By Sam Mathius
Until I did the research recently, the details of the game were a blur to me. I couldn’t tell you who scored for Arsenal. I couldn’t tell you the exact lineup. I couldn’t even tell you date. What I do remember from Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal on January 29, 2003 was the roar of Anfield when Jan Arne Riise and Emile Heskey brought Liverpool level after falling behind twice.
That’s where the obsession really kicked into full gear. I had assistance from a nagging older brother who casually supported Arsenal. It was a bit too soft for me. I needed something more than that in a club. The shivers that went down my spine when the Kop rose to commend Heskey’s last gasp equalizer provided antennas to the direction my footballing allegiance would go: to the red half of Merseyside, roughly 4,500 miles from my home in Southern Louisiana.
Growing up outside of New Orleans, it was a place that loved football. The other football. Conversation was more about the LSU Tigers’ quarterback or the New Orleans Saints’ defensive line than Liverpool Football Club’s star striker.
Still, the original football is the sport I followed from the time I was a kid. Despite American football permeating the sporting landscape of our hometown, “soccer” was the sport my parents got my siblings and I involved in at a young age.
It was tough to be indoctrinated into the sport as a youngster in America during the early 1990s. Football was hardly on the TV unless you were willing to shell out upwards of $40 to watch matches on Pay-Per-View. We weren’t a poor family but we certainly weren’t rich either. So I had to think of clever ways to watch matches. My go to move was coming down with mysterious illnesses every fortnight on Tuesdays or Wednesdays in the fall and spring. To this day I doubt my parents know I was really just interested in watching Champions League football. Sorry mom and dad.
Around the turn of the millennium, something fantastic happened for the American football fan. Fox Soccer Channel was launched. It made a much easier task for fans to schedule bouts of illness.
Another perk it provided me was a may to make friends. As a shy eight grader switching schools several towns over I was faced with a new environment I wasn’t thrilled about being thrown into. Luckily, in the American football crazed part of my world, St. Paul’s High School in Covington, LA boasted a Soccer program that accounted for one out of every seven students. My passion for the sport and Liverpool was something that most of the other players knew about. It became contagious. Many of my teammates caught the bug along with other students who simply appreciated the game. Those guys are some of my best friends to this day.
The Liverpool bond was something that we all took pride in. It was something that really brought us together in a way that being a New Orleans Saints fan just couldn’t do even though we all held a special place in our hearts for the black and gold.
On August 29, 2005 it suddenly became more than that. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we faced unprecedented challenges for young American teenagers. Undoubtedly and very luckily we were the fortunate ones. We still had our lives, our families and most of us had our homes. What we didn’t have was a stable environment to grow up in for the better part of a year or two. There were simple things like a population influx on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain that turned a thirty-minute commute into several hours. Then there were more serious concerns such as widespread depression, prescription drug abuse and an infrastructure that failed to provide adequate food and health care at times. Stress was at an all-time high for most people.
As is the case for most young males, sports can be a great distraction. However, we had a situation that made a bleak situation just a little darker: the Saints couldn’t play in the ravaged Louisiana Superdome. They bounced around from Baton Rouge to Texas, playing “home” games while outraged fans berated the team’s owner for exploring re-location options.
At least my group of friends had something. We had Liverpool. Those early season matches in the fall of 2005 became a welcome topic of discussion to distract us from the depressing scenes around us. It wasn’t the ultimate fix but it was just enough to get us by and made our bond stronger.
Today, I sit in an oppressively hot room in Boston. I’m in my underwear with a fan blowing full blast at me. It’s not unlike those early days back home after the storm, sans the fan. Another difference is that none of those friends are here with me. One had to cancel his trip because he got a great job offer at cancer center in Georgia. Another is in Europe on a long planned trip with the girl he will probably marry. And just the other day several more made my day when they told me they all plan to visit in the fall for a weekend when they are all free. Everyone is growing up.
I’m here with several college friends who serendipitously came into my life. Exhibit A: my first ever college roommate. We were randomly placed together after I transferred in the Spring of 2008. Upon entering his room the Liverpool scarf above his bed made me feel at home.
It’s crazy to think that those two goals in a game that the record of football has largely forgotten have led to this. An obsession that has provided me with friendships I’ll always have and cherish. It’s followed me in a way that seems almost made up.
From New Orleans to Boston, Liverpool has followed me.
Although I wish I could have all my buddies up here for the game tonight I rest knowing that come game time, we’ll all be watching. Be it in Budapest, Boston, New Orleans or Atlanta, we know we’ll never walk alone.
Those hairs on my neck are standing up again. It’s fantastic to be part of something that is truly bigger than yourself.