A day in the Northern Guard

Advance Notice
This is a very long post about my day with the Northern Guard—a supporter group associated with the Detroit City Football Club. Given the general tone of my blog and the readers I generally attract, I feel the need to tell you that, while it is certainly possible to write a post about the Northern Guard without the use of profanity, it strikes me (for reasons that may become more obvious as I go) as wholly inappropriate to do so. You may take this as a warning if you so desire.

The experience of a DCFC match has been described in other places as “electric.” And it truly is. If you live in Detroit, you should go see one.

As you may have been able to tell from my twitter feed, Lisa and I were in Detroit this past weekend for a football match. Or, more specifically, we were there to live a day as … uh … honorary members (if there is such a thing) of the Northern Guard Supporters, a collection of semi-hooligans (more on that word hooligans later) who cheer for their beloved Detroit City Football Club. The opposition on this day was provided by the Madison 56ers, who may as well have been wearing Washington Generals uniforms for all the chance they had.

We came across the Northern Guard because my son-in-law, Nick (who you might say is a football enthusiast in the same way that the cast of the Big Bang Theory are into comics), is deeply involved with the Northern Guard in pretty much all ways possible. He and Brigid have a great time at all the games … er … matches. [Please note: To be a proper fan is to use the proper language. The event that happens on the pitch (not field) is a match (not a game). We shall be clear on this, got it? And, yeah, for the record, it is truly “football,” and the Northern Guard are not “fans.” They are “supporters.” It’s important. Trust me on this, my American friends.]

What’s important for this post, however, is that you understand that the Northern Guard is a supporter base unlike pretty much anything else that exists in the US.

Oh, I’m sure there are parallels in other places—local groups that feel such ownership of their team that they attempt to bend the club to its own will a bit, groups who set and enforce expectation as if they are actual coaches or owners, folks who do the background work, collectives that serve to metaphorically ground the team itself into a specific place on the Earth, and make sure that folks realize that this is not just a team or a sport we’re talking about, it’s a goddamned, motherfucking way of life and unless you want a horn blared right in the old kisser you won’t pretend any different. Got that? The general family friendly section for casual supporters is fantastic and everybody loves it, but don’t come over to the Northern Guard’s side unless you’re willing to deal with 90 minutes of singing, cheering, chanting, drumming, smoke bombing, jeering, taunting, swearing, dancing, celebrating, and the general making of much noise. And that’s just during the match.

The experience of a DCFC match has been described in other places as “electric.” And it truly is. If you live in Detroit, you should go see one. The event, the actions in the stands as it is tied to the action on the pitch, is this weird, frenzied, spectral dance between players and fans. The Northern Guard is a lifestyle, however, that extends beyond the stands. It doesn’t start when the first pass is made and does not end when the final whistle blows. After hearing Brigid and Nick discuss the group for the past couple years, I was looking forward to finally experiencing the whole thing.

What I discovered was such an interesting, amazing, at times intimidating, and dedicated collection of people that I’ve felt the need to write a bit about them. So today I’m trying to capture something more than what it’s like to attend a game. Today I’m trying to capture the essence of what this community is about. What makes the Northern Guard work, how its tie to the city itself (above and beyond the team) makes it so, so unique. If you’re already aware of this group, this may be old hat, but the intended audience of this post are those folks on the fringe who might be interested, might be wondering just what all the fuss is about, or might be willing to put a toe in the water if they can get a handle on it. We’ll see whether I can do this justice, but I’m going to try my best.

So, what follows is a long and wandering discussion of what it’s like to be an “outsider” who enters into this world for a day. It’s going to go everywhere because I’m just going to let it sprawl, which seems like the only way to really do this right. For some it’ll be TLDR (or already has been). But for others—folks who want to get a feel for what it’s really like to step into something weird and wonderful and big and bold and maybe even a little obnoxious and threatening—this will give you an idea of how I saw the pageantry of what goes on both behind the scenes and out in the open over the course of the day. The NGS, you see, is a very complex beast, and what you see is not always exactly what you get—unless, that is, you truly see.

