I’m not one for the outdoors. The idea of camping, living on the land and general extended exercise has never been for me but I can appreciate those that appreciate the wilderness enough to entrench themselves in it for charity.
Meet Matt Mason, a burly, bearded, 23-year-old Fire supporter that for the last three months has traded in his jersey and chants for a backpack and boots as he hikes the Appalachian Trail.
The goal: To raise one dollar for the Chicago Fire Foundation for every mile hiked ($2,184) between northern Georgia and central Maine (DONATE HERE).
The only extra piece of equipment in his pack: a Fire flag, there to remind him of what he’s walking for.
“It’s gone excellent so far,” said Mason. “I’ve had a great experience and met some amazing people and interesting characters along the way.”
Starting at Springer Mountain on February 29, Mason has hiked 1,257 miles making his way to Wind Gap, Pennsylvania. Aside from raising funds, his other goal was to make his way to a Fire game along the way, leaving Saturday night’s game at New England a target.
So there he was Friday afternoon, standing on the side of a road on Route 33 as a small contingent of supporters from Section 8 Chicago pulled up. The group caught up with a friend they hadn’t seen in three months as they made their way to Foxborough, Mass. for the next day’s game.
Mason took in sightseeing around one of the nation’s most historic cities and had a couple good meals leading up to the match on Saturday. After making their way into the stadium Saturday night, Mason had a realization of what the sacrifices such a journey might take on one’s fandom just 30 minutes from kickoff.
“I found out Chris Rolfe was back with the Fire,” chuckled Mason. “I had no clue! You should have seen my face when they told me. I’ve picked up some Fire news here and there but I didn’t know that. I became a Fire supporter in 2007 and he’s always been my favorite player.”
Not only did Mason get to see the Fire for the first time this season but he also got to see Rolfe make his re-debut Saturday night against New England.
Soon after the newly returned forward came on, the Revolution caught the Fire defense out twice within four minutes, leading to the team’s 2-0 defeat Saturday night.
“The result wasn’t good but given the chances of this whole trip, it was pretty amazing to be there for his first appearance back with the team.”
Following the game Mason and his group were invited back to the team hotel where he met up with Fire players and chatted at length with Frank Klopas about his journey.
“This is a special kid,” said the Fire head coach. “Getting to meet him, I’m blown away by his drive and character. Over and over you see our supporters behind us in the stands but also finding ways to help others through charity. I’m impressed with Matt’s dedication and proud to know he’s on our side.”
Mason’s had his setbacks along the way. At a certain point his boots fell apart before he ran a fellow hiker that gave him an extra pair.
“They didn’t really fit but they got me through for a while. Things like that – the generosity of others – that make you realize why you’re doing this.”
While the task would seem daunting for most folks, the outdoors are Mason’s other passion away from the Fire. Post-hike, the Freeport native even has a job lined up at an outdoor education center in western Michigan.
“It’s been surprisingly easy but I don’t want that to be taken the wrong way. When you really break it down, all I’m doing is walking. It is difficult when you walk up a 1,000 foot climb in a mile -- that’s very painful -- but at the end of the day I have a hot meal and I get to backpack in the woods, see beautiful things and meet interesting people all while helping something I love.”
After a couple hours spent at the team hotel, the group is on its way. Those driving face a night of sleep ahead of a 16-hour return to Chicago the next day. For Mason, a night of rest before returning to Wind Gap to finish the remaining 927 miles before reaching Mount Katahdin at the end of July.
As the group diverted just a little bit back to the small town 20 miles south of New Jersey Sunday morning, they leave him with well wishes. As he heads back into the wilderness, Section 8 Chicago trumpeteer Frank "Guapo" Cardenas plays the Tetris theme song as Mason wanders into the woods doing the "C.J. Brown Dance".
With still two months to go, Mason has raised $836 through online donations and earned nearly $100 more in cash at Gillette stadium Saturday night, leaving him just under $1300 away from his fundraising goal.