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As a son mourns, Philadelphia Union supporters embrace a fan's legacy | THE WORD

THE WORD is MLSsoccer.com's regular long-form series focusing on the biggest topics and most intriguing personalities in North American soccer. This week, contributor Dave Zeitlin looks at the recent death of Philadelphia Union fan Eric Shertz and how the team – and the Sons of Ben supporters group – have embraced Shertz's teenage son Gabe, who is left to cope with his father's passing.


CHESTER, Pa. – With his head down, the new goalkeeper hurries over to the goal line and nervously eyes the penalty spot.

Here he is, at his first practice at PPL Park, and he’s being thrown directly into the fire. Standing 12 yards away from him and lining up for a penalty kick is Sébastien Le Toux, who’s buried all nine PKs he’s ever taken for the Philadelphia Union.

With many Union players and coaches stopping what they’re doing to look on, Le Toux’s first shot whizzes by the new guy and into the back netting.

“Don’t be scared,” a familiar voice calls from the sideline, and the ’keeper stands up, looking more determined now.

Sure, he’s only 15 years old and will later marvel at the speed of the shots he’s facing compared to the ones he normally sees. But the teenager is a towering presence at taller than 6 feet, and is someone that “has a lot of potential,” according to Union starting goalkeeper Zac MacMath. Now is his chance to prove it.

Le Toux’s next PK attempt goes to his right. The young ’keeper guesses the correct direction and dives … but can’t quite get his hands on it. Sheepishly, he stands up and looks over to the familiar voice, which belongs to his mother. Sitting nearby is his grandfather. Both are armed with big cameras and, for the first time in weeks, can’t stop smiling.

The goalkeeper is smiling now, too. He couldn’t save the penalty kicks and this will be his last time practicing with the Philadelphia Union, who invited him as a guest to train with the team on May 9, a day before the team’s home matchup against D.C. United. But it’s exactly what he needed.

When the practice ends, Gabe Shertz switches back from goalkeeper to fan and takes a seat in the front row of the River End section of PPL Park, where he always sat with his father but never will again.

“It’s one big family,” Gabe says from the exact spot where he and his dad forged many of their best memories. “It’s a great, loving community that gets behind someone when they’re down – and brings them back up.”

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Eric Shertz was an original member of the Sons of Ben supporters group in Philadelphia, and was a season-ticket holder in the front row for the team's games at PPL Park. He passed away unexpectedly last month. (Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page)

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Every time Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth walked on and off the field at PPL Park, he would look for one person: Eric Shertz. An original member of the Sons of Ben – the Union’s first and largest supporters’ group – Shertz was a season-ticket holder since the team’s inaugural season in 2010, sitting in the first row and always offering his encouragement to Hackworth and the players.

“When I came out of the tunnel, his face would be the face I would find,” Hackworth says. “He would give me a ‘Good luck, Hack.’ I don’t get that every time. From Eric, I got it every single time. It was consistent. It was steady. It was unwavering.”

On April 19, Eric made the rare decision to give up his tickets for the Union’s home game against the Houston Dynamo. A week away from earning a dual degree from Cecil Community College, he had too much work to do to make the trip to PPL Park.

Instead, he watched the game with his son Gabe from their home in Elkton, Md., before going on the computer to dive into his homework. Later, he said good night to Gabe, reminded him that they were to drive to Lancaster in the morning to visit family for Easter, and went to bed.

He never woke up.

“Everyone says, ‘I know how I want to die. I want to die in my own bed in my sleep,’” his older brother Brian says. “He did it. He did it 50 years too early.”

Gabe Shertz, inside the Philadelphia Union locker room earlier this month. “It’s just so unexpected,” he says of his father's death. “It doesn’t make sense.”(Amanda Parks)

Eric’s death blindsided everyone. He was 38 years old and healthy. He went to the gym and was in good shape. He didn’t have any vices. He wasn’t depressed.

