Firsthand Account: Behind the Stretcher

A first-person account of PPL Park from a stretcher crew member

It was a hot,
sunny day in Chester. A beautiful day for soccer.

I arrived at the
stadium at 4:30 p.m. My first impression of PPL Park, from its exterior, made
me eager to explore its interior. The park looked pristine from the parking
lot, where a guy named Kyle and a number of other fans had already gathered to
pre-game. (Kickoff wasn’t for another three hours.)

And PPL Park,
well, it was the first pleasant surprise of the day. Far from the last. The
Commodore Barry Bridge stood guard behind the stadium, a silent sentinel
overlooking The Home of the Union. The stadium looked beautiful, different from
the ones in downtown Philadelphia because of its solitude. Clean, and new, and
way more than I expected — a fine piece of architecture.

As I walked toward
the media entrance with my volunteer “All Access” pass in hand, I noticed some
food stands on the outside concourse. Nora Lee’s Cafe offered Cajun food, and
Los Tacos, Mexican. Neither had started cooking yet, to my dismay.

Upon entering the
stadium, a Union employee ushered me into the volunteer waiting room, where I
was given a complimentary Union T-shirt and a boxed lunch. Nothing against the
roast beef sandwich and chips, but my mouth dreamed of a plate from Nora Lee’s
Cafe.

I was part of the
stretcher crew for the day. One Union employee told me, “That’s the best job!
You get to sit right in the middle of the field, and you don’t have to do
anything because no one ever needs a stretcher!”

She was right about the first
part.

About an hour
before kickoff, the Volunteer Army moved into position. The stadium looked even
better from the inside, especially from grass-level. The rows of seats on one
side of the stands spelled the word “UNION” in white and gold. The bridge
remained visible behind the Supporters’ Section, and the waterfront air wafted
into my nostrils. The natural grass felt amazing underfoot; it made me want to
don soccer cleats and shin guards and play.

Watching a few
Union players warming up only increased my desire to run onto the field and
slide-tackle someone. Three of them were engaged in a triangular passing drill,
and I informed two volunteers nearby of how I felt left out. Almost as soon as
the words exited my mouth, one Union player lofted a pass across the pitch
toward his teammate — the one positioned right near us. He moved to his right
to try to reach the pass, but it eluded him ... and came straight toward me! I
stuck my right foot out and settled the bouncing ball, feeling all the pressure
in the world. I swung my foot back, then forward, and hit the Union player with
a beautiful assist. (Surely, somewhere in the stadium, an MLS talent scout
contemplated signing me to a 10-day contract.)

Three other
volunteers and myself comprised the illustrious stretcher crew, and we occupied
four chairs directly at midfield, between the Union bench and the scorer’s
table.

Twenty or thirty
minutes before the game, a red-headed man showed up with a Union employee
escort and a couple fans. They stood next to us. The red-headed man was short —
maybe five-foot-seven — and wore a black T-shirt, blue jeans with skulls on
their pockets, a crazy pair of boots, and a chain wallet. His short hair formed
fiery curls atop his head and was accompanied by a matching, groomed goatee. He
looked familiar. One of the stretcher crew members turned to the rest of us and
whispered, “That’s Danny Bonaduce!”

And he was right.
Apparently Bonaduce — the childhood-turned-reality TV-turned-radio star —
proudly supports the Union. He kicked off the ceremonial first ball, posed for
pictures, and enjoyed himself royally. The Sons of Ben — the organized Union
fans who never stop cheering from the raucous Supporters’ Section — shouted
“Bon-a-du-ce! Bon-a-du-ce!” in unison.

To my delight, the
Sons of Ben were just getting started. Throughout the night, their enthusiasm
blew me away. As kickoff approached, a cloud cover rolled in, and the Sons of
Ben began beating bass drums and chanting — an awesome spectacle. When the
announcer introduced the Real Salt Lake players, the Sons of Ben turned their
backs and showed their non-affection. Then they greeted the Union squad with
great applause, along with the rest of the crowd, which by that time had filled
almost the entire stadium.

