For the uninitiated, Westside 109 is the oldest currently operating supporters group for Atlanta Silverbacks FC. Kurt Braunsroth founded the group in the mid-90s. Buckle up. This is an extensive interview about the wild and wacky first couple decades of supporter culture in Atlanta.
Planet of the Backs: Let’s start at the beginning. Were you involved with the Silverbacks ancestor club, the Atlanta Ruckus?
Kurt Braunsroth: I started in 1996. I missed the '95 season, although I monitored them and watched a little bit. I won't say on TV, but I kept up with them. Watching them and the success they had, I said, "You know what. I need to be there next year". So '96 was my first year.
POB: Wasn’t there an early supporters group called the Ruckers?
KB: Yes. Yes, they were there in '95. At least I heard that. By the time I got there in '96, they had given up and had left. And I ended up showing up about the time they left with a drum, and there you go. I mean, then they ended up showing up years later as Eastside 309.
POB: Didn't you guys originally call yourselves the Blue Army or something like that?
KB: Right. I was trying to obviously get more people beside myself. And I was putting out through the Internet and anyway else... fliers and whatever, calling myself the Blue Army, but really it was me. '96-'97, somewhere in there Blaise shows up. '98'-'99? I think it was somewhere in there...
POB: You were the first guy.
KB: I am the first guy. I think I still have it... there's an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution from 1996 that speaks of 'The Lone Drummer.' I've still got a copy of it. 'The Lone Drummer,' yeah. And it's a write up on a game where we lost like... I'm trying to remember, but it was like 5-0 or 6-0. I remember the game because there was one of our players who had a compound fracture. [Laughs] On a flying tackle, a bad flying tackle. That gave him a compound fracture. It was an awful game. And then it poured rain. That was my first game. [Laughs]
POB: You and your drum were the supporter section.
KB: Yeah. Wendy Parker wrote that article. I can't remember exactly how bad we lost. We lost very bad. I had seen the USA vs. Trinidad & Tobago in Richmond - it was a world cup qualifier. After that, I just said, "I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna start drumming for these local Ruckus games" because I'd drummed in high school. I knew a little bit about it. I bought a drum, and I just started showing up and said, "I'm gonna keep going to games and keep drumming because there's not people making noise. There's not." And so I've got my drum to... as a kind of a forced multiplier if you want to use a military jargon. You know? Just make noise. I'm just gonna keep going until the team is gone. There you go. And so here it is, God, how many years later? 96 to now. And uh, yeah, I'll still go to games. I'll still drum. You know, I'm gonna keep that promise.
POB: Who was the first person to join you in the Blue Army?
KB: Oh god. Well, the 1st person to really show up was my wife. Um, she's a wonderful musician and uh yeah we started dating in... I could remember the day. Up 'til then, it was several years so... 96, 97, 98, 99, 2000.
POB: It was just you all those years?
KB: Pretty much just me, yeah. Pretty much... every now and then somebody would show up um and we would work together. There were these three Mexican kids, and I don't remember their names. Wonderful fans. They came several years in a row. They would bring a car battery and a siren and a horn, and they would hook it up to the car battery. We would honk the horn to the rhythm I was beating, or they would hit the siren. They were great, great guys. There was a guy named Hunter Sheridan. And Jason Longshore, who is known these days for his work with the charity Soccer In The Streets. We would heckle, but it was pretty much just me and maybe occasionally somebody else for those first several years.
POB: There’s a photo circulating on social media of a few fans with a big, handmade banner of the Ruckus crest.
KB: There was a banner. It was two queen-sized bed sheets, and they were like grey. I had my mom sew them together, and then I took an overhead projector, and I took the logo of the time projected on it, traced it and painted it. It took...I think it was the 2nd or 3rd try because I kept using the wrong paint and it would chip off and eventually I found a paint that would stick. I finally got it to work, and it was like, "OK, I've done it. I've got this done".
POB: After your wife, who was the next person to show up and stick around for the long term?
KB: Since the club was in the United Soccer League at the time, I was always on the USL discussion boards back in those days. Then one day, I get this post from a guy he calls himself Blaise. And I'm like, yeah come on to games. Come on. And he's the next one to have the balls to really be like "I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna show up". And he showed up, and we would hang out and drink beer. I would drum, and he would just hang out with me and sing a little bit. Yeah, he's the guy. He's a really good guy, a really brave guy. You know, 'cause it's funny, you got... I sensed there were other people that wanted to jump in, but they didn't want to be the first one to join me and my wife. And Blaise was the one that had the balls to go, "I'm gonna be the first one." So yeah, hats off to Blaise.
POB: So, now, the early days as the Silverbacks... where was the club playing?
KB: OK, so early days it's Adams Stadium, which is a high school field over there on Clairmont, I think? Where the Ruckus used to play. And then they ended up going over to Roswell High School, I think it was, way up on the North side...which is a dilapidated, abandoned high school field. That was when Vincent Lu was the owner. They did that, I wanna say, two seasons? '97 and '98, which were pretty awful.
POB: Was that when they were called A-League Atlanta or something like that?