When his friends heard the news, some of them initially thought it was a sick joke. Even now, most of them have a hard time believing it – including Gabe, who went into his dad’s room that terrible morning to try to wake him up.

“It’s just so unexpected,” Gabe says. “It doesn’t make sense.”

About three weeks after his death, the Shertz family learned that Eric had an enlarged heart and high blood pressure, causing his heart to stop in the middle of the night. Because those conditions were never diagnosed, that hit the family hard, too.

But by then, some of their pain had been eased by the kind of unflappable support they never saw coming.

After the Sons of Ben and Bearfight FC of Wilmington, Del. (the amateur club Shertz co-founded), started an online fund to raise money for his family, donations and condolence notes began to pour in from soccer fans around the country – and even the world.

“It’s therapeutic,” says Brian, who’s heard from people in Italy, Spain and Mexico, among other countries. “It’s really gotten us through.”

Unlike his brother, Brian never got into soccer and had “no idea” a professional sports organization and a group of supporters would do something like this for one fan. On top of the donations it helped facilitate online, the Sons of Ben held an Eric Shertz Memorial Tailgate before the Union’s match against D.C. United on May 10, where they sold “Live Like Shertz” scarves and T-shirts with Eric’s image on it to raise more money for the family.

More than 500 people showed up for the tailgate, including scores of D.C. United supporters that laughed, drank beers and remembered Eric’s life alongside members of the Sons of Ben.

“I’m going to be a new lifetime member to the Sons of Ben and Bearfight,” says Brian, who attended the tailgate with his mother, father and other family members. “And we’ll see about season tickets. This support I could never repay.”

This kind of support is relatively unique to Major League Soccer, in large part because the fan bases are smaller (and oftentimes more tightly knit) than in other North American professional sports. And due to the fact that many American soccer fans feel united in their perpetual quest to grow the sport’s popularity, it’s not uncommon for supporters’ groups to stand in solidarity with rival supporters’ groups after tragedies.

Take that May 10 game at PPL Park, where D.C. United’s traveling fans held up two huge signs – one that said “R.I.P. ERIC” and one right beneath it that said “MLS FAMILY.”

“There’s something to be said about being able to hate somebody for 90 minutes and then being able to share a drink right when it’s over,” says Justin Lee, a longtime Sons of Ben member and one of Eric’s best friends. “Regardless of what team you support, at the end of the day, you support soccer and you support MLS.”

Like other MLS supporters’ groups, the Sons of Ben have devoted a lot of time and resources to charitable efforts ever since their inception (which preceded Philadelphia being awarded an MLS franchise). And, much to its own dismay, the group has had to spring into action recently to help members get through tough times.

Traveling fans from D.C. United honor Shertz during the game on May 10 at PPL Park with tifo. “Regardless of what team you support," says Sons of Ben member Justin Lee, "at the end of the day, you support soccer and you support MLS.” (Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page)

Two years ago, they held fundraisers to raise money for Brad Youtz, who lost his house in a fire. And five months ago, they immediately came to the aid of Drew Miele, whose wife and fellow SoB member Jessie tragically passed away shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child (who is alive and healthy).

“I think that this is our first mission – not just a mission,” Sons of Ben president Kenny Hanson says. “We’re a 501(c)(3) service organization. We really can’t take care of people if we can’t take care of ourselves.”

After the tailgate, the Sons of Ben and the Union worked together to make the gameday experience a tribute to Eric Shertz’s life. There was a video of Eric played on the big screen before the game (his season-ticket holder testimonial in which he says, “I know that any time I’m here, I’m with my family”), all of the Tifo at the River End was dedicated to him, and the entire stadium held a powerful moment of silence at the 20:10 mark of the first half.

Perhaps most memorably, Gabe Shertz walked out of the tunnel with Hackworth, posed with the starting XI for the official team photograph, and high-fived all of the Philly players before they ran onto the field.

For Hackworth, coming onto the field with Gabe for the first home game after Eric died will forever be a special moment in his coaching career.

