FORT WAYNE – John Smoot is 55 years old, served more than two dozen years in the United States Air Force and had never done anything he deemed crazy.
That is, until he woke up Tuesday morning and decided to paint his face as an American flag.
I’ve never done anything like this before, he said while standing in the shade of the concourse of Parkview Field.
But I decided if I’m coming here, I’m going to do this.
Soccer can make you a little crazy, it seems.
Add some patriotic pride, and you have the makings for quite the scene.
And Smoot wasn’t alone.
There were people with their faces painted red, white and blue, their bodies painted the same way, glittering Uncle Sam hats, American flag capes or bandanas and even Old Glory tank tops or pants that seemed more like second skins rather than real clothes.
I got these at Macy’s, exclaimed 18-year-old Karly Bailey, pointing to her form-fitting stars-and-stripes tights. I thought, Why not?’
For a little more than 90 minutes, a sliver of downtown Fort Wayne, whether it was in the stands overlooking the baseball field or inside O’Reilly’s Irish Bar & Restaurant, became a part of the boisterous world of World Cup fandom.
While the United States played a mostly deadlocked game with Belgium on the stadium’s scoreboard, the emotions of fans packed into O’Reilly’s or spread out among the seats at Parkview ebbed and flowed with the action.
It spilled out into chants for favorite players (a Beeeaaaase! every time hometown hero DaMarcus Beasley got his foot on the ball), shouts of optimism (I believe we will win several times), and then ultimate disappointment and heartbreak – a man let out what sounded like a child’s cry at the quickly silenced bar as Belgium scored its first goal in extra time.
A scene like this in Fort Wayne would have been hard to imagine four years ago.
It would have been hard to picture it eight or 12, 16 or 20 years ago even, when the United States last hosted the World Cup.
Yes, every four years, when the World Cup comes around, the soccer supporters say the sport will finally take hold in America, while the detractors call it a boring pastime that only the rest of the world follows.
Still, there were plenty who, while maybe not completely familiar with the intricacies of soccer, braved the hot sun, the crowds, the long snaking beer lines and even longer bathroom waits to be a part of the action.
And they were quick to liken it to other sports to help them follow along with the action.
It’s like they’re always on the (expletive) power play, one man said, making a hockey reference during a span when Belgium seemed to pepper U.S. goalie Tim Howard with shot after shot.
For those who grew up with the game, there was nothing better than the atmosphere surrounding the event.
A big contribution to that atmosphere was the founding of an American Outlaws chapter in town this year.
An organization dedicated to supporting the national soccer team, members clad themselves in red, white and blue apparel, though the tell-tale sign of an outlaw is the American flag bandanna covering the face, Old West style.
The local Outlaws have chosen O’Reilly’s as their game day hangout, and it’s where they watched this year’s World Cup games.
The fact they opened a chapter here is huge, said 38-year-old Nathan Miner, who watched the game at O’Reilly’s.
Miner played soccer as a kid in Michigan up through high school.
While a fan, he had never seen anything like what took place at O’Reilly’s, save for on television or in other cities.
But there he was, in Fort Wayne, watching with his wife, Jill, and their 8-year-old daughter, Molly, who wanted to come with her old man and see what all the fuss was about.
Miner talked about how national television outlets like NBC are now showing English Premeir League soccer, and that some games even reach primetime on cable, as signs that the game is truly becoming popular in America and is not some fad.
The ones who grew up with it, now we’re the consumers, he said.
And they’re the ones who live and die with it in the moment; the ones who let out shouts of joy when things go right and aches of disbelief when things go horribly wrong.
When Chris Wondolowski missed a point-blank goal in the 92nd minute against Belgium, both he – thousands of miles away – and Miner ended up in nearly the exact same pose:
Hands on head, staring wide-eyed in disbelief.
It was one of those moments that leaves you wondering what if?
What if that kick had been a little lower? What if it had just snuck in under the top goal bar?
What if the U.S. went up 1-0? Where would we be?
But it’s also one of those shared moments, when a sport brings together an entire community of people and makes almost all of them feel that same emotion.
Together and all across a nation. Even in a little sliver of downtown Fort Wayne.
Which is a little crazy – but that’s what soccer does to you sometimes.