KB: Yes. Well, first they were the A-League and then what happened was Vincent Lu was like, I'm done with this. I mean, right in the middle of the season, he's like I'm done, I'm walking away, I'm not paying for anything. So the league took over and started paying... yeah, 'cause they can't have a team fold in the middle of the season. Um, and it looked really bad, and I was like OK this is the end of the team. But then we got new owners that took over in the middle of the '98 season. They ended up renaming the club...which leads back to my tifo story. So they show up to a game, and I remember walking up to them and saying, “This is great, you're gonna buy the team!” Well, they were just considering it at that point. I come with the deal. I'm like an added dividend. [Laughs] I'm showing them the tifo. "I made this. And I come free with the team", you know. 'Cause I wanna save the team. And yeah, and they're looking at it. Awesome guys. They're like, “Yeah, you know we're gonna have to change the name and the logo.” And I'm like, "Yeah, OK." You know, after all the hours it took to make that logo banner - 200 hours. I estimated it at...that's probably about alright. And I'm like, "OK, do whatever you gotta do. I'll just make a new one. I know what to do now, I know how to do it. I won't be 200 hours the next time" So yeah. So...that went down.
POB: So the Silverbacks name is born at this point?
KB: With black and blue as the team colors. And then Boris took over from those interim owners. He kept the Silverbacks name, but we went from blue colors to red colors when Boris took over. 'Cause apparently Boris likes Manchester United. Our first kit under his ownership was like a Manchester United knockoff.
POB: When they changed the colors to red, you couldn't be called the blue army anymore right?
KB: Exactly and on top of that... heh, here's another little story. Before they changed the colors I worked a 2nd job 'cause I wanted scarves. Again, I'm doing anything, everything I can to make people interested in this team. And so I thought, "Scarves! We could have scarves!" This was way back in those days when nobody liked soccer. So here's this obscure website that basically promises to give you soccer scarves, OK? You send them the design, and they'll make some for you. So I was like, "Yeah! That... I'm gonna do that". So I work a 2nd job. I negotiate with them. 'Cause they wanted a lot more and I said, "Look. Here's what it looks like I'mma give ya", you know? And I want to say it was right around $1000 which was a lot of money, back then...especially back then.
POB: And these were scarves for the club?
KB: Yeah. And I've got a few left - they're blue, white, and black. It's a knockoff from Celtic. I saw this Celtic design of a scarf and I went, "That's what I want". But, in our colors, so it was black and white checkerboard with blue on the ends and the old blue and black Silverbacks logo, OK? Which, I never asked the team permission. But again, back in those days nobody cared, you know? I created the design myself on my home computer, even though I'm not a design artist. I mean, I put a lot of work into this. Ordered a crapload of 'em, like a couple thousand of 'em. Like, I wanna say 1500-2000 of those scarves. And I paid for them myself using my extra job money. We tried to raise money selling them, but it didn't work. So we ended up giving a lot of them away.
POB: Collector's item.
KB: Totally rare. But I've got a handful of 'em up in my closet still. So, we put out those blue scarves, and then of course, classic Silverbacks type of moment: "Hey, we're gonna go to red!" [Laughs] But to give people an idea, I mean, I've been through some serious shit with the Silverbacks. I do this on my own time, I work an incredible amount of extra hours. I raise money for these scarves to promote the team, and then they change the color.
POB: If you weren't in Silverbacks Park yet, you weren't in section 109 yet. And if the club color wasn't blue anymore, was there an interim name after the Blue Army?
KB: By then there was more than just me. And we talked about it and I don't think we ever came up with a name. We just...were like the guys who banged drums in the stand. We didn't come up with a name again until we went to Silverbacks Park and we said, "We really gotta come up with a name. What are we gonna call ourselves?” And we all put our heads together and nobody could come up with anything good...and then we said we should just name ourselves after the section that we sit in, which was Westside 109.
POB: Anything else about those days before Silverbacks Park opened?
KB: We played for awhile in the Roswell suburban area. It was a dilapidated stadium that Vincent Lu had control of. We didn't put any money into fixing it up. I mean, it's an old, messed up high school stadium. We did that for two seasons. Oh my god, those days...I tell people, "Whatever you see from the Silverbacks now...and you whine about it. It’s nothing compared to the '97-'98 era". Literally, the entire game day operations were Vincent Lu and his immediate family, OK? I'm not kidding. Tickets, everything. He's buying pizzas himself, ordering pizzas, and handing slices to the fans. "Thanks for coming". [Laughs] I mean, you wanna talk about rinky-dink. That is as rinky-dink as it gets. You know...it's funny though. I look back at those days now and I'm proud of that. A lot of people would be like, "Oh, that’s so screwed up. I'm ashamed of that". No, no. Not me. I'm proud of it because I hunkered down and I hung with it. And anybody who was with me in those days, I salute 'em, because you're a real fan. You know those guys who show up to Atlanta United today, it's like it's all... finished and tied up with a brilliant red bow around it and you just pay some money. I can't after all I've been through, and you're gonna hear more, but... after all I've been through, do you think I'm gonna just jump ship? And just he like, "Ohh, they've got money.”
POB: So when did the core group that became Westside 109 start to build up?
KB: Definitely when we played at DeKalb Memorial Stadium. That's when Blaise showed up. That's when my wife showed up. My wife first, then Blaise. Then Kevin Stephens was the next one, if I remember right. Good guy. Yeah, he's still around.
POB: Alright, and then it just kind grew from there into a real kind of supporter section?
