The Fire Inside: An LA family road trip

Honoring one of Chicago’s own on our Los Angeles road trip

There was a moment on Saturday evening when all that it means to be on the road with your team came into sharp focus.

It was the end of halftime at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. Sitting high in one corner of the stadium, along with traveling management and our special guest for the weekend — longtime team volunteer Kris Corless — I was watching the teams jogging out for the second half.

The spectacular stadium lightshow swept across the stadium, catching the swaying crowd of black and gold who were chanting boisterously down to our left. Now, as our players ran into their huddle, tiny in the center of the field, and as the noise around them intensified, the lights shifted and I saw a small, livid block of red illuminated high in the opposite corner of the stadium. Chicago fans.

I turned around to where Kris was grinning broadly at the heart of our little group. Then I looked back at the fans, stark against the black and gold, and back down at the team and the seven substitutes and technical staff on the bench. Set against the spectacle and numbers around us, it should all have added up to a slight presence, but there’s history and heart and pride in our numbers and seeing that moment fused it for me. The black and gold crowd kept chanting and drumming. I couldn’t hear them.

Let me tell you a little about Kris Corless. Kris is a former school teacher. Her connection to the Fire goes back a decade and, since her retirement, has turned into a near full-time volunteer support role with the club. As she likes to simply put it, “I love the club. I love the people.” On any given work day at the stadium, you’ll see Kris answering phones, cleaning the kitchen, or any number of operational support tasks, while on game days she’ll be ushering people to seats, giving directions, and generally wearing her Chicago team gear with pride.

Kris is also battling stage four cancer. Every day brings another mental and physical challenge, but she has goals and purpose to keep her going, and support from the club as she goes through the process. And around a month ago, Kris learned that a long-time ambition of hers would be becoming a reality. At the end of an otherwise routine training session, she was called on to the field, expecting to follow up on some maintenance duty or other. Instead, she was greeted by the entire first team roster, led by captain Dax McCarty, telling her she’d be coming with them on the road trip to LA, as an honored member of the family.

At the time, Kris couldn’t quite believe it, but a few weeks later on game day morning I ran across her looking very relaxed and holding court in the lobby of the team hotel. She was flanked by her chaperones for the weekend, Vice President of Soccer Business Paul Cadwell, and Director of Soccer in the Community, Lee Hannant. Paul and his family have been particularly close to Kris through her treatment — helping out with treatment logistics and transport and general moral support. Now, on a sunny morning in LA both men were grinning indulgently as Kris told me a long and complicated back story about the Real Housewives of Beverley Hills, and TomTom, the bar belonging to original cast member Lisa Vanderpump, which she’d visited the previous evening.

Kris is just getting to the point where one of the eponymous Tom’s, Tom Sandoval, had looked after them all evening and even comped them their bill, and is also ruefully noting that “booze and chemo don’t mix,” when she suddenly puts her phone and its display of Bravo-inspired selfies away, to beam widely at a new arrival at the table.

With due respect to reality TV stars, footballing legend Bastian Schweinsteiger is in a rather different category of fame, and he has dropped by to say hello and ask how Kris is getting on. As we sit there, Schweinsteiger’s initial greeting turns into a procession. Players and coaches resting up before the game make it a point to come and see Kris, and exchange some genuine interactions with her, as she keeps shaking her head at the slightly surreal quality of being the center of attention.

At the stadium, there’s another really touching moment. The players have jogged back into the locker room from the warm ups, and Kris has greeted them on the way back in to the tunnel. “Do we go to our seats now?” she asks, as the last of them passes.

“Not just yet,” says Paul, steering her towards the locker room. We stand outside for a few minutes, hearing the muffled sound of Veljko Paunovic’s team talk — all of us feeling the game time nerves amid the hostile din of the stadium above us. Then the door opens a crack and a stunned Kris is waved in. The team are huddled in the center of the locker room, looking to each other, as McCarty gives a pre-game rallying speech about showing “just who we are.” As he speaks, the hands nearest us beckon to Kris and she stumbles into the huddle, raising her hand to join in the final collective chant of “Win!”

A few seconds later we’re back out in the tunnel and she’s crying with pride: “I feel like I can do anything now.”

And an hour later, in that moment when I’m thinking about our small, but indomitable, presence on the road, and the intersecting personal histories and connections that brought us here to represent Chicago, I’m also still thinking of that statement. I think of it again as the team is exiting for the buses and each of them once more makes it a point to go and check in with her. Schweinsteiger lingers to talk and find out how her trip has been. Our Chairman Andrew Hauptman brings his family by to say hello. Kris thanks him for the trip, and he looks surprised and shakes his head and insists on thanking her instead for all she does for the club.

It’s not lost on anyone that we’re a soccer team ending a tough road trip, and the primary focus of the evening is the game. And having done what no other team has done this season in taking a point away from Banc of California Stadium, the trip has ended on a positive note.

And if future generations are looking at the story of this season, they’ll maybe look down a list of results and see this score line as a small beat in the narrative. Maybe they’ll review a clip or two. Maybe, if they’re really diligent, they’ll even look beyond the chances both teams had, to see Chicago’s game plan to draw LAFC’s central defense out of position, and how it almost paid off during some great interplay early in the second half. Maybe.

But what they won’t see is what connects us in those moments. The collective belief in being part of something larger than yourself, undaunted by numerical odds. We were in a spectacular new stadium, with raucous home fans creating an aural and visual spectacle and reveling in the novelty of their newfound power. But set against that noise we had ourselves and our connection to a shared history and life and purpose together — a genuine culture built by people like Kris Corless, quietly looking out for each other over time, and wherever they go.

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