Since I suspect this post will be seen by a few folks who are not usual Typosphere readers, and since I’m not 100% sure exactly where this day-long diary will take me, let me start by noting that I am a 54 year-old Skiffy writer who spent a lot of time in corporate America, but also has lived most of my life with one foot squarely in the geek culture of software coding, comic books, science fiction, and other such silliness. I am an extroverted introvert by nature (take that MBTI). This means I’m a little stodgy, but also love things that are often seen as being off-kilter by friends and other folks who hail from the more mainstream lanes of life. It’s fair to say some of my acquaintances don’t totally get me, but that’s okay. I am an engineer, an IT guy, and a HR wonk, but one who understands the real purpose of old-school DnD. I get paid to write sword & sorcery. I get paid to write hard SF. I attend SF conventions and love watching my geeky fan-mates do their LARPing and their masquerades, and all their cosplay-like things. I like “the other,” even though sometimes I don’t totally get it. The fact that “the other” exists will generally make me happy.

Anyway…enough about me: Let’s get to the real stuff.

After driving up to Detroit the night before, the day started by donning my first official DCFC t-shirt, provided kindly for me by Nick.

It is important to note a few key things about this shirt. First, the colors. It is vital to understand that this shirt is NOT maroon and gold, nor is it burgundy and yellow. These colors are ROUGE and GOLD. The team is sometimes known as Le Rouge, not Le Red nor Le Maroon. Rouge and Gold.

It should also be noted that I still need work on the scurvy scowl. Brigid said I fit in fine, but clearly I’m a rookie in this department. Regardless, here were some of my poor efforts at pre-game prep:

Yeah, I know. Weak-asssed. Shrug.

So, the kiddoes pick us up in the morning and we head to the event. While the match won’t start until 7:30, the festivities begin much, much earlier. Nick, being a NGS big-wig, wants to be there to help set-up, and we’re worried about traffic due to road closings, so we go pre-lunch early. Along the way we talk about football in Detroit, and the various front office shenanigans that are working in the background. DCFC plays in the NPSL (National Premier Soccer League), but the US football terrain is changing rapidly as the sport takes real hold here. As is usual, the inner core of the Northern Guard has some pretty staunch views on how the team should pursue expansion. There are warring factions in these waters, and the Guard’s leadership intends to work their tail off to make sure the squad retains its flavor. It appears, however, to be a tenuous period with money (naturally) being a key question everywhere.

It’s clear, though, that the Guard’s presence makes a real difference in the business dealings of the team and the city. DCFC and the Guard have a well-correlated track record of consistent growth over three season—and, in fact, today’s attendance, which will register in at over 3,500 people and consist of the chock-full NGS section and a considerably full family section, is a new record. I note that the attendance number was barely buoyed at all by the scant few Madison players’ parents that they brought… hehehehe … inside joke there, which I can tell, since I AM an insider for a day.

Anyway, as Nick drives us to their place I get in my first dig at the opposition, a sly “Madison Sucks” slipped into an otherwise innocuous tweet. I almost feel like one of the crew.

After only a bit of a drive, we arrive:

Harry’s is hot territory because it’s close to where the Tigers play, and near the convention center (I guess). Regardless, one of the reasons we get there early is to reduce competition for parking. It works! It’s a great place, complete with a big ground-level room, pretty good food, and a cool open-air upstairs.

We get lunch while other, less-rabid supporters dawdle. I have to admit I wonder about the dedication. I mean, not a single over-night camper? Tsk, tsk, tsk. On the other hand, when I think back on the gathering of folks and the raw Detroitness of the supporter base, I actually wonder if perhaps many of these people don’t actually exist in real life., but instead slip out of the multi-dimensional quantum muck of time and space at the appointed time. Could the average NGS supporter be like a soldier in one of those old WWII comics I used to steal from my uncle, like ghost brigades that appear out of the mist of Detroit’s streets to slide fully formed into their personal bar seats at Harry’s with a pint of Le Rouge already poured before them. This would explain why no one actually seems to arrive at Harry’s so much as that the gathering just begins, then over the next couple hours ramps up to a solid buzz. All I can say for sure is that it’s not too long before the place is crammed full of people clad in Rouge and Gold, beer is flowing, food is rolling out of the kitchens, and the poor wait staff is hustling like mad. (Well, I can also say that the idea of the skull-clad NGS as lingering remnants who appear out of the bowels of the city in time for a few beers before the match could make for an interesting series of comics, but that’s not the point today).

So, to sum it up: First lunch

Then beer:

Along the way, one of my twitter posts get a pitch-perfect welcome from the gang:

A moment here to talk about that twitter tag (#DCTID). It stands for Detroit City Till I Die, and is the Guard’s motto. Truthfully, this motto says everything you need to know about this group. I mean, to give an honest opinion here, after spending time with them I would say the Guard is not really a football supporter group.

