FEELING A DRIVE INSIDE - Loyal fans stick with Sidekicks for long haul

Dallas Morning News, The (TX) (Published as The Dallas Morning News) - August 28, 2000
Bari Branson wasn't feeling well two Fridays ago, so she reluctantly told the other Sidekicks Booster Club members that she couldn't make their road trip to Houston that Sunday to see the indoor soccer team take on the Hotshots.

Then she watched the Sidekicks play the next night at Reunion Arena. It didn't take long for the game to rekindle the passion that made her want to drive to Houston in the first place. By evening's end, Branson was telling her fellow fans, "I just can't stand it. I can't let you go without me."

"The stress of not going to the game would have been worse than making the trip," said her husband, John.

So on Sunday morning, the Bransons and three other Booster Club members - Judy Manor of Cedar Hill, her 23-year-old daughter, Melissa, and Carla Williams of Dallas - piled into the Bransons' minivan for the 250-mile drive to Houston. They joined about 20 other rabid Sidekicks supporters in cheering on their team that evening in AstroArena.

Many of these fans have been attending Sidekicks games since the 1980s, when the team played in the winter as part of the Major Indoor Soccer League. They stuck with the club through its ownership crisis in the summer of 1991. They weathered a 14-month layoff the following year after the MISL folded. They endured the switch to the summer Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1993.

And the switch to the Premier Soccer Alliance in 1998.

And the switch to the World Indoor Soccer League last year.

Even heart surgery won't stop the most dedicated Sidekicks fans. The culprit for Branson's Friday night discomfort was medication for a blocked artery that required an angioplasty in early August, nine days before the Sidekicks' home opener.

"I told them as I was being rolled into the lab, 'I don't know what you have to do, but I have to be ready to watch soccer,''' said Branson, a 52-year-old day-care worker from Dallas who has been regularly attending Sidekicks games for about eight years. "I was panicked that I'd have to have a bypass and would be laid up for a while. Number one, I didn't want to be operated on. But I also didn't want to miss soccer season."

Branson made it back for another Sidekicks season, joining the small core of fans whose devotion hasn't waned despite the team's troubles and the increased number of sporting alternatives that has stolen attention from indoor soccer. They say their love for the sport and loyalty to the players keeps them coming to the games. Even in Houston.

On the drive down Interstate 45 in the Bransons' dark purple van - it's a coincidence that purple is the Sidekicks' primary color - the conversation often returns to the team. When will Tatu break out of his scoring slump? Will Sagu be able to play in goal after injuring his leg the night before? Would anyone in the van be willing to get a tattoo of Tatu? (The answer is a resounding no.)

Somewhere south of Huntsville, the van stops at a gas station, and Judy Manor writes Go Sidekicks with a purple marker on the rear window. Later, at the hotel, they'll tie purple streamers to the roof rack and tape Sidekicks banners to the back windows.

So what is it about the team that spurs these fans to do so much to support it? For many, indoor soccer itself, with its fast pace and high scores, drew them in and keeps them captivated.

"I just really like the fast, high-speed game," said Fort Worth's Jay Berlo, who has been following indoor soccer for two decades. "It's a very exciting sport to watch."

But these people might not drive 250 miles just to see an exhilarating game. They will do it for the connection they feel with the players. The fans tell story after story about how friendly and humble the Sidekicks are, how they'll always sign autographs or visit a sick child.

Manor recalls how midfielder Giampaulo Pedroso sat down with her 9- and 10-year-old granddaughters at a boosters meeting and joined them filling in their coloring books. Williams mentions that meeting defender Mike Powers at a soccer camp inspired her nephew to play the sport seriously.

The fans also admire the players' dedication to their sport. They know they work several jobs to keep afloat because of the WISL's low salaries.

"You feel like the players pour their heart and soul and life into it, and as long as they stick with it, we will, too," Manor said. "They could make more money. Instead, they're scrambling to make a living to do what they love - playing soccer. If they'll sacrifice that much, we'll stay with them."

And the players recognize the lengths to which their fans will go to support them, whether it's driving to Houston or meeting the team at the airport after a road trip.

"It's amazing how dedicated some of the fans are, especially since they have other things going on in their lives," ninth-year Sidekicks midfielder Nick Stavrou said. "I know with my life and my family how busy you can be. ... It's really nice to see, and we really appreciate it."

Though these longtime fans love watching the Sidekicks play, many don't have a lot of experience with soccer beyond the team - or much interest in other sports, for that matter.

"If you had told me when I graduated from high school that I'd become a sports fanatic, I'd have said you were crazy," said Julie Shelton, 36, a student from Richardson who has been rooting for the Sidekicks since 1986.

Many of the team's biggest supporters stumbled into becoming a Sidekicks fan. They all relate similar tales: They happened to attend a game, and it was love at first sight.

Shelton was dragged to a game by a friend. The Bransons had been dropping off their daughter and niece at Reunion Arena until they decided to follow them in one day. Williams drove by a Sidekicks billboard on Interstate 635 for six months, finally giving in during the 1987 playoffs. Judy Manor's husband used to take their kids to games for their birthdays before she eventually joined them.

"My very first game, I was hooked," Manor said of her initial Sidekicks encounter in 1993, echoing the experience of other diehard fans. "We went to every game after that."

Including several in Houston. Most of the trips have been organized by the booster club, which has rented a bus for the Sidekicks' next road game against the Hotshots in November. The club has existed since 1986 and boasts about 130 members.

Sunday evening in AstroArena, the announced attendance of 1,868 did little to drown out the 25 or so fans in purple. They stood and yelled for their team during player introductions, started chants throughout the game and even popped purple balloons at the start of the fourth quarter in the Reunion Arena tradition.

And after David Doyle's shot trickled past the Houston goalkeeper in a shootout, the Sidekicks faithful were rewarded with a 4-3 victory.

When Bari Branson climbed back into the purple minivan Monday morning to head home, she had no doubts she had made the right decision to follow the Sidekicks to Houston.

"It can just be so exciting," she said, "like the game last night."