KB: Once you had that critical mass. You get those couple of people and then there's other ones that go, like, “Oh. It's not just one guy anymore.” You know, it's like, “There’s a guy and a cute girl and this guy other guy and another guy!” It's weird. You could see it happening. I'd be drumming and there’d be people sitting close, but they wouldn't come over. They’d be, like, really close and they'd be watching and you could see them looking! And they’re just like, “Oh, no-no. I can't do it”. And then my wife showed up and it was like, you know… I mean, let's face it – when you get a cute girl sitting with you it's like, “OK he can't be… he can't be that weird. He’s got a cute girlfriend,” you know? Blaise shows up and then Kevin shows. And then now you've got four people and it was easier, much easier, after that. And the teams also. Boris shows up and he’s running the team and there's more money being spent. So people are starting to show up and it's much easier to jump in. It was almost like… I don’t know, a secret society. I mean, there’s these guys – because soccer is not cool back then – and you got these people that show up and go, “This is really fun and what you guys are doing in the stands is really fun.” And they start to kind of show up. And we end up with tailgates and we're planning food and… I mean it's... it just all comes together. Really, it's the people with vision, you know? The people who have more brains. They're not just there to, like, spend some money and consume a product. They get what's happening and they're… they're contributing and we're all creating a friendship and a network. You know, it's sad I can't remember the names of everybody, but that was a good crew. Because every single person there got it and was contributing and we ended up having a really good crew. And we were communicating through the discussion – the USL discussion boards – or email or whatever and we would organize. Again, advance tailgates, whatever, and put on a show. You know, today it's all taken for granted. The whole idea: tifo, tailgates, etc. We’re creating all of that from scratch. Even those who didn’t want to jump in with us…they're looking at us and approving. I remember people coming over who were just, you know, the mom and dad crowd – the soccer mom crowd – and coming over and saying, ”Thanks for being here. You guys added to the atmosphere.” And that was big to me. Even though they're not, you know, the diehard fans. But I like to think those were the days where the guys who were in with me were creating that niche for the fans of today. Because back then, it was all soccer mom. That's the future of soccer, you know and and…”We don't want the hooligan crowd,” you know? But we disarmed all that. You want us there, we're adding the atmosphere that you and your kids want. It took years of showing up in rain and whatever else, and just doing it. And… and to the point where, you know, they suddenly said, you know, “It's cool to bring drums.”
OK. Little side story. There was an M.L.S…what do you want to call it? Exhibition game. In Chattanooga. I can't remember what year it was, but Alexi Lalas was playing. I remember that. And… and they had, like, four different M.L.S. teams playing a pair of games in Chattanooga. It's a little, crappy stadium in Chattanooga. And, of course, I got wind of it and I went up there. I emailed the lady who was in charge of the overall operations, because I knew she was the one paying the security folks, right? And I'm saying, you know, “I'm a fan and I'll give you credentials. And you can do background checks on me. But, by God I want to come up there and play drums, you know, at your game.” And she gives me, “Yeah, yeah. That’d be great.” You know, she emails back. And I end up going up there and I have two drums by this time. I have a big bass, which I still have. It’s an awesome drum. And an old tom that was the one I started with. And so I’m a little unsure, you know. Going in, you know? I show up and I walk into the stadium. And I got my tom because, I’m like, “If they're going to confiscate the drum, I want … that’s the throw away.” So I’m drumming and uh, and sure enough the police show up. “Hey. You can't be doing this,” you know. “We're shutting you down.” And I was like, “Really?”.
POB: Wow, just for drumming?
KB: That’s what I'm trying to tell you is, these are the days where we're the pioneers. We're the ones making it OK, proving that it's OK to drum and sing and do tifo and make noise at games. Don't just sit there with your kids and go, “Isn’t that nice?” and golf clap. OK? And I give full credit to the Silverbacks for this, OK?
POB: They allowed you guys to develop the culture.
KB: Exactly, exactly. And so, you know, people don't give the Silverbacks enough credit, you know? “The Silverbacks failed to do this, they screwed this up.” Yeah, they did. They screwed up a lot. Let me tell you what, they're the pioneers and I give them full credit for that.
So anyway, so I'm sitting there looking this police officer in the eye. I mention the name of the lady I emailed, “…she is the one paying you. I know the P.D. is not sending you here. You're working here on this lady’s dime. She's the event organizer. I know what's going on. I tell you what,” I said. “Why don't you just take me to her and if she tells me to shut it down, I’ll put the drum away and sit quietly. But if she says it's OK to drum, then you gotta let me drum.” I know he doesn’t care, he just wants to avoid trouble, too. He just wants his extra money. So, he goes, “Yeah let’s do that.” So we walk over there. Sure enough, we find her and she goes, “Oh yeah. You're that nice guy who drums.” So the guy, the officer goes, “Cool.” And I go, “Hey, It is OK if I go to my car and get my bigger drum and come back?” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah. It’s totally OK.”
I go to the car, dropped the little tom, I pick up the big bass and I bring it back. You know. And I strapped it on where I can play it Samba style and I… I've learned some tricks by then. And I walk back into the stadium. Here's the thing. Here's the payoff. Everybody in the stands starts cheering for me, a bunch of people. Like, dozens if not 100 or more, clap for me. That’s the first time I ever had that happen. And I was like, “What?” And they go, “We thought you'd been arrested. But you’re back here with a bigger drum!” It was the green light for all those people who wanted to make noise and have fun at a game. And my attitude was, “Yeah, come on. Let’s party!” And we started drumming, you know. And… and that was a moment for me, OK? It also happened at a U.S. national team game. Not long after that I was down in Jacksonville and, again, I was the lone drummer. I was the only one. And you start drumming and people start realizing it’s OK to make noise. It's OK to have fun. And, I got to say that whatever happens to the Silverbacks, no one can take that away from me. I knew I was making a difference. In games like that, I knew I was making a difference. And then, of course, when you show up back at the Silverbacks, there were people who knew me who were like, “Oh, you're the guy from Chattanooga!” “Yeah that was me,” you know? I give big credit to the Silverbacks for allowing the culture to develop.
