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Family ties: How Toronto FC and my family became intertwined

Waking the Red writer Tej Sahota shares the deeper meaning his Reds fandom has come to take.

Our adventure began on November 19, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre, as we strolled in to watch the main event of Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Samoa Joe at NXT Takeover: Toronto. The adventure culminated at its peak a few days later in Montreal, when we joined a few thousand diehards from Toronto who had made a similar trip to the Olympic Stadium to watch our beloved Reds take on the Impact in the Eastern Conference final.

Never mind the score. Even when it took 45 minutes to walk through the front gates, even when we fell back 3-0, even when the bathroom lines at the Big O reached around bends, even when the concourses ran out of food in the first half... nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to take the smile off my face. That moment, that memory and that feeling... all of it was going to last a lifetime.

You see, my fellowship on this adventure wasn’t Gandalf or any tricksy hobbitses, but rather my three-year-old son and my 61-year-old father. Now, I know that isn’t all that uncommon for many families, but for us it was a unique bond, something that I didn’t think we’d ever be doing together, or at least not all three generations worth of Sahotas. And certainly not at a sporting event.

Now, before we go any further, let me fill in some background information. I was born out west and raised in Edmonton, Alberta during the heyday of the Gretzky Oilers. I ride hard for the Oilers. It has been always my first love, and nothing will ever change that. Many years later I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, the same summer that the Cavaliers drafted LeBron James. I spent a decade watching some (mostly) really exciting basketball and as far as the NBA goes, my allegiance lies with the Cavaliers over the Raptors.

In late 2013, after enduring some personal family tragedy (more on that in a bit), we decided to leave the USA and head back home to be closer to family. Moving back to Toronto after having spent 10 years in Cleveland, I thought to myself: “I need to adopt a Toronto team to watch, something that my newborn son and I can become lifelong fans together for.” I wanted to have something that was ours, something that we could share from the get-go of our fandom, and look back at decades from now as a shared experience. Well, the Leafs and Raptors were out, because of my previous love affairs with other teams. The Blue Jays were fine and dandy, but the thought of 81 home games didn’t really intrigue an admitted fair-weather fan.

Now, to be clear, Toronto FC wasn’t an impulsive latch-on. From the minute the logo was released in 2006, I was a fan of the team. I had a TFC practise jersey before the official one was ever released, and despite being a broke student in Ohio, I managed to somehow finagle the Fox Soccer channel for free from my cable company in the hope that I could watch a few TFC games here and there. Much like some of the fanbase, I did lose some interest over the years as watching the team became unbearable during the darkest days, but there was always a peripheral level of interest. The bond always had some kindle on the fire.

So here we were in the winter of 2013-14, and all of a sudden we started hearing about the ‘Bloody Big Deal’. I remember calling my friend Paul Barrett, someone who I had gone to middle school with but hadn’t seen more than a few times in the last 20 years, and thinking I would have to sell him on Jermain Defoe and TFC (he’s a Newcastle fan). Fifteen seconds into the call, he responds: “Dude, let’s do it…let’s get season tickets.” Not only did we have an instant excuse to reconnect, but as I would soon learn, I had just found myself one hell of a drinking partner. And so began my fully fledged fanaticism into everything Toronto FC.

Over the next few months, as we acclimated ourselves to living back in Canada and got life back together, the one common denominator on our schedule became Toronto FC. Whether home or away, my wife, our small child and myself trekked down to BMO Field and adopted it as our home away from home. A few hours of respite from everything else going on around us. Occasionally, I would take some friends to reignite old friendships and spend time with people I hadn’t really seen in years, but by and large it was a family affair for us.

Over the last few seasons, my fondest memories with my son have mainly occurred at BMO Field. Just this past weekend, I was thinking to myself how I’ve watched him grow from a one-year-old eating baby food in my arms to a little man ordering chicken fingers at the concession stand. Time goes fast, but our pictures and moments at BMO have served as the constant backdrop.

I won’t delve too far into the circumstances around us leaving Cleveland, but a lot of it can be read here. Unfortuantely, some of you may have already been aware of this story.

Prabh Srawn, an aspiring law student and a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, was the first cousin of my wife. After his disappearance, it just felt too lonely to live hundreds of miles away from our family and friends, and so back home we came.

Prabh’s sister, Mandeep Srawn, who is mentioned in the above article, was as close to her younger brother as any sister ever has been or will be in the history of mankind. For months, not only did she organize search parties and spearhead all rescue missions, but she physically went and searched for him on Australia’s largest mountain. I mean full-on missions through some of the most dangerous and unforgiving terrain that anyone has ever seen. Men double her size were humbled, but her spirit was strong.