“Any time I walked out of the tunnel, I looked at Eric,” the Union manager had said in the days leading up to the match. “Now the one time I won’t be able to look at Eric, I’m going to at least have Gabe standing next to me.”

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The Sons of Ben supporters group was profiled in the Emmy-nominated series MLS Insider in 2013.

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Eric Shertz was at a Philadelphia KiXX indoor soccer game in 2008 with his son when he noticed a group of about 15 guys standing and chanting. Not knowing anything about the Sons of Ben at the time, he looked at the rowdy fans, glanced down at Gabe (who was only 9 at the time) and muttered under his breath, “What a bunch of a–––s.”

But with his interest piqued, Eric researched the then-burgeoning supporters’ group and realized how instrumental they were in getting Philly an MLS franchise. And because his son was an avid soccer player who enjoyed going to games with him – whether it was the KiXX or the Baltimore Bohemians of the USL Premier Development League – he quickly realized that he wanted to be a part of it.

“He had never played soccer,” Gabe says of his dad. “But when I got interested, he researched and looked online. But meeting the Sons of Ben was the biggest part that convinced us. The whole atmosphere – the electricity in the air during games, the chanting, the whole community – excited us.”

From there, Eric Shertz became more than just a Sons of Ben member. Those that knew him best say he was a leader of the group, a rational and even-keeled supporter who would often calm other fans down, the friendly face who would come up to people he didn’t recognize just to shake their hand.

Justin Lee was one of those people. Lee didn’t know anyone when he and his wife decided to move from Nashville to the Philadelphia-area in 2006. But when he got to Philly’s Dark Horse Pub in 2008 to watch a US soccer game, Eric immediately came over to him and introduced himself with a smile on his face. Just a short time later, Justin accompanied Eric and a few other Sons of Ben members on a long bus trip to Columbus, Ohio, to watch a US-Mexico World Cup qualifying game in early 2009.

“I was like, ‘Alright, if you’re this nice to a total stranger, I can’t wait to get to know you better,’” Lee says. “My first impression was, ‘Wow, this is probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life.’ And I’m in for life now.”

Shertz, Lee and fellow SoB member Jeremy Sharpe eventually came up with an ambitious idea to start their own soccer club. It was all hatched over a few pints at a local pub – which is where they believe it likely would have stayed if not for Eric’s help.

“Justin and I had this grandiose idea – and no idea how to pull it off,” Sharpe says. “Eric was right there battling to make it happen. Without him, we’d still be sitting at a bar still saying, ‘Here’s this idea we have.’ He took such a great deal of pride to be a part of it.”

Eric Shertz (center) with former Philadelphia Union captain and fan favorite Danny Califf (right), who has played for Bearfight FC, the amatuer team in nearby Wilmington that Shertz helped create. (Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page)

Although initially skeptical when he was told they had six weeks to register a team in the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA), Eric sprung into action, making phone calls to league reps, filling out all of the paperwork, and introducing himself to the players trying out for the team.

Basically, as a co-founder and business manager of Bearfight FC of Wilmington, he did all of the grunt work to get the amateur, non-profit club off the ground – and he never wanted any recognition for it.

“He wouldn’t even let you thank him,” Sharpe says with a laugh. “When you tried to thank him, he would just smile and walk away and do something else. That’s just who he was. He was just that awesome guy.”

Bearfight FC enjoyed a successful inaugural season this year, with former Union captain Danny Califf (who’s become a close friend of Sharpe and other SoB members) anchoring the defense at center back. And thanks to Shertz – who proved to be a talented soccer executive, as well as a devoted soccer fan – the club is poised to build off that success and hopefully one day compete in the US Open Cup and advance far enough to play an MLS team.

It will be difficult for the club’s other founders to move on without him, of course. But before he died, Eric had sent Jeremy and Justin a color-coded calendar explaining exactly what they had to do and when they had to do it for the upcoming season.

“It’s still hard to look at,” Sharpe says. “He was the man. He was the worker. He did anything to help us out.”

