The moment occurred in an instant, a surprise exclamation mark on yet another Dos A Cero in Columbus. But it wasn’t Michael Bradley’s second goal of the game, a long-range blast in stoppage time that secured yet another 2–0 win for the United States over Mexico on Feb. 11, 2009. Rather, the moment came afterward, in the tunnel at Columbus Crew Stadium (now Mapfre Stadium), hidden from view of all 23,776 in the stands.
The action of the moment was shocking enough–a Mexican assistant coach (Paco Ramirez) slapping a player. But then you add in the recipient of the slap. Frankie Hejduk, the bubbly, perpetually positive defender known for quoting Bob Marley, was now at the center of one of the great flashpoints in a historic, bitter rivalry.
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“I'd like for everyone to talk about the soccer and us kicking their butts, but oh well,” Hejduk, now a supreme hypeman and Columbus club ambassador, says some seven years removed. “It was such a weird moment.”
It was a weird moment that very easily might not have happened–or, at least, happened to somebody else. Hejduk, after all, wasn’t initially meant to be part of the squad. But a series of injuries at the fullback spot meant that manager Bob Bradley was forced to turn to Hejduk after the team’s traditional January camp–a gathering where Hejduk was a regular participant in previous years, but not in 2009. A long MLS season, ending in his Columbus Crew’s win in the MLS Cup final, had taken its toll on the then-35-year-old defender.
So instead of working on fitness with the rest of his team in Los Angeles, Hejduk spent six weeks off doing what he always did with vacation: Surfing three times a day.
“It sounds awesome, but if you've ever tried it, you would know it's one of the hardest sports in the world,” Hejduk said. “That was my secret fitness regime. It was training and fun at the same time.”
When he got the call from Bradley, though, Hejduk didn’t hesitate to put down the surfboard and join up with his teammates.
“I was surprised, but I said, ‘You know my skill, dude. My touch might be off a little bit, but I'm going to give you a lot of heart and a slot of fight and a slot of spirit.’ I think that's kinda what that game needs. That's what that game is all about.”
Hejduk’s fitness, combined with his experience in USA-Mexico games, meant that he found his way into the starting lineup for another tilt against Mexico in his club's stadium. This time, though, the conditions weren’t just cold–they were also damp. Throughout the day in Columbus there was snow, bits of hail, rain, and sleet for good measure in addition to temperatures that hovered in the 30s.
Still, Hejduk and the rest of the U.S. came out for warmups to a stadium that was already packed.
“That was the one where you really, truly felt the vibe of American soccer fans,” Hejduk said. “It was snowing or hailing as we were coming in, and we look out the windows of the bus and we see all the fans, and they don't even care about the weather. They're all having the time of their lives. Right then we kind of clicked and were just like ‘It's here, man. It's here.’”
Hejduk’s inclusion ended up paying big dividends for the U.S. Besides his good defensive cover on the flank, Hejduk also earned the corner that led to Michael Bradley’s opening goal at the end of the first half.
“It was a typical U.S.-Mexico game–not too much flow, and a lot of battle and a lot of fight,” Hejduk said.
For Bradley’s second goal, Hejduk was farther away, providing cover for the USA's narrow 1–0 lead. But his reaction to Bradley’s insurance tally set up the controversy to follow.
“When Michael scored, I jumped up, and it felt like I was jumping out of the stadium. I was looking at the crowd and saying “F— yeah!” Hejduk recalled. “Little did I know…apparently I was right in front of the Mexico bench. It probably looked to them like I was saying to “f— off” and apparently that's what their coach thought I was saying.”
With the game won, though, Hejduk didn’t pay the Mexico bench any mind.
He took a victory lap around the field with Brian Ching. He pumped his fists and yelled at the top his lungs toward the American supporters, and threw his shirt into the crowd.
Then he headed down the tunnel.
“This guy quickly steps in front of my my face, I thought maybe it was one of our own people. And he just gave me a quick little slap. I thought it was hilarious,” Hejduk said.
Then pandemonium broke out. Hejduk made his way out of the fracas as coaches, players, staff and security converged in a brief, heated confrontation. The slap may have seemed minor–and in and of itself, it was. But Hejduk said it’s the only time in his career–going all the way back to club and high school soccer–that he had ever faced any type of aggression like that from a coach.
To Hejduk, Ramirez’s intentions were clear.
“What does he have to lose? Who the hell even was that, a coach? An assistant coach? I don't know who he was,” he said. “Imagine if I had reacted, which is what they were trying to get me to do. They start with the slap, I respond with the punch, stuff breaks loose, people get thrown out, they win the battle. As a player, if I swing, I might get a six-month ban. We knew before the games that, when you play this team, you have to be disciplined. They're going to try to do anything they can to get into your head, to get you a yellow, to get you a red–anything just to get you kicked out. Especially if you do beat them.”
On the eve of another U.S.-Mexico matchup to open the CONCACAF Hexagonal, Hejduk maintains that Ramirez’s slap was totally unprovoked. The emotion of the moment, he says, simply overtook him as the second goal hit the back of the net.
“I'm not much of a smack talker. I'm not quick-witted enough to be one. I let my tackling do my talking and I let my emotions do my talking,” Hejduk says. “And on that day, hell yeah I was emotional. Are you kidding, dude? We just beat Mexico 2–0 at home, I didn't train for six weeks beforehand, and I actually felt good after the game. I was psyched! I was ready for a nice ice cold Budweiser and then this little dude steps in front of me and the rest is history.”