The owners of the Silverbacks were losing crap loads of money, you know? Paving the way so people like Arthur Blank can cash in today. I'm sorry I’m a bit cynical. A little bitterness there, you know? John Latham and Robert Glustrom. Guys like that. Vincent Lu, even. He didn’t do a great job, but he kept the team going. He kept soccer going on here, you know. Guys like that. Or Johnny Imerman. I salute all those guys, you know. They're the ones that really...when it was dangerous and difficult and ugly, they were the ones who stepped up.
POB: Tell us more about the early days after Boris Jerkunica became an owner.
KB: The original season that Boris took over, they had local radio DJ Southside Steve doing color commentary and they had a hot tub with girls in bikinis. They had other girls selling beer, you know, in the walkways or whatever. They tried all kinds of angles, you know? It's weird, looking back in those days. It's like they kept trying for all these gimmicks that worked for the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. And, to digress a little bit, the rules of the actual game of soccer were even Americanized. You had these weird point systems. It was like 5 points for a win and you never had ties. And the fans were pushing for a more traditional approach, “Just go with 3 points for a win, one point for a tie.” You know? No points for a loss and goal differential. Just stick with the basics. It works, it works. And it took a long time. They eventually got away from the weird team names like Clash and the weird colors. All that crazy stuff and basically, you know…soccer in general in the U.S. is more similar to the world game because it works. It works. No, but it took us a long time.
POB: Not similar enough, but it’s getting better.
KB: Yeah. It's a lot closer than it used to be. Trust me. I do want to throw this out: Southern Derby Cup.
POB: One of the first supporter cups in American soccer culture. How did that get started?
KB: I'm on the U.S.L. discussion boards basically standing up for the honor of Atlanta Silverbacks. And there were some folks from Charleston Battery we're all smack talking and they basically said, “You know, we should have our own cup.” So it was a couple of Charleston Battery fans who came up with the idea. And they said, "What would it be like if we just did three points for a win one point for a tie? We count the home and away games that are already in the season schedule. And we use goal differential as the tiebreaker and to make it interesting we will create our own cup trophy.” So here I am writing and sending a check to some people in Charleston I've never met.
POB: This is before the Cascadia cup and all that?
KB: I believe this is even prior to the Cascadia Cup. This may have been the first fan-based cup in the U.S. This was completely organic and it was like, “Let's just do this.” So, I sent him some money and sure enough they're legit. They go and buy this beautiful, I mean it is a beautiful trophy. And we basically just we kept track of the points and passed it along to whoever won. You had to ship the cup to them. And you know they would award it to their team. Charleston didn’t win it for like the first three, four, five years. Even though it was their idea, they did not win. Everybody else won it. That competition was the only one that the Silverbacks have ever won except for that Spring championship in the N.A.S.L. When we first won, it was one of my best moments. A North Carolina team won the first year and nobody told them to do this, but they engraved their name on the cup. And so I was like ,“OK, well we're going to engrave our name on the cup!” So, it kinda ends up being like the Stanley Cup in hockey. Where you engrave the name of your team and the year you won. This was all just kind of organic; it just kind of happened. The Silverbacks won it three times. Whenever we won, I would polish it up and get it engraved. The club would let us go out at half time on a game day an announce something like, “On behalf of the governing committee of the Southern Derby Cup, we declare the Atlanta Silverbacks Champion of the Southern Derby!”
We even got interviewed by the Fox Soccer Channel about it. We were all hanging out at a tailgate in Charleston and Fox Soccer shows up and turns on the cameras and goes, “You wanna do an interview?” We ended up winning that game. It was awesome. It was one of the best nights of my life. Because we always lost to Charleston and we won in Charleston that night, it was on Fox Soccer Channel. And Fox Soccer showed the Cup - they featured it, they made a big deal out of it. And I was just thinking ,“God that was a risk taken that paid off big time.” And again, you know furthered the cause of the true fans, you know? Of the guys who love this game. As fans, we're not here because our kids like to play soccer. We're here because we like this game.
POB: And that cup is still being contested right? In the U.S.L?
KB: Yeah it's in the U.S.L. Obviously, we dropped out.
POB: Any other stories from the era before the club moved into to Silverbacks Park?
KB: OK, yeah. Here's a good one. I embrace and am proud of the fact that the Silverbacks were often like the Bad News Bears. You know, the little team that isn’t perfect. But the true fans - you end up going, “Ah, what the hell,” you know? And you embrace it. Back in those days, in the early days, we would all act as media. So, we would be fans, but we would also act as impartial media and report on the club for soccer fans in general. So, I’m doing interviews and stuff and I go…“You know I noticed, on our roster for the upcoming season…” I want to say this is like ’99 or 2000. “We don't…we don’t have a goalkeeper on our roster.” And they were like, “Yeah, we’re getting one.” “Great.” “OK. Let me know when he gets here.”
So the days go by and finally, it's opening day. I mean, the first game of the season and they still haven't announced who the goalkeeper is. And the opening game is in Greenville, South Carolina - it's the Greenville Shamrocks or something. So I travel… go over to the Greenville game. I wanted to see the goalkeeper and I want to see the opening game of my team. Back in those days - there is no security, you know? They're doing warm-ups before the game. I just walk out there onto the field. I'm also press. I am, you know! That's my job: to provide press service to the other fans, because the regular press services aren’t going to do it. So, we've got to do this.
