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BOGACZYK: Herd Duo Touched by Chattanooga Tragedy

July 24, 2015

By JACK BOGACZYK
HERDZONE.COM COLUMNIST
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. --
When Jack Hopkins and Nick Edginton headed off from Marshall to play summer soccer, never did they figure they'd be playing through a Niagara Falls of emotions.

However, the National Premier Soccer League playoffs have become a refuge of sorts in Chattanooga, Tenn., where Mohammad Youssel Abdulazeez shot and killed four U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy petty officer in two military facilities on July 16.

Two nights later, Herd senior defenders Hopkins and Edginton took the field at Finley Stadium for Chattanooga FC in an NPSL South Region playoff semifinal against the Miami Fusion. The hosts won, 1-0.

The emotionally torn city won in that Saturday night game, too.

"The town's been in mourning somewhat, and at our last game, it needed a spark," Hopkins said Thursday. "It was amazing, the emotion. It was our largest crowd of the season (6,143), and it was loud. Once we scored, it was extremely loud, and I think everybody there was standing up.

"Before the game started, a couple of Army officers spoke to the crowd. That was very emotional, and the national anthem was the same."

The Herd duo and their Chattanooga teammates also wore black armbands on their left sleeves to honor the servicemen killed.

Chattanooga FC's support is always strong in the NPSL, rooted in a large group known as the "Chattahooligans." The playoff semifinal support went beyond what's normal, Hopkins said.

Fans bought out a supply of 500 benefit T-shirts -- with #NOOGASTRONG printed on the front -- on sale inside the stadium. The shirts, at $15 a pop, were gone in 10 minutes.

The proceeds went two funds set up after the shooting, including one to fund scholarships for the victims' children.

"It's a weird thing to just be playing a soccer game at a time like this," Edginton told The Tennessean newspaper after the game. "But maybe it's something we all need to do."

Hopkins, of Birmingham, Ala., and Edginton, from Wellington, New Zealand, are among a few newcomers on a team that is 15-2-1 this summer. Many of the Chattanooga players, while hailing from foreign lands, return to the southeast Tennessee city to play in the NPSL each season.

 

 

"There's a definitely a connection between the team and the city here," Hopkins said, "and I think it all starts with our coach (Bill Elliott, who coaches at the University of West Florida). He's been coaching here a while (since 2012) and he makes it a point to be involved.

"With our game coming up right after the shooting, you could just tell it was going to be something special."

Hopkins said when the first of the two shooting incidents occurred -- at a military recruitment center on Chattanooga's Lee Highway -- he was in the neighborhood.

"I actually wasn't very far away at all, maybe two streets over," he said. "I was working at a youth soccer camp. Since I've been down here, I've been working with Chattanooga Sports Ministries, and that day I was out at a camp. When we came back from lunch, there were police everywhere.

"We went into a lockdown at camp. They locked down the hospital and mall close to there, too." Hopkins, Edginton and their Chattanooga FC teammates go on the road for Saturday's NPSL South Region championship match against the Myrtle Beach Mutiny.

Not long after their arrival in Chattanooga after the Marshall spring semester, Hopkins and Edginton were part of a team that won the Hank Steinbrecher Cup, symbolic of the U.S. Soccer National Amateur Championship. They also played their way into the round of 32 of the U.S. Open Cup besides an NPSL conference championship.

Whatever happens in the waning weeks of the NPSL playoffs, the Marshall seniors understand they may never play again in the kind of emotional atmosphere they did last weekend.

"You can tell everybody here is the city is standing by one another," Hopkins said. "Flags are half-staff everywhere. It all shows how a community can come together when it's needed."

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