In December 2019, 33-year-old ESPN reporter Edward Aschoff was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with multifocal pneumonia.

Afterward, they would discover non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in his lungs. One or both of these things triggered Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, otherwise known as HLH – a rare disease that causes the immune system to overreact. Your white blood cells attack other blood cells. Three days after being admitted to the ICU, Aschoff died on December 24, 2019. It was his 34th birthday.

In February 2020, his friends saw an opportunity. During the same weekend, Edward’s bachelor party had been scheduled before his wedding in April. Atlanta United and Nashville SC were set to play in Nashville’s first-ever home game, long before the Eastern Conference clubs meet again Thursday night at Nissan Stadium (8:30 pm ET).

That game, played before nearly 60,000 fans, offered a couple of things. It offered a central location for most of Edward’s friends in Atlanta, Tennessee and his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. And it offered a chance to remember Edward, a founding member of Atlanta United, through one of his favorite teams.

“We were just trying to celebrate Ed,” his friend Austin Coleman said. “Ed loved Atlanta United. This was a perfect opportunity to celebrate him with something he loved and something we loved with him.”

Coleman and Edward were Atlanta United season ticket holders. Even when Edward and his fiancée moved out to Los Angeles for his work with ESPN, Coleman and Edward found ways to attend Atlanta United games together. When Atlanta United traveled to play LAFC, Coleman made the trip out to join Edward at Banc of California Stadium. When Atlanta United made MLS Cup in 2018, Edward made the trip back to Atlanta for the city’s first championship in 23 years.

The pair spent the night of MLS Cup sneaking friends into the supporters’ section at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, celebrating with friends afterward, and, most notably, clapping offbeat. Because as much as the grander, macro-rituals of the day matter at sporting events, it’s the dumb and small ones you do with your friends that mean more. Somewhere along the way in Edward’s Atlanta United fandom, he discovered joy in minor acts of sabotage during the chants coming from the supporters’ section.

“Vamos, Vamos A-T-L” became “Bonzo, Bonzo is a dog,” a tribute to Coleman’s dog. Eventually, after a couple of choruses, others around Edward and his friends would join in, presumably just happy with the existence of a dog named Bonzo. Then there’s the clapping. When a chant called “Rowdy and Proud” entered a chorus of sha-la-la’s, a concerted and often successful effort began from Edward and his friends to ruin the rhythm of everyone around them. Just for fun. It usually resulted in making friends with the people around them who were rightfully curious at how someone could be so wrong.

“I clap offbeat every game now,” Coleman said.

Edward Aschoff – jersey

Even if Edward couldn’t be there in Nashville to help them alter chants, his friends wanted to take his energy with them into the stadium. They had Atlanta United jerseys custom-made. “Aschoff” was embossed on the back. When they went to get them made, they were given a major discount. The manager of the store followed Edward’s work.

When the last weekend of February 2020 came, 16 people and several Aschoff Atlanta United jerseys headed to Nashville for a soccer game. And a lot more than that.

“I think we all just wanted to be together,” Edward’s fiance, Katy Berteau, said. “I think after a few weeks, I feel like the space allowing for you to talk about your loss and your grief kind of goes away. I think that was a space where we were looking forward to being in a safe space again to cry and just talk about Ed and talk about how we were feeling. I think that was the main thing.”

In some ways, it sounds like a pretty typical trip to Nashville. The group hung out at the straight-from-Instagram house they rented for the weekend. They played beer pong, they watched Tiny Desk concerts and went out to bars. But they also cried. There were triggers for waves of grief. Certain songs, certain stories, certain jokes. And, eventually, a game.

“I cried on and off the entire time,” Berteau said. “I had a really hard time when the game was starting and the players were coming onto the field with the Nashville song and everything. I just broke down. I couldn’t even stand. Everyone was just around me. And I was basically in our friend Oscar’s lap just sobbing. But I didn’t care because I had all of them around.”

All of them were around because of Edward. Edward was that friend. The one that everyone had stories about. The one who found himself in situations very few others would. Like the time he ended up in a commercial next to Brad Guzan. Berteau had Oscar’s lap to cry on simply because Oscar wore a Colorado Rockies hat to a bar one night. Edward came up to talk about the team. From then on, Edward gave Oscar no choice but to be a friend.

“As far as our friend group went, he was the Leonardo of our Ninja Turtles,” Coleman said. “He was the guy that kept us together regardless of what was going on. He was the guy we all kind of went through and would always be there for us. He had a gift for connection. “

That gift for connection brought them all to that game, then to a strange mix of the festive atmosphere of the season’s opening game and grief. When Ezequiel Barco and Emerson Hyndman scored to give Atlanta United a 2-1 win, they didn’t hesitate to celebrate in full. Edward would have.

“For what he loved, for who we was, what that trip ended up being was, yes we were there to mourn. But it was to celebrate him just as it was to mourn him,” Edward’s friend Konrad Darling said. “Which is a really weird thing and a hard thing to do. You do feel guilty at times about being happy. You were mourning that loss and that person. But when you can literally turn to the people next to you and say, ‘Oh do you remember this or this,’ and just laugh it’s hard not to celebrate it as much as you mourn it. It’s a weird experience.

“When you lose a grandparent or someone older that you’re expecting to lose, you kind of know how the grieving process works. You expect it. We all know you live and you die. When you lose someone unexpectedly it’s hard. You just try to cling to anything and everything you can that keeps everyone close and keeps those memories close. That’s why it was so good to have everyone there. You get all these different stories from different people.”

The games we care about are great on their own merit. But what they are at the height of their power are rallying points. A place to meet. A place to interact in a way that offers a much-needed burst of community or simply a piece of routine. They can even offer a place to grieve. Or a place to clap off beat when you get a chance. Just because your friend would have wanted you to.

“That trip is an experience we are always going to be able to look back on and share, knowing that we were there for a common cause and to be a shoulder for whoever needed it at that time,” Darling said. “You never knew who was going to be crying at what point. But what that trip signified is that it didn’t matter who it was or when someone was going to be there to pick them up.

“Because that’s who Edward was. He was one of the few people who you could pick up the phone and call this person right now because I needed someone. I think we all had an obligation to be there for each other because of him.”

If you're traveling with friends and loved ones from Atlanta, yes you're going up I-75 for just another game. You may not know it yet, but those trips can mean a lot.