So, I walk out in the field. There's a guy in the goalkeepers uniform...warming up. And I walk over to him and I go, “How you doing? I’m Kurt Braunsroth. I’m the drummer. I’d like to conduct an interview.” And he’s like, “Yeah sure no problem.” I say, “So, tell me about yourself. Where’d you play before?” He gets that kind of awkward look and goes, “I'm a baseball player.” He’s a baseball player. He goes, “They signed me for a couple of games until they get a real goalkeeper.” What? Oh, my God. Are you kidding me? But, you know what? He played a good game. You know, some of the stuff that happened back then….maybe this is a little over the top, but it reminds me of the early days of America. You're talking about Jamestown and Plymouth and you know. People were unprepared. They didn’t have no clue what of they're getting themselves into, but they're determined, you know? I look at those moments like that. I don't look at it like, “Oh, that… they're just so stupid. I can't wait till something better comes along.” No. That's how something better does come along, because somebody has to dive in and take the chance and take the lumps, you know? And yeah, I mean, that's why... again, I can't stop. I can't go to Atlanta United and abandon the Silverbacks, not after all they've been through. The guys who… you know Iggy Moleka and all them. No, I can't. They were there when it was... when it was like Plymouth and Jamestown. And they were the ones who hung in there.
POB: Wasn’t there a game where the ball got kicked over the soccer goal, bounced off a football field goal post and came back and they kept playing?
KB: Yeah. If we won that game, we would have gone to the playoffs. Beforehand, our coach was basically given an ultimatum – win and make the playoffs, you'll have a contract next year. Lose and we're not going to renew your contract. But you can imagine, there's some serious crap on the line here right now. The players know and, let's face it, you and I both know soccer. Now when the coach goes, it means a bunch of players are going to go. So, everybody knows this is it. OK, so they're playing the game. And this is a testament, again, to how bad the refereeing was back in those days. It's late in the game, score’s tied, but it looks like we're going to pull this out. We actually have the upper hand, you know? We're getting more chances than they are. You get the sense that we're going to pull this off, right? Charleston takes a shot. It misses the goal completely, but there's the gridiron football uprights directly behind the goal. The ball falls behind the in line, hits the gridiron goal, and bounces back onto the field of play. The Silverbacks stop playing, the Charleston Battery stop playing, the linesmen stop what they're doing. All the fans stop cheering because we all saw the ball go out of bounds. Everybody goes, “Eh, ball went out of bounds.” Everybody except the center judge. And the center judge looks around and goes like, “What are you guys doing?” He makes the signal for play. Well, the ball just happened to be at the feet of a Charleston player.
POB: Oh man!
KB: And he just pokes it right on in. Just a toe poke, because he's just a couple yards out. And the referee points to the center spot and blows the whistle and everybody's like, “Oh, my God. No!!!.” But, yeah. That's what happened. You can sit there and poo-poo on the Silverbacks, but honestly the obstacles in their path… again, think Jamestown, Plymouth, harsh environments like that. You know, it’s like The Monty Python, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The guy who's talking about building a castle in the swamp. I've actually compared the Silverbacks to that in the past. “I built a castle in a swamp, and it sank. I built another one, and it sank.” I mean...those were those days.
POB: Let’s move on to the Silverbacks Park era.
KB: Silverback Park was a dream come true for me, because I had been talking to the owners… You know, you do what I do for long enough, the owners know you. Boris was like, “Yeah, we're going to... maybe you're going to get a stadium someday.” And one day they finally said, “Yeah, you’re actually going to get a stadium.” I was like, “This is it. We're going to have an actual soccer stadium.” I mean, back when we were at Adams Stadium, the slope on field the was so pronounced that the ball, even sitting still, would start rolling towards the sideline.
POB: Are you serious?
KB: Yeah. So going to a brand new stadium was, like, “Finally!” you know? A professional environment, in the proper width, and it was flat. And, you know, the goals will not be the little temporary goals. We won’t have the gridiron and the football lines on it. I mean, that was a big deal. You know, back in those days even M.L.S. teams quite often played on these crappy, narrow fields with gridiron lines. And so, to have a real soccer stadium was a big deal. And it was like, “Oh, my God. We've done it.” Here's a little factoid. There's no seats in section 109 in the very first row. Every other section? There’s seats there. But in 109, there's no seats in the very front row and that's because of us. We specifically asked them to leave room for the drums.
POB: Did the club get a boost in publicity with the new stadium?
KB: Of course. But... you know it's classic Silverbacks. Tons of people show up like, “It’s a soccer stadium, for god’s sake. I want to see this!” Right? They didn't spend the money for enough bathrooms.
POB: That's still a problem. Even today.
KB: Proper width. Flat. Real goals. Nice stands. You assume bathrooms. Yeah, I'd invite people to visit the Charleston Battery stadium. That’s even more along the lines of what I was hoping for. They've got a sports bar in the stadium, which was unheard of back in the 90’s or early 2000’s. And a museum for club memorabilia. This was better than, I think, just about all the M.L.S. teams. It was like a pilgrimage you know, to go to Charleston. And you'd sit there and go like, “God. Why can't we have this?” And yeah, but here we were, getting our own stadium. And we show up all fat, dumb, and happy and... You know, I mean... “Where’s the bathrooms?” So, of course that ended up being a sticking point with a lot of the, you know, not so enthusiastic fans. But that was still a big moment. Getting that stadium was huge. That was emotional for me - touching the seat going, “This is my seat. I am in a soccer stadium,” you know.
POB: Is that when somebody from the club would just drop by and give you guys a 12-pack of beer?
