It was the fall of 2012. A 21-year-old me just returned from working in Japan for my church for two years. I had learned the language, and acclimated to the culture and food, but also had fallen into a seriously deep depression. Unfortunately, it is a tale that doesn’t sound unfamiliar to millions of people. Coming back home should have been a restart to my university dreams. I had been accepted at BYU for political science. Trying to acquaint myself with the popular media I had missed while I was away proved challenging.
Instead, it saw me trying to find the mental health combo of a psychologist and psychiatrist to suss out the mental demons. They would provide coping mechanisms to make me functional again. In the middle of all that, the fall semester’s start date arrived. I headed back to my educational pursuits with numbers, names, and hastily filled prescriptions. All of this was accompanied by shallow promises. “If it’s not working we can adjust!” “Give it a go! We’ll talk about how you’re feeling and doing on your next visit.
NARRATOR: It did not go well.
I hit rock bottom.
Searching For Balance
By the end of my first year of university, I had accumulated quite a few things: psychiatrist visits, anxiety-induced panic attacks, some finals scores, and a lot of heavy mental darkness. Most importantly, I felt all alone in that heavy darkness. The psychiatrist/psychologist combo’s coping mechanisms weren’t working. My medication made me feel like a zombie. While I thought I had found a bright point in all the darkness with a young woman I thought I would marry, I felt distanced even from her.
I became more introspective and isolated that summer in between semesters. I seriously thought, “If I can’t find happiness or even just contentment, in a situation where I am lucky enough to be attending university, have a support system trying desperately to help, and have someone who loved me, then I’d never find it. Maybe it would be better to not be a weight.”
A Recollection Rush
As I finished my final preparations for the fall semester, I recall quite vividly the promotional campaign for NBC’s acquisition and inaugural broadcast season of the Barclay’s Premier League. There is something to speak about the power of visual advertisement. I can’t say that this is one to an average viewer, but to me, it felt like a mental slap. In that slap were a host of accumulated memories.
I remembered playing soccer both recreationally and competitively. Defensive midfield is where I played. I recall the thrill of smothering attacks and the celebrations after winning the first-ever Presidents Cup here in Utah.
I remembered pulling out the couch bed with my dad to watch World Cup games at unseemly hours. We would talk tactics and see who could yell GOAL the longest like the Spanish-speaking commentators on Telemundo or Univision.
I remembered listening to my father’s stories of attending secondary school in Storrington, England while my grandfather worked with the RAF. He passed down his Liverpool supporters’ banner and pin from his days across the pond as well as a seriously enduring love of the club and the sport in general.
Finally, though, my prime memory is of a feeling I had been desperately missing for years: joy.
A Cold Night (Against) Stoke
The experience honestly did feel akin to a religious one. I grasped onto that burst of warm light amongst mental darkness like it was a lifeline. I marked my calendar for the opening weekend’s games to try and find that joy again.
Liverpool started the new season against Stoke City at Anfield. Daniel Sturridge opened his account for the year in the 37th minute. His goal came from a low shot that nutmegged Robert Huth and beat the outstretched hand of Asmir Begovic to the bottom left corner of the goal. Simon Mignolet secured the three points with a double save on a Jonathan Walters penalty in the 88th minute. It was a memorable game at the start of a memorable, albeit heartbreaking, season of Premier League football.
It had all the elements you would want in order to fall back in love with the sport. A goal, drama, grit, and fight were all on display! But above all those elements, it was before the kick-off that firmly dragged me away from mental darkness and gave me a necessary lifeline.
Taking A Song Seriously
If you haven’t heard or didn’t know, Liverpool FC has a tradition of singing the hit song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Liverpudlian group Gerry and the Pacemakers. In 1963, when the song ran for four consecutive weeks, Anfield was one of the few grounds with a PA system. They would play the radio before the start of the game. The Top 10 in the UK that year was dominated by Liverpool outfits including Gerry and the Pacemakers as well as a small band you might have heard of: The Beatles!
