Thank You CJ

CRANDALL: I don't want to believe it

C.J. Brown is retiring after Saturday’s game and yet, I
really didn’t think it would happen.

You know what I mean -- the thought of C.J. calling it a day
at the end of this season hung over Fire fan’s heads like a dead haze. The
question came up almost annually the past few years, but back C.J. would come.
So even with today’s announcement, there’s still some disbelief.

It wasn’t this way for me all season. Back in May when C.J.
hit 350 games played across all competitions for the Fire – the third most
all-time for any MLS player – I asked him if he thought he could catch the
retired Cobi Jones for second-most all time.

His answer: “No chance. You’re talking about 40-some games to catch up, I’m not sure that’s
going to be possible. We’ll see. I’m working hard every day and still
playing well. If I can stay healthy things could look good for that to happen.”

He kept hope
alive for the end of the season and that was good enough for me.

As the year
went on, the amount of matches to be played became fewer and a playoff spot
went from attainable to out of reach – there again the question lurked. Brian
McBride’s retirement announcement on September 3 only heightened the
speculation – would C.J. go as well?

I was fortunate
enough to have him join me on last Wednesday’s All-In podcast.  The day after a pretty dismal 2-0 loss
to the Kansas City Wizards, a game where the last remaining Fire Original took
a beating, C.J. still agreed to do it.

He limped into
Conference Room 3 at Toyota Park with a big ice pack covering the gash on his
knee he received from a tackle the night before and candidly answered questions
about the game, the season and the club’s history.

After asking
him to give his thoughts on Brian McBride’s career, I turned the question to
him and asked where he was in evaluating his status for 2011. If you listen to
the interview, I kind of trip over my words in my questions where I reiterate how much closer he is to Cobi Jones (22 games) than he was back in
May. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how to end it, but while I was asking,
C.J. began to sniffle and proceeded to pull a tissue out of his pocket. 

Not knowing
what to do, if he was about to announce his retirement on the podcast, I was
thankful as he wiped his nose while giving this response:

“I sit with my wife and I talk
with my parents trying to figure out what the best route is for me and if I
should continue to play. None of my motivations are about breaking records, its
more of how the team’s going to be, am I going to be effective for the team? I
don’t want to be a player that’s not useful. Do I have to start every game? No.
but I want to be sure that whoever is starting ahead of me deserves it and
pushing and working. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into figuring out if you
can come back and play another year. Physically, is my body going to hold up? I
took a beating this year…”

The night after taking two very hard knocks, the last part
of that quote took rung so true. It almost summed up much of his year. I think
there was a streak of four or five games where C.J. took a shot to the head, be
it a boot, an arm, another head – it led you to wonder how he kept bouncing
back up.

“…I don’t know,” he
continued. “If I do come back, there are obviously a lot of decisions like that
I have to make, if I don’t, I can always say I had a great time here. It’s
probably not the type of year you would want to finish on but if you put all
the years together, we’ve had more positives than negatives – you try to focus
on the positives I guess.”

Even with that
quote, as he got up at the end of the interview, taking off the ice pack to
reveal the gash on his leg, I felt he wasn’t done – he truly seemed like he
wanted to keep playing, even as he limped away saying goodbye. Maybe it was
hope, but the vibe and body language you received, from a player that was sick
and physically ailing the day after a tough loss wasn’t the same that I got
from him back in May.

Just a week on
from that interview and now knowing that loss to Kansas City would be his final
match at Toyota Park, it’s certainly bittersweet. Still suffering from the
illness he had during the week, C.J. was on the substitute’s bench but was held
out of last Saturday’s 0-0 draw with D.C. United as American legend Brian
McBride took his final bow at Toyota Park.

Despite the
illness, C.J. represented the players during the post-game tribute to McBride, thanking
him for his contributions to the club and American Soccer and afterwards, C.J.
did what he always does at the end of the season, heading to the North end of
the stadium to greet and sign autographs with Section 8.

He was never
the best player on the field and he certainly wasn’t flashy – he’d be the first
one to admit it. He wasn’t an offensive weapon either – in 370 career matches,
C.J. scored a total of five goals.

He did however
provide stability on the backline. He was stout and steady, a complete rock in
defense. He was gritty, never shied away from a challenge, took his lumps and
seemingly continued to ask for more. Only once did he play less than 20 games
in a season and even this year, what will be his final season with the club, has
played more minutes any Fire player. While most guys would go home after
training, C.J. headed to his other job – working a full day as the Associate
Director of Coaching for the Chicago Fire Juniors in Naperville.

As far as club
history goes, and the way it may relate to a certain marketing slogan, for all
intents and purposes, C.J. Brown
is
the Fire. 

Though it
hardly seems a fitting exit to an illustrious career,  

Thank you, C.J., I still don't want to believe it.