KB: Oh, it was more than 12-packs. We would start singing, (to the tune of "Ole Ole Ole")“Free beer, free beer, free beer, free beer. Free beer. Free beer.” And the owners...I want to say John Lathum, mostly…. would show up and drop off a couple cases. I’d say about two cases, usually. And he’d just say, “Here!” We’d go like, “YEAH!” and we'd start popping beers out of the box and just handing them out.
As a group, were really getting traction at this point. I want to say we had 50-60 regulars showing up by that 2007 season, which was unheard of back then. You know, for a U.S.L. team? 50-60 regulars and they were organized. That was always a moment for me. Because I’d be so busy jumping I couldn't keep up... and my wife would go, “You do realize you got most of the stadium behind you now?” And I’d go, “What?” She goes, “Yeah, that chant you were doing? People across the stadium and sections down were singing with you.” It wasn’t just 50 or 60 of us, it was like 1000 of us singing all at one time, you know. For a brief while.
This goes back to my original theme: we're the guys who are showing people that it's OK and even fun to make noise, bang drums sing, etc. Don't just sit there with your kids and go, “Isn’t that nice,” and golf clap. Groups like ours helped make it OK for all these supporter groups today. I think they kind of take it for granted. I don't want to…I love them. I respect them deeply, but...groups like ours made it all possible, acceptable. The way the owners went from…because they use to kinda tell us, “Hey. Keep it down. We don't want to upset the moms,” and stuff like that. When the police would be looking at you. And we helped get it to where it was like, “Hey, we want you to come out. Please come out. Please bring your drums. please …”
POB: “And here’s a few cases of free beer.” [Laughs]
KB: “And here’s free beer.” Exactly. We want you here. You are an integral part of the game and... and yeah, I'm proud of that part. I'm extremely proud of that and again, that's the Silverbacks. For whatever they've done wrong, they were the pioneers in the Atlanta area of that kind of fan culture. And again, you know I respect Atlanta United, they're a fine team and all. But I feel like they just kind of swooped in after all the hard work and risk had been taken.
POB: So from 2004 to 2007 the culture is really growing. There's 50 or 60 regulars in the stadium behind you. And in 2007 the club contends for a championship for the first time in Ruckus/Silverbacks history since 1995, right?
KB: Yeah, yeah. And we end up going to Seattle for that game. Before we get to that. I gotta share this. There was a semifinal against Portland and I want to say this was that last season. I want to say...I’m pretty sure this is right. That’d be the 2007 season. And I, you know, I-I've got a limited budget. I'm still working and I've got only so much time. And so we don't go to the semifinal, we're going to watch it on T.V. But it's on T.V., which again is unheard of back in the very early days. Remember I told you we were kind of part time press reporters? We were all, like, publishing in real time on U.S.L. discussion boards. And, literally, fans like me are sitting at home on the discussion boards hitting the refresh button. And there's this guy I've never met before who is advocating, who is going to post scores, and, you know, action as it happens. So this is game actually on T.V. which is like, “It’s gonna be on T.V.! It’s amazing! We’re gonna watch our team play an away game in real time.” And in those days, it's very hard to win on the road in the playoffs. But promised myself that if they win this game I'm going to go to Seattle. I'm going to go to the championship. ‘Cause, again, I’m used to the Silverbacks not even making the playoffs, you know? Remember...remember the goal, that crap ass goal that Charleston scored on us and eliminated us from the playoffs? That's the kind of season I'm remembering, that it's all too common. So I’m like, we're actually doing good. I mean we've got a good team this year! You know that table soccer game Subbuteo? I actually sat down and created that year’s team in miniature form on those plastic players? They have the right numbers, and even their hair and faces. And they’re only, like, an inch tall. So that's that team there. That team is epic to me. They're like Greek gods to me.
So they're playing in Portland. We’re sitting at Twain's, which is a sports bar in Decatur, Georgia. I'm looking back and thinking of the days where it was me and maybe a handful of little twelve-year-old kids coming over and want to cheer with me and bang a drum or something. And now here I am, at Twain’s. It's a semifinal game. I actually counted ‘em - there were like 92 people in Twain's watching with me and I was like, “Oh my god.” There were 92 people watching a U.S.L. semifinal and it's like... this… again, this is back when soccer’s still not cool, you know? And we put out the word - Westside 109’s going to be at Twain's. We’re going to have a watch party. People didn’t have watch parties back in those days, at least not for soccer. And so we're doing a watch party and it's a tense, tight game. It’s one of those games that go back and forth and… people almost score repeatedly. You're like, your heart's in your throat: “Oh no! We didn’t score!” “Oh! We almost scored. OK! We’re still in it!” You know? And then late in the game, late in the game, I wanna say like seventy-something or eightieth-something minute, Elena scores on a very good goal. And Twain's BLOWS UP. I’m misting up right now thinking about it. It’s a brilliant moment. I'm watching 92 people screaming at the top of their lungs for the Atlanta Silverbacks and you’ve got all these other people in Twain's…playing pool and throwing darts and whatever else. And they're like “What the hell is going on?” And you're like, “It's the Atlanta Silverbacks.” “Silverbacks! Silverbacks!” You know, we’re all blowing up. And yeah, that was a great moment, for not just the Silverbacks but, again, for professional soccer in this area in general. Special moment for me.
POB: What was the road trip like to Seattle?