Yeah, I know how asinine that might sound. Sure, the NGS’s culture is completely built around a football team. But when I watch what’s happening here, I see the Guard is about Detroit first, this specific organization second, and football as a whole third. Perhaps I’m speaking out of school, but I also think it’s fair to say that the “football as a whole” part of this includes pretty much all of international football except other teams in Detroit. To the Guard, Le Rouge is Detroit football, but the NGS is Detroit. And I may be wrong here also, but I get the idea that some percentage of the Northern Guard shows up primarily because they love being with the Northern Guard, meaning that for this sliver of the crew, the existence of a football club who happens to play in the area is secondary to the feeling of being City Till I Die.

If you want to understand the Guard, this is important.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, perhaps because I see such similarities between the overall culture of the NGS and that of my science fiction fans. In order to truly “get” an SF convention, for example, one has to understand that Fandom embraces those who embrace Fandom, and can be quite pointed to those who do not. A writer is not always so embraced, for example, but a writer who can embrace fandom will always be included. Not to open another can of worms, but today’s whole Puppy/Hugo fiasco is deeply influenced by this behavior and the fact that assholery is a trait that is spread evenly across all denominations.

Anyway, as I was saying, though the Northern Guard is its own community with its own flavor that is different from my beloved Science Fiction Fandom, they are similar in that the Guard embraces those who embrace the Guard and will be quite content to ignore, ridicule, or completely shit on anything that rejects it. As they say, “You don’t like us. We don’t care.” Science Fiction fandom would generally not be as outwardly direct as that, but the basic concept probably matches.

So, I figure that in reality, while the NGS is crazy-passionate for their team, the Guard cares for its own before it cares about this football organization. I’m guessing that if push came to shove, and lines absolutely had to be drawn, the rank order would be (1) Detroit, (2) The Northern Guard, (3) DCFC (4) All of football (except, of course, other teams in Detroit).

Wow. I just did 450 words on a simple run-off from the #DCTID tag. You guys must be bored to tears. Sorry about that.

But the whole “#DCTID thing is, perhaps, the key to understanding this culture. For those who don’t actually pay attention or don’t completely absorb the essence of this motto, my guess is that the Northern Guard is a deeply confusing thing. The Guard (as you’ll see) is very loud. Its a rambunctious group. It is, by design, intimidating. There are big folks in this group. They are young and energetic. Like my Skiffy brotherhood, it’s tattooed and it has people with piercings and creative hair colors. People dress extravagantly. They flash colors. They bang on drums and get loud. They wear skulls.

As I was walking along in the march to the pitch (which I’ll get to later), I asked one of the founders if he got requests to help build a culture like theirs in other football communities around the league. He said, yes, but they never really worked well. This makes sense to me. The Northern Guard, you see, did not come about because of anything the DCFC organization did. It came about in the same fashion as SF Fandom did—it was built by this core of people who run it, and so it has their loves and their personality. That may change as it grows beyond their ability to “control,” but today, the Northern Guard is a strong, tight-knit group of folks who have a deeply personal flare.

In that same march, a few talked about their view of themselves. One of the guys addressed the issue of hooliganism and (I’ll paraphrase, here) basically said the Guard drew the line at physical confrontation. “We’re not hooligans like people think of when they imagine unruly supporters. No one here is going to hurt anyone.”

This completely fits them, but to stop there would be a disservice.

The Guard, in addition to being an imposing force that wills their team to victory (and helps destroy the opposition), is deeply about the community. They raise money for charities, sponsor inclusion, support the military, support schools, and champion LGBT issues. Before the match they will lead the crowd in a bellowed a Capella rendition of the National Anthem. This is a group of people who are committed to helping people—as long as you don’t wear an opponent’s kit (or, presumably, as long as you don’t get in the way of them doing whatever they want to legally do). So, yeah, I’m sure the ambiguity is hard for some to understand. But me, I’m a skiffy guy. I get nerdy, extroverted introvert, inclusionary groups of good-hearted, loud people who also defend their turf to the death.

Holy crap … I just did another 450 words on #DCTID. Seriously, Ron, it’s time to move on.

Deep breath …

So, somewhere in the afternoon, another cool thing happened. Some of the DCFC players stopped by the bar to be with the Northern Guard. This does not happen everywhere, you know?

