Making it in the pro game can be such a paradox and as former Fire defender Jim Curtin tells it, he barely made a star-studded Fire roster in his rookie year of 2001.
Selected by the Fire 29th overall (third round) in that year’s MLS SuperDraft, Curtin started the season towards the bottom of Bob Bradley’s depth chart on the back line.
One match into the season, starting defenders Diego Gutierrez and Andrew Lewis received straight red cards and Curtin was thrust into the starting XI the following week, debuting well next to C.J. Brown and Carlos Bocanegra on the back line in a 2-0 Fire win vs. D.C. United at Soldier Field.
That appearance was the first of 186 competitive matches for Curtin with the Men in Red and though he departed the Fire in a trade with Chivas USA in 2008, the seven seasons in Chicago are what defined his playing career.
Though it’s been five years since he last played an MLS match, when Curtin returns to Chicago as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Union this weekend, he’ll ceremoniously retire as a Chicago Fire player.
According to him, the idea all came up around the Fire’s 15th Anniversary in 2012.
“I was doing an interview for a piece on the Fire site and it made me think about the fact that I wasn’t happy with how my career came to an end,” Curtin told Chicago-Fire.com this week. “It came up casually in conversation and I thought it would be a great idea to have myself retire as a Fire player.”
After two seasons at Chivas USA, he and the club had a mutual parting of ways and Curtin returned to Philadelphia with hopes of playing for the Union during their inaugural season in MLS. For a few different reasons, the chance to play with his hometown club didn’t work out and his career abruptly ended.
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“As a pro athlete, a lot of times your career doesn’t end how you want it to. That’s the reality of the business side of things and you deal with that. Just thinking back on my career, I wanted to do this for peace of mind and some closure it was important for me to have the possibility of ending my career with the team that I started with -- the team that gave me a career and to be honest the team that probably helped me get a position in coaching down the road.”
Over his seven seasons in Chicago, Curtin was a mainstay on some of the best teams in club history. His favorite on-field memories include the team’s fantastic run in 2003 that came up one win short of securing an historic domestic treble. He also took pride in representing the club as a starter in the 2004 MLS All-Star Game and being voted that year’s Fire Defender of the Year.
But if you can’t already tell, Jim is a sentimental guy, so while individual achievement and lifting trophies are no doubt great memories, his best are of a more personal nature.
“Family is a word I feel gets thrown around too loosely in pro sports these days but that group was tight knit. Sharing the moments in the locker room, you miss day in and day out with them, the joking around and knowing that when you’re going out on Saturday you’ll have each other’s back. Knowing you’ll do anything for the Chicago Fire to win a soccer game.
“We had that mentality and we had a lot of guys that were students of the game. You think about it now, myself progressing to coaching, I learned so much from that group and you look at the number of guys on those teams that are now involved in the league in coaching or other capacities. There’s 15 or 16 guys that are doing something in MLS, a lot of guys that had a similar philosophy and I think a lot of that was inspired by those years together.”
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Along with remembering the camaraderie he had with old teammates, Curtin says one thing he’d kill to do again is walk through the Soldier Field tunnel one more time.
“Just hearing the noise of the screw-ins hitting the concrete in that tunnel is something that gave me chills. You forget about those little things – I know people might not understand that but it’s something that was special to me -- the noise as you walk out and touch the Section 8 rock. All those little things – you realize they’re special.”
One last memory Curtin has of his time with the Fire is the special connection he made with the club’s most ardent supporters. The tall, moppy-haired defender became a fan favorite in his time with the Fire by putting in consistent effort on the field and always repaying the support he was given from the crowd during matches.
Unbeaten in 14 home games during 2003, Curtin brought a Philly tradition to Chicago by throwing his cleats into Section 8 Chicago after every positive home result that season, a practice in which his shoe supplier was not too pleased with him about come the end of the season.
“I connected with the fans right away,” he said. “The support we received from them was unmatched and personally I felt they embraced me because they saw me as a blue collar player, a guy who would do anything for the team to win. Chicago is a blue collar city so we were a match from day one.”
So on Friday, Curtin will symbolically bring an end to a playing career that actually ended a few years ago by signing a non-binding player contract with the Fire and immediately signing another announcing his retirement.
No it’s not actually official -- there is no real retirement contract in Major League Soccer. Jim will still remain a part of the Union coaching staff and the pieces of paper he'll be signing are purely symbolic but the overall gesture speaks to the way he feels about the club and the way the Fire remember him.
“It’s official to me and that’s what matters. It’s just great closure to know the team I started with and meant the most to me is the team I’m ending with. I’m so grateful for that."
The club will recognize Jim's retirement before the start of the second half Saturday vs. Philadelphia. Tickets still available by clicking here.