KB: Well it was me, Kevin ,who I mentioned earlier, and some girl. I never met her before or since. We’re on the U.S.L. discussion board and she goes, “I wanna go, too.” I don’t know who she is and she doesn't know who we are. I mean, there's this random girl. I was like, “Well, we're going to get a hotel room.” Now, think about this. Some random, young, twenty-something girl. “Come share your hotel room with these guys you maybe have met at a soccer game.” Maybe. You don’t even know our name. And she’s like, “Yeah.” And we all went. Everything went fine. I mean, everybody was gentlemanly and nice. But it was the three of us. We go to the Seattle game and we're the only three Atlanta fans there. We said, “We just want to sit on the end near the goal”. And I brought a drum.
We were treated very nicely, you know, by the Seattle folks. But you know, they expected to win, and they did. But it was a very close game. I remember one time we had a shot on goal that just trickled outside, and that was before Seattle scored. And if that had gone in, I mean, that could've changed everything. We could've won, you know.
POB: Do you remember anything about the Ruckus contending for a championship in 1995?
KB: Yeah, it was also against Seattle and I’m watching it on T.V. and... are you ready for this? The ball went out of bounds and into the trees by the stadium. It’s a championship game. They didn't have another ball. They had to stop playing, go in the woods, and look for it. [Laughs] So, again, you can sit there and make fun of the Silverbacks by talking about how rinky-dink they are, but all soccer was rinky-dink back in those days.
POB: So things were building organically in a really healthy way up through 2007, and then the shutdown happened.
KB: Well, kinda came as a surprise to us. We thought, “Hey, we made to the final. Next year’s going to be great!” You know? “We're going to have tons of people and we've had so much fun!” You know, I mentioned the moment at Twain’s. “I can only imagine what 2008 is going to be like!”
POB: A brand new stadium, too.
KB: Yeah, exactly. And then they just said, “Yeah, we’re gonna be ceasing operations.” And we’re like, “Where’s that coming from? But, you know I look back at it now and I think about it. That’s right before the housing bubble pops, you know?
POB: Yeah. Boris said he wanted to assess the economic landscape or something like that.
KB:.Yeah, and I think he basically was restructuring before the housing bubble went poof, you know? And that was part of it. Again... I can sit there and go, “How dare you?” But honestly, guys like Boris and John Lathum and Robert Glustrom and, again, Vincent Lu...all of them. Johnny Imerman. You know what? I can't get mad at them. They were writing big checks. They had no reasonable expectations of turning a profit. Again, it's the Jamestown and Plymouth thing. I try to give the benefit of the doubt and look at things from a positive point of view as opposed to jumping on the first negative explanation for the events. Again, I've been around long enough to go, “You know, these guys are not stupid and there are circumstances that I do not understand that they're not even gonna share with me.” I mean, I'm sure they're making mistakes, but again this was totally uncharted ground. And guys get out there and have to make hard decisions really fast. And yeah, mistakes are made, you know? But somebody's gotta do it. You know. I just thank them for the fact that we still have a team.
POB: Was it announced as, “The team’s over,” or was it, “We’re going to take some time off?”
KB: It was just a suspension of operations, but everybody said, “They're not coming back.” But then they did, you know?! Nobody was expecting that they’d actually come back. And we restarted, but it was a big blow to the momentum, obviously. My dream was to fill 109 with real strong people. And I think if we’d kept up in 2008-2009, by 2010 we’d have had it. We’d have had that whole section filled with organized people.
POB: That 2010 world cup was a real, kind of, turning point in American soccer culture.
KB: Yep. Now you’re dead on. All this time I’m supporting the national team, too. By the way, my honeymoon was the original Dos a Cero in Columbus. ‘The Cold War’ in Columbus where Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis scored the two goals, right. Who came in as subs. Yeah, that was my honeymoon.
Anyways, so 2010. Up ‘til then, you know, you spent a lot of time trying to explain soccer to people. Even when the World Cup would come around and I would be trying to talk to people at work about it, they’d just kind of laugh. “Whatever, it’s soccer. It's silly.” So at work I go to the break room to try and catch part of a 2010 World Cup game. And this was the first time I noticed it wasn’t just me watching. There were other people at work, just kinda timing their lunch so they could watch the game. And there’s noise ‘cause they’re all reacting. So my boss comes to me and says, “Alright, you’re disrupting the work environment. I know it’s you Braunsroth. You’re the soccer fan!” And it’s like, “You think I made all that noise by myself?” And she’s like, “There will be no more noise from you!” And I’m like, “OK.” So I promise her, “OK. I’m not going to make anymore noise. You have my word.” And I’m an honorable guy. So along comes that game against Algeria that we had to win. We had to win to break out of the group stage and Landon Donovan, remember, scored that late goal. So they’re live streaming that, right? I got some friends with the IT folks. I figured out a way to monitor the game. But I'm keeping my word to my boss. I'm quiet, I’m doing my job. And then Landon scores that goal, THE goal. And everybody blows up. Remember that YouTube video that shows watch parties blowing up across the country? It was the first time where you could see the whole country coming together behind the team. It’s late in the game and you can't believe it. I kept my word about staying quiet, but I was so excited I literally fell out of my chair. And I'm laying on the ground on my side and, from break room, I hear this, “YEAAHH!”
POB: Oh, they were all in there watching it.
KB: A bunch of guys [Laughs]. And I’m going, “That is totally not me! I never said a word!” I mean, I’m hitting the ground, my arms are moving and my legs are moving, but not a sound comes out of me. And I saw my boss, I could hear her stomping up the hallway and screaming at the guys in the breakroom. [Laughs] And I was like, “Wasn’t me. Wasn’t me.” Then later I’m walking home from my job and I’m watching a homeless guy running up and down the street going, “Landon Donovan! Landon Donovan!” That was the moment. That was the moment I go, “All that work and risk taking we’ve put in all these years... from ‘96 ‘til now, the 14 years, you know? Going to all those games and spending all that money and banging those drums and just hoping that people would start to love this game.” That was the moment when I said to myself, “Pro soccer is here to stay.” That was the moment.