We could count
each player’s nose hairs from where we sat, but I’d honestly rather have been
cheering in the Supporters’ Section with the Sons of Ben. It looked like so
much fun, reminding me of a fanatical student section at a college basketball
or football game. Benjamin’s progeny stood on their feet almost the entire
game, leading the stadium in a variety of chants (some of them politically
correct, and others not so much). Their level of self-imposed fandom rarely
appears at American sporting events these days, and that made it a terrific
sight.

In the eighth
minute, Union rookie Danny Mwanga received a skilled pass from Sebastien Le
Toux’s pink-cleated right foot. Mwanga — an impressive physical specimen and
athlete — took the pass, dribbled into the 18, and finished with authority. The
Union led 1-0 at that point, and the 16,128 fans in attendance went wild. It
hit me at that moment, when the Union established an early lead against the
defending MLS champions in front of their packed, home stadium crowd, that this
Philly soccer thing was for real.

When I first heard
about the birth of the Union more than a year ago, I never anticipated what I
encountered that August evening. Even though Real Salt Lake’s lightning-footed
Fabian Espindola scored an equalizer within 10 minutes of Mwanga’s goal, and
the match finished as a 1-1 draw, the game as a whole was a home victory in my
eyes.

For one thing,
Union Manager Peter Nowak clearly knows the game, and it was a privilege being
close enough to hear his interactions with the referees. (He gave them quite an
earful, which their officiating warranted.)

And the players — they
grip you. You won’t find them atop the MLS standings this year; expansion
squads, no matter the sport, rarely experience winning inaugural seasons. But
the Union players compete, and they excite, and they endear themselves to you.
Players like leading scorer Le Toux, experienced midfielder Fred, miniature
locomotive Roger Torres, rugged defender Danny Califf — the fans have a
connection, a bond, with them. And the feeling is mutual, as the players waved
and clapped and showed their appreciation for the crowd after the game ended.

From a volunteer
standpoint, the coolest part of the evening occurred during the game’s 41st
minute. A Real player went down near his own goal, across the field from where
myself and the other stretcher crew members sat. Remember how they told me that
my services wouldn’t be needed? Well, after a minute of the Real player
writhing on the ground, the referee turned to us and called, in a foreign
accent, “Stretcher, let’s go!”

And away we went,
running toward the wounded player. It was a rush. The four of us could feel
that we were the surprise center of attention in a stadium full of thousands of
people. All of a sudden, we mattered. Then we arrived at the RSL player’s side,
placed the stretcher next to him on the ground ... and he was up in a flash,
good as new! The crowd booed him, and we ran back to our posts. We gazed
triumphantly up at all the fans watching us, with at least a couple hundred of
them applauding our efforts. It was terrific.

Once more, near
the end of the game, the ref called us into action. And again, the Real player
suffered only from an injured competitive spirit; he popped up as soon as the
stretcher crew neared him. Amazing how that happens.

All in all, it was
a thrilling experience. On my way out of the stadium, I talked to a pair of
Union fans — Chad and Josh Metzger — who have attended every game this season.
They’re exactly the type of fans I never imagined I’d find this early in the
Union’s existence.

They’ve been MLS
fans for years, and Union supporters from Day One. “You couldn’t get (the Union)
started fast enough for me,” Josh said.

“As soon as it
went on the computer that tickets were going on sale,” Chad added, “we were
there.”

The Metzgers, like
me, loved how the stadium and team turned out. They told me this was the first
game they’d attended where the other team lacked a cheering section, meaning
that I missed out on an exciting crowd dynamic. They said they’ve followed a
number of the Union players, and Nowak, since they played for other clubs.

I asked the
Metzgers what they would say to people who don’t know much about the Union.

“They need to
experience a game,” Josh said.

“Really,” Chad
agreed.

“There’s a lot of
people that think soccer’s a very boring sport,” Josh continued. “It really
isn’t. They need to experience a game live. It’s a — you can’t really explain
the experience. It’s something you have to see.”

I couldn’t agree more. Just don’t fake an
injury, or they’ll send the stretcher crew after you. And trust me — you don’t
want that.