BRENDAN WIMBERLY - Wednesday, June 6, 2012
A soccer career which began as a boy in San Diego and saw two World Cups has finally come to an end. After playing professionally for 15 years, Frankie Hejduk hung up his boots in April.
After starring at UCLA, Hejduk was drafted by the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the 1996 MLS Inaugural Player Draft. Hejduk played in MLS' first three seasons before earning a move to Bundesliga power Bayer Leverkusen following a good display in the 1998 World Cup.
Although Hejduk struggled to find consistent playing time for Leverkusen, he still reflects positively on the experience.
"Having the opportunity to play for one of the best clubs in the world in Leverkusen was great," said Hejduk, " (Dimitar)Berbatov, (Michael) Ballack, Ze Roberto, Hans Jorg Butt, Lucio, Juan, Robert Nico Kovac. These guys were all about to get on the top of their games and I got the chance to play with them." continued Hejduk, as he reflected on a number of his superstar teammates with whom he made a run to the Champions League Final in 2002, eventually losing to Real Madrid in the ultimate match.
Hejduk left Leverkusen after that season, searching for more playing time in Switzerland, signing for FC Gallen. However, after only making seven appearances, Hejduk decided to come back stateside. In 2003, Hejduk landed with the Columbus Crew where he eventually spent most of his career and has now landed a non-playing job within the organization.
"I really have a place for Columbus in my heart. The fans gave me so much that I just want to give back.", said Hejduk in regard to his new job within the club for whom he played from 2003-10, "Im trying to promote the sport, and be out there for the fans whenever I can. As a player, I was always trying to do that and sign as many autographs as I can and pump the fans up...The role that I have with the organization is a bit of an extension of that."
Having played in the league's inaugural season, Hejduk is impressed with the progress MLS has made in sixteen years. "I was there (in MLS) when stadiums were getting 3 to 4,000 people a game. To see how it's grown in that regard...it's incredible, back then you wouldn't have imagined to see so many soccer specific stadiums built." In addition to the increased fan support, Hejduk also marveled at how much better the quality of play has gotten in the league, "Now teams have 22 solid players who could start at any moment...We had twelve teams before and you had 11, maybe 12 guys who were really solid."
Upon being asked to reflect on his favorite moments in his career, Hejduk was quick to point out the first domestic championship he ever won. "I would say winning the '08 MLS cup was definitely up there, doing it on behalf of the city and the club. It took us eight long years to get a title and we finally got one." Hejduk played two more years with Columbus after that championship and then moved to the LA Galaxy in 2011, with whom he won his second and final domestic championship last year.
Although a 15 year professional career sounds daunting enough, Hejduk piled on a 13 year international career as well, playing with the United States National Team from 1996-2009. Hejduk believes that the United States National Teams growth has mirrored that of its domestic league as they have begun to perform very well against the worlds major squads, having beaten Spain and Italy and drawing against sides such as England and Argentina (twice) in recent years.
"When we play against the best, we do alright," however, despite improved performance against the worlds elite, Hejduk feels the National Team is leaving something to be desired in its performances against some of the teams its perceived to be better than in the CONCACAF region, "We are a soccer power now I feel...Now we have to get better at beating the Guatemalas, the El Salvadors and the Costa Ricas who, lets be honest, we struggle with those guys some times. But those games are never easy."
Hejduk's national team successes may have come as a result of his ideal place to play, "For me, the worst environment's the best environment. Whenever I had to play in those hard, gnarly, crazy environments, I loved it. They were so passionate dude." said Hejduk. CONCACAF certainly does not lack 'hard, gnarly, crazy environments'. Hejduk thought back to one specific trip to Guatemala that was particularly trying.
"We stayed in these bungalows in the jungles. They placed these radio stations outside of all of our bungalows, blasted music all night, it didn't stop, raged all night. Then there was just a fence around all of our bungalows, so they were able to throw M80's on top of each of our bungalows," said Hejduk, "Then we had a 12:05 kick off, it was probably 105 degrees, in the middle of the jungle."
After a long playing career, Hejduk wants nothing more than to give back to those who gave so much to him.
"To be able to give back to the fans what they gave me all those years, it's just a perfect job for me." Hejduk said.
Although involved with the Crew front office now, Hejduk does have retirement plans in mind at some point, saying, "There'll be time for San Diego, surfing and fun and all that. That's just going to be on the back burner for a little bit longer."
For now, Frankie Hejduk's going to do what he always did. Hit the stadium every match day and give all he can for his fans and for his team. The recipe served him well for the past 15 years and there's every reason to believe it will until the day the former high school national surfing champion decides to paddle out in the Pacific and finally leave the field behind him.
Just not yet.