“We’re expecting a goal from you today,” one of the Northern Guard told one of the players. The player gave a light-hearted response, and the supporter made sure he knew there was no joke there. “We expect six before the day’s out. Madison’s terrible.” Nick (I think) said the team should get ten goals today. “Yeah,” the other Northern Guard member said. “Ten or we riot.”

The supporter then talked about the individual chants they had for each player, and one of the players looked over his shoulder and said “I don’t know where you get all these chants, but I fucking love mine.”

Yes, my friends. The Northern Guard loves the team, and the team, in return, loves the Northern Guard. This kind of interaction is pretty damned cool. It’s the kind of thing a sports organization would die to create, but is always at a loss as to how it happens—mostly because they don’t understand that they can’t actually do anything to create it beyond just supporting the fan base and letting them do essentially whatever they want (which is, admittedly a bit dangerous in today’s modern, litigious society … still, that’s the magic IMHO, FWIW).

As I said earlier, though, Nick and the NGS leadership work hard to truly support the team. Key word there: work. This goes way, way, way beyond showing up at the match with a couple pints in them and screaming loud obscenities. It begins … well … it begins before it begins. About three hours before match time, I went to Cass Tech (the team’s home pitch) with the crew, where we proceeded to string up various banners and whatnot.

These are invisible things, you know? When the casual fan enters the stadium and sees the banners and signs across the fences and other barriers, they don’t think about how they got there. People don’t see the thought it takes to design the experience, or the work it takes to put it in place. Rituals like this don’t just happen because someone wakes up in the morning and drops a tweet to everyone saying “let’s do something cool today.” Through the walk to the stadium and throughout the set-up, the gang talks about the event, and other activity around the league. It’s like they are in the early stages of ramping up, too. For them, this part of the process is as important as any other. Setting up the stands engages a new gear for the day.

I should note here that the field itself belongs to a high school program. Its stands, it turns out are barely big enough to hold the entire crew that will show up today. One of the items on the agenda for both the owner and the Northern Guard is working on an upgrade. Regardless of all the other business gunk going on around football, the league, and the teams in Detroit, it’s clear that DCFC will soon outgrow its confines.

Bottom line on set-up: it was a great day and I managed to help get stuff put up without embarrassing Nick too much (that’s my side of the story, anyway). Much fun.

We then made our way back to Harry’s and …

Holy crap was it crowded.

Let me point out the dude with the scarf in the picture above.

Scarves are a big deal here. Never mind that it’s June and semi-warm, everybody wears them. If you look closely, you’ll see a few more. In addition to being quite fashion-forward and spiffy, the scarf is used as this weird combination of flag, uniform, and pom pom. They come in lots of Rouge and Gold configurations, with several phrases stitched into them (including, natch, things like “City Till I Die”).

They are also, it turns out, the primary defense against smoke bombs. I happen to be borrowing a gas-mask from Nick for this event, but as the day progresses, I will come to realize that the phrase “scarfs up!” really means “light the goddamned smoke bombs!”

The March

Okay, I’m nine pages into this thing, and I’m just now getting to the actual lead-up to the actual match. At this point, it’s clear to me that what we have here in the Northern Guard are your garden variety kind of crazy people. I mean, who in the heck does this kind of stuff for what is essentially an amateur football team? Seriously? What are these folks whacked-out on?

Of course, I’m the one who drove five hours to get here, so you should probably take my opinion for what it’s worth.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the match starts at 7:30, so the entire pre-show is leading up to the pinnacle of the process—the march to the pitch—which starts thirty minutes ahead of time. It begins in the street outside Harry’s, and comes together when the ringleader stands up on a car, and begins to wail into a bullhorn.

The bullhorn guy is named Sarge, BTW. He asks the downtrodden supporters to think back moments this work week when their bosses got on their cases unfairly, or when they got screwed over by a friend, or whatever, and he suggests that all that anger and fury get built up and unleashed on poor Madison. It’s all done tongue in cheek, btw, and there is much laughter and many smiles. But the crowd is wound up, and quite honestly, at this point Madison players are already metaphorically facing a two goal deficit.

Here is a Marcher, with smoke:

The march then proceeds.

Let me explain what the March feels like.