When she finally returned, after several months, back to Canada, gone was the smiling, giggling young girl who was the life of any room she walked into. Instead, she was callused by heartbreak and tragedy. The burden had become too much to bear. Mandeep and I were very close, but after something like this happens a lot changes - things get fractured. While we used to talk on a weekly basis for years, after she returned from Australia it was months before we had any real conversation with each other. It started off as a casual call and I didn’t know what to say, what words would have any healing effect, what to ask or to do, so I resorted to the first thing that came to mind. Quickly, I blurted out:

“Hey Mandeep... would you wanna come to a TFC game with me?”

Understandably, Mandeep had kept a low and quiet profile in the months since she had come back. Going out really wasn’t her thing any more. She remained detached and distant, so I was fully prepared for her to say “thanks, but no thanks”... but to my surprise, she gave me a “sure, why not”.

I picked her up that day from work and as we drove quietly down to BMO, I had knots in my stomach. Was this a good idea? This isn’t a Raptors game at the ACC with the volume turned to 11. It’s a Wednesday game at BMO Field. I feared the silence would be deafening.

Sharing a minimal amount of words in the car ride down, things changed the minute we got to the stadium. Excitement. Mandeep began to recount her days of playing rep soccer in Hamilton and her admiration for the Brazilian legend Marta. I sensed something that I hadn’t seen on that face for months on end. Joy. Relief. A smile. We watched Defoe score, we watched Bradley dominate, and I watched Mandeep yell up and down, and scream and cheer and be engaged. For 90+ minutes, we had some laughs and smiles, which were previously missing for 90+ days. I remember thinking to myself on the ride home “damn TFC, THANK YOU!” It was a much-needed night, and it was just perfect in every way. Over the past few years, Mandeep has married and has a beautiful young child of her own, but we still get to one game a season together. And I look forward to it so much. Those nights mean something.

Over the years, as my son and I were heading to BMO Field, my mom (more importantly my son’s overly protective grandmother) would inquire: “Where do you guys go every Saturday? Is it safe there? Is there food for him to eat? Is it outdoors? What if he catches a cold!” So finally, in June of 2016, I thought the best way to get her to see how fun and awesome these games are would be to take her and my dad down there to see for themselves.

I knew my mom would be game, as she likes to take interest in my interests and my son’s interests, but I thought my dad would never be up for it. You see, he is of a certain Punjabi/Sikh generation that believes watching sports is just a waste of time. You should be studying instead. Read. Do something productive. Even though my dad played soccer himself through various community teams, playing is one thing - watching is another. Aside from a few random World Cup games over the years, I didn’t think he had much interest in soccer anymore. But I asked. Kind of surprisingly, his immediate response was: “Sure, let’s go!”

With everyone game, my son and I took my parents down to BMO Field for a midweek Canadian Championship match against the Montreal Impact. A game that featured none of our designated players. I immediately began the PR spin and warned my dad that he was going to see a very weakened TFC team, and that this wouldn’t be pretty at all. I wanted to lower the expectations as much as possible, so they didn’t get a bad taste of an experience that I hold so dearly.

Well, four goals later by Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton, I learned that prognostic skills are not something I excel at.

I just sat there amused, watching my 60-something parents (who have never watched a real sporting event before) jump up and down for goals, scream at the linesman for offside calls and yell at Didier Drogba every time he touched the ball. Two new Toronto FC fans were born that day. For every remaining game, my parents would text me to let me know they were watching, and my dad became the world’s biggest Benoit Cheyrou fan. In Punjabi, ‘Cheyrou’ sounds exactly like a word that is a term of affection an elder would say to a younger child, translating to “little lion”.

We all know of the epic run that TFC went through, and when the Montreal away game in the conference final came, I just had to be there. I felt like I owed it to the team to be there with them as a red beacon in a sea of blue. And there was no way I was going to go without my son, as he was my TFC buddy since day one. Casually, I asked my dad if he’d like to accompany us, warning him that we were taking the train down, and this would be a whirlwind 36-hour trip. His reaction wasn’t of casual indifference (which is what I would have expected to literally any other request), but more of a “what time do we leave?!”

So off we went to Montreal, and had our first three-generation trip together, starting with a little WWE NXT action on Saturday and reaching a crescendo in the upper bowls of the Olympic Stadium, as I enjoyed a beer watching my son and my dad laugh it up as they watched literal paint dry. Twitter was on fire that night. Pundits called it a debacle. Montreal media couldn’t believe the away goals their team conceded. It seemed like everyone had something to critique about that night, but not me.

Boy, was that night something special. Something I will cherish forever. Nights like that wouldn’t happen at any other sporting event. It took TFC for my dad and I to have that sporting bond that I’ve tried to cultivate for my son and I to enjoy for the next several decades, God willing.

So that’s been mine and my family’s ties to Toronto FC. This team has bonded us, united us and, in the worst of our days, lifted us. PR marketing teams all across North America come up with catchy slogans to sell tickets and merchandise, but I have never so viscerally understood and felt as part of something as when Toronto FC says ‘All For One’. It’s not my second family... it’s a part of our family. Forever Reds. Thank you.