POB: That really was. It was a turning point and the Silverbacks were not there for it, in typical Silverback fashion. Any stories from the N.A.S.L. era?
KB: Obviously the 2013 Spring Championship we won. That was another great moment. That was a very memorable team.
POB: Where you guys at a watch party for that game?
KB: We were, at my house. Keep in mind that every single season, except for the 2007 season, pretty much ended in a major disappointment. So we were used to disappointment, you know. And we’re watching that game because...it’s like, “If they ever do pull something out, by God I want to be there.” I'm not going to go through all this and then there's a game where something awesome happens and I miss it. And I love ‘em, obviously. So we were doing a watch party at my house and they're amazing. We're taking it to Minnesota. I mean, amazing plays. That was quite possibly one of one of the best, if not the best, performance I've ever seen from any Silverbacks team or Ruckus or whatever. Defense, offense, everything is just perfect, you know. The goalkeeping - Joe Nasco, right? And he's making amazing saves and and it's just inspiring to me. When they won that game, that was a special moment. We ended up going down to Atlanta airport to greet the team on their return. I’ll never forget Joe Nasco and the rest of the team coming up the tunnel, and they were not expecting this. You could tell they were totally not expecting this. And here were people greeting Atlanta Silverbacks FC coming up that tunnel. And I'm shaking Joe Nasco’s hand and telling him how inspiring his performance was. That was very moving to him, you could tell. That's one of the factors of lower division soccer that I gotta say is attractive. The players appreciate you, they know you. And you make a difference.
Here’s another story along those lines, but from the opposite perspective. This is back in the…Ruckus days? It was either Ruckus or A-League Atlanta. It was real early. It was me and one other guy, his name was Hunter Sheraton. I remember his name and just two of us were in the Blue Army section that day. On the field for the opposition was Geoff Aunger, a Canadian International. Used to play for Tampa Bay Mutiny in M.L.S. He was a tough defender and ended up injuring Josh Wolff on a on a rough play and got cut. He'd already had a bunch of yellow cards and stuff. And he got picked up by the Seattle Sounders in U.S.L. They’re playing Atlanta that day. We were bad. Oh, god we were bad back then. And so here they are, they're coming out here, you know they're awesome. Seattle - they're always awesome. And we're not losing. We hang in there and we hang in there. But they've got Geoff Aunger. He's dominating even offensively. Then we start to get into his head. Me and one other guy. We’re banging that little drum and every time Geoff Aunger is on the ball, we start chanting, “Aunger, you’re a hack! Aunger, you’re a hack! Aunger, you’re a hack!” His touch is getting heavier and heavier. He’s slow to react defensively, increasingly. I mean, he’s... it's getting to him and we hang in there. We hang in there. They should have beat us, like, 5-0. They end up beating us 1-0 and it was late in the game when they got their goal. And here's the thing, we’re there on the opposite end of the field when they score. Geoff Aunger, the Canadian International, runs sixty yards. The length of the field, and stands on the sideline directly in front of us and points at us, like, “There! Showed you!” He wasn’t even involved in the goal. We just laughed. “We totally got in your head, dude.” I mean, two of us. Two guys. We messed up your star player, Seattle. You know? We made a difference.
And then much later there were the women’s games. We also supported the Silverbacks women’s team. And both the men and women players would come to our tailgates. Mac Kandji, possibly one of the best players in the Silverbacks. He ended up landing in Colorado and was brought in as a sub in overtime and scores the winning goal in the 2010 M.L.S. Cup. And blows out his knee in the process. But, everybody’s cheering him and all. He would come by our tailgates. There were these condos over by Silverback Park. The Silverbacks would put the players up in there. You would see players emerging from the woods and they would stop by our tailgate and thank us.
Oh yeah, here's one. How can I forget this one? One of those moments. There was a back up goalkeeper. And he knew he wasn’t going to play. And we had a little habit where we’d always offer the players free beer. “Hey, want a beer?” [Laughs] And of course, they’d always say, “No. I’m a professional athlete!” So this one guy goes, “Ah, I’m not playing. Yeah, give me a beer.” [Laughs]
POB: That’s hilarious.
KB: Oh, there was another guy. Chain smoked during games. OK?
POB: During games? While he was playing? He smoked on the field?
KB: Yeah, he would smoke during the games, if I remember right. But he was an awesome player. If he has taken better care of himself he would have easily made M.L.S., but he ended up with Rochester. We had some good players. I mean, we had some good players. And you’d get to see these guys as human beings. We had special cheers for each one of them. And their family members would come and sit with us and cheer with us and stand with us. And again, it was always about that pioneering thing, where we were showing people it's cool to make noise.
There were many times when people came over say, “Thank you. You make these games better.” And, to me, that is synonymous with with the Silverbacks. Because I feel like I'm an integral part of the Silverbacks. Yeah, I wish the Silverbacks could be thanked like that.
You know, those owners I mentioned earlier really deserve credit. Anything that Atlanta United is doing now, I think, really would not have happened - could not have happened without guys like those guys doing what they did.
POB: More importantly than Atlanta United, they deserve credit for keeping the Backs around until today.
KB: That 2010 World Cup moment we talked about? That 2010 World Cup moment we talked about could not have happened without lower division owners and fans paving the way. Yes, M.L.S. is a big part of it, but they're not the only part. There's so much more happening.
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