He chokes back a couple of tears, takes a swig of National Bohemian beer, and looks around at everyone at the tailgate honoring one of his best friends.

“So we’re kind of lost right now without him.”

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Gabe Shertz takes pointers from Philadelphia Union technical director and assistant coach Rob Vartughian at PPL Park on May 9. Shertz worked out with the team before being included in the pregame photo the next day. (Amanda Parks)

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Just outside of the Union locker room, there’s a large mural with the phrase “Our soccer brings people together” plastered across an early photograph of the Sons of Ben cheering from the River End. At the very bottom of the photo, there’s a man with a ponytail and sunglasses, his arms outstretched and his mouth open, happily screaming toward the direction of the field. Next to him is a young boy, not looking at the field but at the man, tentatively clapping his hands like he’s learning something new.

“Soccer,” Gabe says, “was always the thing we did together.”

In many ways, Gabe grew up at PPL Park, turning from a shy 11-year-old into a lanky teenager while discovering the bonds that so often tie fathers and sons together. He also learned from his dad what it meant to have a “second family” – even if it was an unlikely band of brothers that enjoyed screaming and cursing all around him. (The first time Gabe heard a bad word at a game, his father looked down at him and said, “Never in school and never in front of your mother.”)

“He was a kid that could easily be afraid of us,” Lee says. “He could be like, ‘Dad, I don’t like these guys. They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, they drink too much, they swear too much, they have too many tattoos – I don’t want to be a part of that.’ But he never was. He’s just like his dad. He was accepting to everybody.”

Near the end of the May 9 practice session, Gabe’s mother, Amanda, looked on from the sideline, watching her son train alongside professional soccer players with an amazed expression.

Before she and Eric got divorced in 2012, she went to a few games at the stadium. But she didn’t embrace it like her son did and never could have imagined the impact her ex-husband left on the organization.

Eric Shertz's former seat at PPL park has been adorned with a plaque since his passing. "I know any time I'm here," it reads, "I'm with my family." (Dave Zeitlin)

“The whole thing about being with family, I never got it,” Amanda says. “Until now.”

Like any mother, she worries about how her son will cope with such a tragedy as he moves through high school and into college and through adulthood without a father. But as she watched Gabe juggle a ball alongside MacMath and backup goalkeepers Andre Blake and Brian Holt, you can almost see some of those worries evaporate.

“I’m just glad Gabe can see there’s good people in the world,” she says.

Earlier, when Gabe sat in the locker room and was presented with a “Shertz” jersey from captain Brian Carroll, she whispered, “He’s never going to be alone.”

One of her biggest concerns now is how to “get him to his bi-weekly family reunions” at PPL Park. But, in reality, that doesn’t need to be much of a worry. Shortly after Eric died, Gabe said he was told by “a number of people that I’m going to keep doing payments on your seats to make sure you have them.”

That came as terrific news to Gabe, who wants to keep going to Union games for many years to come – and perhaps, as his uncle Brian says, “his dad’s seat hopefully will become his child’s seat one day.”

“Gabe’s part of the family,” Sharpe says. “And we look out for each other.”

If anyone ever doubts that those seats will forever belong to the Shertz family, all they have to do is walk down to the first row of Section 138, look at the permanent gold plates that the Sons of Ben drilled into Seats 4 and 5, and read what’s inscribed on them:

“I know any time I’m here, I’m with my family” – Eric Shertz

When Eric’s dad, Paul, first saw those plates the day before the Union hosted D.C. United, he exclaimed, “Oh, wow.” Amanda turned her head away and clasped her hands against her mouth.

Gabe’s reaction was different. He stared for a few moments, didn’t say anything and then sat down in the seat, almost with a gleam in his eye.

“There will always be the empty seat next me,” he says. “But, I don’t know, I’d like to think he’s with me.

“So maybe he’ll still be here, always sitting next to me.”

Donations to help cover expenses for the Shertz family can be made here.

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.