Dick Clark is dead. As someone who expected to be outlived by him, it’s weird knowing he’s gone. At the same time, he was clearly an old man. Even though it seemed like he’d been around for longer than his 82 years, the most recent New Year’s was sad because…well, it was Dick Clark, except he wasn’t Dick Clark as everyone knew him. It finally seemed like it might’ve been time, as cruel as that is to say.
It never seemed like Frankie Hejduk’s time. No, he’s not dead, but he’s done playing soccer. The scraggly-haired wingback announced his retirement from professional soccer Thursday at the age of 37, which is pretty damn old for a professional soccer player. And it’s really damn old for someone who played like he was stuck in an imaginary hamster wheel—never not-running. It’s hard to imagine Frankie Hejduk not running for a living any more. It’s hard, too, to imagine American soccer without Frankie Hejduk.
In many ways, American soccer—at least modern American soccer—was born in 1996 when the MLS played its inaugural season. Hejduk, who graduated from UCLA in 1994, was a seventh-round pick in the inaugural MLS Player Draft. He missed much of the first season because he was playing and training with the US Olympic team, which is bizarre and funny because that would never, ever happen today. After three successful years in the MLS, Hejduk went to German giants Bayer Leverkusen. His four years in Germany were up and down, but he had some stints as a starter and played in five Champions League games, which is five more than almost every other American soccer player. After a year with St. Gallen in Switzerland, he came back to MLS in 2003 and played eight seasons with the Columbus Crew and then one more, winning the title with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011.
Hejduk also made 85 appearances with the U.S. National Team. He scored seven goals, which is hard to believe because players like Frankie Hejduk aren’t supposed to score goals, ever—let alone for the National Team. He started at left back in the disastrous 1998 World Cup and did the same in the 2002 run to the quarterfinals. While he also was named to the 2006 Cup roster, he missed the tournament after tearing his ACL. At 35 he even made a late (but ultimately unsuccessful) push for a spot on the 2010 squad, which surprised everyone until we all realized how weird it’d be for Frankie Hejduk not to be at the World Cup for the U.S., whether or not he was playing.
His impact wasn’t that he was necessarily a singularly “good” soccer player. His feet were kind of clumsy and there wasn’t much guile to be found in his game … but he was just always there. You knew what you were getting: a lot of effort, a hell of a lot of running, wild hair, some screaming, and the occasionally decent ball into the box. You’d always get it, though. Hejduk was around forever, but he never really changed from start to finish—a constant in a sport that was fighting to find some kind of grip in this country and in the world. It’s unsettling thinking about him being gone because he still looks like that morning-surfing UCLA kid who never has his shirt on. That is, he still looks like Frankie Hejduk.
He’d drink 8-10 Starbucks espresso shots a day, and his dietary policy was something along the lines of “I give my body what it wants when it wants it.” He’d go to Columbus fans’ tailgates and chug beers from the back of their pickup trucks when he was suspended. He was crazy; he was always crazy. In all the best ways, though. If there’s a way to be universally loved, Frankie Hejduk came close to finding it. He’s not dead—and if there is an immortal human being on this Earth, it is Frankie Hejduk—but something that’s always been there is now gone from American soccer, and it’s not coming back.
— Ryan O’Hanlon
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