Take a drum, pounding, and place it inside your head. Take a couple hundred voices screaming in unison and put them in a ten-wide column. Put them all in a false valley made of concrete buildings on either side of the column, and then walk it through your neighborhood. When this kind of thing happens in a full stadium, people think it’s pretty cool. When it happens in the streets, it’s like nothing else. The only comparison I can make would be how I would imagine a jazz funeral march in New Orleans, but different.

As you might figure, the whole march is loud as Fuck.

For a small clue of what this sounds like, here are a couple crappy recordings I made (along with direct links for those whose browsers don’t support the shortcode player):

Here’s one we sang while we marched:
And another when we arrived: (content/language warning)
(On Arrival)

And there’s smoke. OF COURSE there’s smoke. The Northern Guard apparently will not take a squat unless smoke is involved.

You can tell this is a spectacle in itself because there are people lined up just to watch it unfold, and when the column makes it to the stadium, people line the top of the bleachers to look down and take it all in. This is apparently not unusual. The Northern Guard is a draw unto itself. By that I mean that there exist people who come to the match in order to watch the supporters as much as they do to watch the match. Interesting how that works out, eh?

Thinking about it a little, I suppose one could call this thing a funeral march, though, because after the ten minute march and a bit more dancing and stomping, the Northern Guard makes its entrance, drums drumming and voices screaming, and all there is to be making noise making noise. Madison’s team is on the pitch, warming up as this occurs. And as I look out over them, it seems to me they are wilting on the spot. This is, after all, Madison’s first time at CassTech. These players are young, college aged at best. It’s clear they are a bit shaken as the mass of Rouge and Gold settles in.

This is when the full truth dawns on them (and me, for that matter) as to what this event is going to be like.

It starts with number 2. At the beginning, he actually thinks he can just kind of joke around with the folks here. By the program, one can find that #2’s first name is Callum. This is the only name that he will NOT be known by for the rest of the night. Someone calls him Calcium. Then (I think) Crissy or Clarisse. And it spirals down (or up, depending on your view) from there. There are funny moments, but it’s clear to me that, were she here, poor Callum’s mother would be pretty peeved the rest of the night. It also becomes clear to poor Callum that when you wear an opponent’s kit, there really is no way to joke around with the Northern Guard.

Seriously, just don’t go there.

Just suck it up, take it on the chin, and get out of earshot. That is the only way to “win” against the Northern Guard. Of course, there is no place on the pitch out of earshot of either the guards’ voices or the piercing horns they will blow into opponents’ ears all night long. I suspect broken eardrums are the norm in the Madison clubhouse. But I am getting ahead of myself. The game has yet to start, and at this point the Northern Guard is kind of just warming up.

A very brief moment later, the players are announced. Keeping with the theme, when Madison’s players are being introduced, the Guard turns their back, and provides them with a special double-fisted salute of, uh, welcome. This is about as kind as they will be to the opposition, who probably don’t realize they should consider this a respite from the storm.

We are, of course, quite vocal when our own lads are brought forward, resplendent in their new black kits.

At this point the Northern Guard sings the national anthem (with complete and appropriate reverence). This is actually a pretty moving moment if you step back and really look at it. Here are the young people of Detroit, scarfed up and ready to pounce on Madison, without accompaniment, all signing loud and proud, and on-key and off-key in whatever way they can. They don’t miss a beat. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Hopeful in its own way. For me, the mere fact of the existence of this moment is somehow artistic in itself. It means something.

Give me this over some American Idol winner any day.

Then the match begins, and from this point forward there is noise.

The noise comes in the form of drums, and horns, and screams, and chants. The Northern Guard has an established playbook of chants that they title “Hell’s Hymnal.” Everyone on my side of the pitch knows them (except me, of course … I’m not that quick of a study).

For the record (and if it’s not already obvious), let me be clear that sitting with the Northern Guard is not going to be for everyone. It’s not for the delicate, nor for the faint of heart. It is not for the kinds of folks who are expecting to experience any kind of gentlemanly sportsmanship. If you’re looking for calm, rational rah-rah that exhorts your upstanding players to their well-deserved victory over a hardy and capable foe, this is not your place. Please feel free to go enjoy the family friendly side. If, however, you’re ready for a party that consists of glorifying your side over the other in every fashion, and that takes great glee in two hours of heckling, drubbing, and otherwise mocking the dastardly scum-buckets who dared to even show up at your home pitch, then this is the place to be. When the match begins, civility ends.

