So it came to rest Sunday on another day as bright as a starburst and just as warm as a mother’s love. The National Soccer Festival broke down the many striped tented booths, closed its Hefner Field gates after a four-day run of goodwill, said goodnight and will now begin the task of planning for 2009.
And oh, sunny skies above, how there will be a 2009, and ’10, and ’11, and as long as there are fields and grass and kids and a ball to kick, there will be a National Soccer Festival in Fort Wayne.
In a relatively-quiet five minutes, festival director Terry Stefankiewicz, giving his golf cart a needed rest and ignoring the cell phone that continues to bark at him, says there are even bigger plans for this event that has grown beyond his expectations.
“We’re on the verge of something really, really good,” he said as a rock band nearby banged out a passable version of “Sweet Home, Alabama.”
“We’re nationally known now. I envision having 40 high schools involved, and making it a week event, where we feature the high schools at night under the lights. The kids love that and the crowds are into that. When it’s 90 degrees out there (and it was, daily) and they’re dying (which they weren’t, literally), it takes away from that. It becomes tedious instead of fun. But when the sun starts to go down, you can see the crowds.”
Dream it, and they will come.
It was a little less than 10 years ago when this all began with a fledgling idea to bring together a few soccer teams and let the kids boot the ball around the lot. Stefankiewicz called up friend Jerry Yeagley, the Hall of Fame soccer coach from Indiana, to see what he thought. Yeagley, who coached IU to six NCAA tournament championships, had some reservations.
“When I first talked to Terry 10 years ago about this, I said, ‘The big question mark is will Fort Wayne embrace this? Will they come out and support you?’ ” Yeagley said Friday, just before Indiana defeated North Carolina 3-0 in an exhibition game. “And I’ve been extremely, extremely pleased.”
By the time IU and Carolina began its 7:30 p.m. game Friday in front of nearly full bleachers on both sides of Field No. 1, Stefankiewicz figured there were about 7,000 fans roaming the 18-field facility. What’s more, on a nearby field as the sun set somewhere around 60, 70, maybe 80 kids played what appeared to be a 40-on-40 soccer match.
It’s a festival now, Stefankiewicz says with pride. His brown face beams beneath a thin brush of white hair. It’s a festival, with IU and Carolina playing big-time soccer, but also with bands and crowds and burgers on the grill and kids kicking up the grass well into the night.
Before the golf cart revs back up and before he glues his cell phone to his ear again, Stefankiewicz has one, last story to tell.
“I’m driving down the street, and I get a phone call from a gentleman from South Bend who attended the IU game (Friday) night. He said that he got my number from the Internet. And he said, ‘On the way home, my wife and I decided we’re going to donate a thousand dollars to the soccer festival. We want to see that thing continue to grow.’ A guy from South Bend, on his way home! What does that tell you?”
It tells you this thing’s going to be around a long, long time.