The message of hope found in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has given Reds fans hope through some seriously tough times, both on and off the pitch, since its original 1963 use as pre-match entertainment.
According to legend, it was the motivating effect of the fans singing the anthem that spurred the epic comeback in the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final in Istanbul. At a later time, AC Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti was asked which club had the best fans. He responded, “In my opinion Liverpool fans. When they sing a song they…I don’t know in English, but your skin is…[flutters his fingers up and down his arm to explain].” As it did to Ancelotti in 2005, in 2013 my skin [flutters with fingers up and down my arm].
Defiant Yet Hopeful
It’s hard to describe that moment when the Kop starts to sing. The tone is always defiant. “You’ll Never Walk Alone”‘s lyrics are charged with hope and future joy. On that morning in 2013, hearing the full-throated roar of Anfield coming through my speakers into my little apartment brought tears to my eyes. It seriously felt like they were talking directly to me. I didn’t have to feel alone.
You see those lyrics and it is almost as if you are transported into that crowd of thousands. Singing, cheering, and linking arms all unified in the love of a sport that brought so much joy to their lives. I wasn’t alone and neither were they. Nobody else needed to be alone either! Here I had a group of fellow humans who like me needed that joy and the hope of believing in something, anything, in their lives. Liverpool FC promised to deliver that. It felt like the club was opening its arms to the huddled masses downtrodden by life and offering them all a safe harbor and refuge from the storm.
Through The Good And The Bad
Ultimately, the 2013-14 Premier League campaign will always be haunted by the ghosts of what-ifs. Between Gerrard’s slip and the painful draw against Crystal Palace, we sat idly by and watched City raise yet another title. But, what that ending couldn’t take from any of us, however, was the sense of community, love, joy, and contentment we all had found supporting the club we love.
As the years have passed, Reds have seen glorious highs and dismal lows. Just recently, we won the 2019 Champions League and 2020 Premier League. That was followed by a dreadful title defense and subsequent tumbling out of the top-tier club competition on the continent. You could be forgiven for thinking that with all the expected turbulence inherent to watching sports there would be a desire to insulate yourself from some of the passions of it. Yeah, no.
Chasing Those Highs
It doesn’t matter what sport you watch or what team you support. The fact of the matter is that you’ll take lows in chase of lofty highs. And what makes sports special is that you have a built-in community. People will be there to back, cheer, commiserate with, and love you each step of the way. I have had the pleasure of working with many Utah-based Reds fans in trying to start an official Liverpool Supporters Group here in Salt Lake City (@SaltLakeCityLFC). Organizing the watch party and celebrating the 2019 UCL Final together remains one of the highlights of my life. As a group, we have all continued to keep in contact. We cheer each other’s lives beyond European pitches. We never walk alone.
When Jurgen Klopp was brought in as the replacement for Brendan Rodgers in 2015, I remember one of his first messages. We as fans needed to change from doubters to believers. That statement carried that same tone of defiance, hope, and belief I had found two years prior as SAS took the world by storm. It spoke to the defiant belief in the darkness of that night in Istanbul in 2005 which brought about the greatest comeback in football history. It spoke to a need to return Anfield to the fortress of old. Our home need not be filled with bitterness and hate but with hope and forward thinking. We needed to “walk through the storm.” That promise has been delivered in spades.
It Did Mean More
In 2018, Liverpool FC unveiled the “We Are Liverpool: This Means More” campaign. This doubled down on the same vein of belief and hope anchored in our motto since 1963. Wherever you look, we should take those mottos seriously. They are mottos that unite millions of fans, from every inch of the planet. Reveling in the joy of this sport is so much more than just 22 players kicking a ball around a pitch.
In 2013 a young man battling his inner mental demons took a chance to try and rediscover the joy of his childhood. He tuned back into a sport that he sidelined in favor of other pursuits. What he found was a sporting motto that became a personal mantra that kept him around. And now, for every match millions of us around the world gather to defiantly stand together and sing OUR motto that has come to mean so much to us both as individuals and as a community. We will never have to walk alone.