG was so supportive for something he wasn’t even involved with. He was first class through the whole thing. No matter what I asked for all weekend, the answer from everybody was always yes. And I don’t think something like this venue change comes together so smoothly and so perfectly without Kirk.”

Both Zapko and Brittsan knew there was more at stake than just a simple exhibition soccer game.

“The first thing is Kirk having that attachment to all three communities— Columbus, Chapel Hill, and also Greensboro as a player for us with the Dynamo,” Zapko said. “He was near and dear to everyone’s heart, plus all of the funds are going to a good cause. Secondly, this is something that we would love to turn into an annual event and bring back into the market here.”

“I didn’t know Kirk, but I knew him as a player,” Brittsan said. “I watched him both at Chapel Hill and with the Dynamo. The soccer community is a pretty small community, and by all accounts, he was an even better person than he was a soccer player, and he was pretty darn good player. I was keeping my fingers crossed that not only could we pull it off, but pull it off in a way that would make everybody happy. It’s a very unique event and a very important event to a lot of people. It was very humbling to meet the Urso family and to see how appreciative they seemed to be. That makes it worthwhile. If you can be a part of making a special day for people like the Ursos, who have been through what they’ve been through, you certainly want to do it. The Greensboro community really came out and supported this event. ”

“My kudos to the UNCG staff all around,” said Zapko. “Between their facilities people, their athletic director, and everyone else, they did a tremendous job of making it very easy for us to move the event over there. I have worked with other venues in the past, and it is as never as logistically easy as this game went off. I think the event went very well and there is a lot of room for growth. I think this is something that our community, Columbus, and Chapel Hill have all embraced and it can be bigger and better moving forward.”

“It was a fantastic event and I think it’s only going to get better,” said Finlay. “I can’t wait to be 50 years old, sitting in those stands, and still coming to this game.”

***

The game itself was the intended tribute to Kirk Urso. Indeed, the game was a fine and worthy tribute.

But then there are these tweets…
 

 

In retrospect, the leadership, teamwork, and urgent dedication displayed by the Crew and Tar Heels players, coaches, and staff, the Carolina Dynamo, UNC-Greensboro, and the Greensboro community at large, all in an effort to ensure that Kirk’s game got played as scheduled and was a successful event… that was an even worthier tribute.

Steve Sirk is a contributor to TheCrew.com. He can be reached at sirk65@yahoo,com or via twitter @stevesirk