There are chants about the incestuous habits of the opposition (sung to the tune of the Addams Family), and there are chants about burning the opponents up in a bonfire. Chants about the city (which when placed in proper context are truly love ballads in their own right, eh?). Chants for the boys on the pitch. There are call and respond chants, chants that include the family-friendly side (but that take a few rounds to get going).

The man on the bullhorn (or woman on the bullhorn, as the device is passed around during the match) is the conductor, and in the micro-seconds between chants he’s exhorting his compatriots on the air horns and sirens to keep the fever pitch up. When Madison boys get too close, they get an earful of horn, and if they can still hear at that point all they’ll be able to make out are screams about his parentage, comparisons between himself and certain female sexual organs, and a hundred other such things you might imagine.

It is of interest, however, to note that while invectives thrown are quite personal and quite graphic, there is a wall around certain areas. I can remember no racial commentary, for example. No homophobic slurs, no group based ism generalizations that I can recall (unless you count Madisonism as such, in which case, all guns were blasting at all times).

Despite this mayhem, on the pitch itself today the first ten minutes pass fairly “gently.” No scores. The DFCF players are a bit tentative, and Madison actually controls the play a bit. But this breaks down quickly. The fans are singing:

Come on City score a goal, it’s really very simple
Put the ball into the net
And we’ll go fucking mental!

Indeed, the score comes. Indeed the crowd goes mental. There is smoke. There is celebration on the field. The players run to the NGS side, and receive their admiration.

Aside: I have an understanding that at one point a couple years back, a DCFC player scored a goal and did not come to the NGS to celebrate. After the game, the NGS leaders went to the team and told them this would not do, that when the team scores a goal, the players will come to the NGS to celebrate. I note that with each goal the team will score (and there will be many), the players come immediately to the stands. Since I am on the fence at the edge of the pitch, I will get personal high-fives from three goal scorers on this day, and high fives from several other players at the end of the game. Do not mistake my earlier comment on priorities as exclusionary. While the NGS is about Detroit first, the gap between its love for Detroit and its love of the DCFC football team is razor thin.

With each score comes smoke.

Something Special Comes

By the halftime break, DCFC is up 2-nil. The whistle blows, and the stands take a step back. The noise level recedes. People go to get refreshments or use the facilities or whatever. The stands are probably only 50-60% full as kids from the local Detroit football kids’ league take to the pitch to play an exhibition. The kids are maybe 9 or 10. One team wears yellow, the other red.

The NGS folks who remain actually watch the kids.

They cheer for them. I mean, seriously cheer. They root for goals, and they applaud good passes. Nick tells me that the Northern Guard is considering trying to sponsor a youth team in the near future (assuming they can manage it). This is all pretty cool.

Then a kid scores a goal. It’s a beautiful little play he pulls off to do it, too, and the NGS goes … uh .. mental. The cheering is robust, and includes smoke and everything else that such an event would include. Again, pretty danged cool.

Second verse, same as the first

Then halftime is over, and the utter mayhem starts again. It is as if the Norther Guard merely picks up directly where they left off. Madison keeps a stiff upper lip early, and actually gets a couple good runs on the DCFC goal, but they come up short.

The primary target for the second half NGS vitriol is a bleach-blond striker who is immediately tagged as Miley Cyrus (among, naturally, other things). The play gets a little ragged, and it turns out that the referees are not immune from the Guard’s calm and gentle methods of questioning. The drum beats, the chants rain down. The team will pick up three more goals, and then in the last five minutes of the match the Northern Guard will dump a cloud of rouge and gold smoke that will probably make outside observers wonder if the terrorists have struck CassTech.

The match ends with a 5-nil victory, and with the DCFC players parading by the stands to get their proper admiration from the Guard.

The end

The stands begin to empty as the Man of the Match is announced. Various pictures are taken. I help Nick and the rest of the Guard clean-up. “We always leave the place cleaner than it was when we got here,” Nick said earlier, and now he’s sweeping debris, and others are taking down banners. I wander around and pick up larger bits of trash. The night grows colder now that the sun’s been down for a while and I’m not surrounded by the body heat generated by the Northern Guard. Lisa and Brigid come over, and we hear how the match looked to them—Brigid in particular had an interesting perspective, seeing as she’s usually where I was. It was the first time she watched the Guard from the outside.

I look around and realize the reverse process of arrival has happened for departure—that, while I haven’t really seen anyone leave, the place is now growing empty. Again, like they are those ghost soldiers of my uncle’s old comics, the denizens of Detroit have slipped away back into the multi-dimensional rifts of darkness they came from. The whole thing gets a Twilight Zone sheen. It’s like the match is not really ended so much as if it has been a wave that passed up the beach and receded, and now the Northern Guard is already beginning to design the next wave. There are kits to be bought, situations to be discussed, adjustments to be made.

We walk to the car, and drive home. I can feel my throat tightening as it always does when I go to Louisville basketball or football games and scream too much and too loud. I didn’t sing the songs today because I really didn’t know them, but I cheered my DCFC guys on the pitch as well as the next NGS guy, and I screamed for the goals and I directed the play as I saw fit. That’s my right, you know? As an honorary member of the NGS, I get to tell the DCFC guys what they ought to be doing (though they listened to me about as well as the Louisville guys do when I direct them … shrug).

And that was it. The kids drove us home, and my day in the Northern Guard was done.

The next day, as I was talking to Lisa, I said that there is every chance that the Northern Guard is actually at their golden moment, their apex. By this I meant that they are still small enough to be really tight knit, and really able to define their brand of controlled chaos, which is the lightning in the bottle that makes this experience so “electric.”

As the world around them gets bigger, this will be harder to manage. And who can tell if the team will even exist in a few years? The football world is churning big-time right now as business models rise and fall. But regardless of all that, today is today. And today, the Northern Guard’s leadership does this remarkable job of setting expectation and defining a line of behavior that is so extremely hard to define. The flavor of the Guard is bold, aggressive, and firm. To some it’s probably too aggressive or abrasive in places. But at its root the NGS are about Detroit and about belonging. They are about fun, inclusion, and letting people be who they are (unless you wear an opponent’s colors and it’s match time, in which case it’s beyond fine to be loud, taunting, and obnoxious—in fact, that’s kinda the point of the match when it gets down to it). There are lines that should not be crossed, however—lines that are about respect of people type that are not always obvious in the heat of the moment. At the end of the day, the NGS gets this right.

As I sit here now, reflecting, I wonder about my comments to Lisa. I’m probably wrong. I suspect that the Golden Age for the Northern Guard is in the future, perhaps a few years away. But, then again, you never know. So I want to leave this piece with a little commentary and maybe even a bit of advice to the entirety of the Northern Guard Supporters—its leadership and its followers and its fringe.

I want you to realize you’ve got something unique. Something you love.

Work hard, of course. Keep charging ahead. You already know that nothing good happens if you don’t do it yourself, so you don’t need me or anyone else to tell you that. But while you’re working, look at what you’re doing. Pay real attention. Revel in it. As often as you can, take a step back from the day-to-day stuff, and feel the pulse of what you’re creating. Because, while there’s every likelihood you’re growing toward something bigger, it’s important to remember at these times that life is short. There is a very real chance that what you are part of may never again happen in your life.

Golden moment or not, you’re making something remarkable. So this is your time.

Enjoy every minute.

Photo by @TheDukeNGS

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  1. Great post. Very enjoyable read. It was a pleasure meeting you after the match.

    -All The Best.

  2. Excellent stuff. By the way you could call me City_AWAYDCFC. I found City in 2012. My memories start when you could still sit at Harry’s before the game. Tigers fans don’t come there anymore on match day. Not so much crowded out but they have found their passion lacking and don’t want to be reminded of it. Starts with the flags. I also remember when Tetris was a challenge to your balance during.
    Considering I live 90 minutes or so north of Detroit, only financial constraints limit my home match attendance. Till this year NGS 989 was distant dream. There’s also NGS 517, Lansing, and NGS Cascadia. Being an amatuer wordsmith, I have always struggled to capture the match day atmosphere. The full back tattoo may have something to do with my clarity. Fiftieth birthday present to myself. A permanent reminder of possibilities still available.
    Your observation of the Golden Age is something on my mind for two years. Have followed other supporter group stories from similar European lower leagues. FC St. Pauli, FC Union Berlin and FC United of Manchester. Their old school supporters bemoan the loss of that tight knit feeling of us against the world mentality. My feeling is the Bucks game gave me hope. Estadio CassTecha will always be special. (Ask Nick. Could be an entire blog post).
    Finally thank you for giving me a lift on a bad day. The extroverted introvert SciFi geek is as good a description has I’ve read. Buy ya a beer if we met at a match.
    In Ink and Blood, Detroit City Til I DIE.

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