CHESTER, Pa. — When Jeffrey Mitchell arrived at his seats for the first-ever Philadelphia Union game at Talen Energy Stadium (then called PPL Park) in 2010, he immediately noticed two things.
First, he saw the throngs of Seattle Sounders fans standing behind him, quickly learning the top of Section 133 was reserved for away supporters. Then, he looked in front of him, and saw a goofy guy wearing a cowboy hat and speaking in a Southern accent.
“When you’re in Chester or in Philly for a sports game, the last thing you expect to hear is this Southern drawl and a cowboy hat,” Mitchell recalls. “But he just wanted to have fun in the stands, man. He just wanted to turn it into family.”
Photo courtesy of Earl Gardner / Philly Soccer Page
Over the years, that fan — Kenny Hanson — did that and more, with his passion for the Union, soccer and friends helping him ascend to the presidency of Sons of Ben, the club’s first and largest supporters' group. And after Hanson tragically passed away last Friday, the Sons of Ben and the Union showed the true meaning of family, coming together to honor him in a variety of touching ways before and during Saturday’s game vs. the Montreal Impact.
“He was a great leader and a great person,” said current Sons of Ben president, Bill Gusler. “And he’s going to be dearly missed.”
Like everyone who knew Hanson, Gusler was hit hard by his friend's death, which occurred after he fell off a golf cart in a freak accident in Folly Beach, South Carolina. He and his wife Amy had moved to the quiet coastal town shortly after Hanson stepped down from the SoB presidency in late 2015.
But as the leader of an organization that’s dealt with tragedy before — including the sudden death of SoB original Eric Shertz — he knew he had to immediately spring into action to honor Hanson’s life. Among the tributes the Sons of Ben organized was a Kenny Hanson-inspired tifo that included the lyric “We Will Get By” from the song “Touch of Grey” by The Grateful Dead, Hanson’s favorite band.
SoB members also raised their scarves in the air and held a minute-long moment of silence, followed by “Kenny Hanson” chants at the 20:10 mark, creating an eerily powerful quiet during the game. And, of course, many of them wore cowboy hats and tie-dye shirts to celebrate their favorite Deadhead southerner.
“The first thought was for everyone to wear black,” Gusler says. “But then one of his friends was like, ‘Nah, f—k that. Do tie-dye. That’s what he loved.’ … We just wanted time for everyone to gather and reminisce and hang out with friends. For a lot of us, this is how we met and knew Kenny.”
The Union, too, did a lot to memorialize Hanson, once again showcasing the unique bond that ties together an MLS club and its most loyal supporters. Before the game, another moment of silence was held and “Touch of Grey,” another Dead song, played over the loudspeakers.
Players also wore black Sons of Ben warmup shirts with the initials “KH” on the back. Ray Gaddis wore an undershirt that read “Always With Us Kenny Hanson,” and captain Alejandro Bedoya and head coach Jim Curtin both sported “KH” armbands.
Bedoya, who wasn’t on the Union when Hanson served as the Sons of Ben president from 2013 through 2015, only recently learned about Hanson’s contributions to soccer in Philadelphia. Others have known for quite some time just how important a figure he was, rising from his role co-founding a faction of Union fans called the IllegitimateS in Section 133 with Mitchell, to taking over the Sons of Ben from the group’s original leaders at a tough time.
“We were kind of the next generation,” Mitchell says. “People don’t know but there was a lot going on behind the scenes and we’re a 501(c)(3) and Kenny had to get a lot of the paperwork in line. People don’t know but we could have easily lost the whole Sons of Ben name and everything. Kenny basically saved the group from ruin. He didn’t do it to get credit. This guy just loved this team, loved the people.”
On top of organizing the books and creating a treasurer position for the nonprofit group, Hanson also reached out to soccer teams and fans around the world to stand beside Philadelphia after Shertz’s sudden passing in 2014.
“He was always very open and honest,” Gusler says. “And very easygoing — about pretty much everything. But whatever he did, he did it with passion. I know he loved the team and he loved this group. He really focused on wanting to bring everyone together on the one thing that tied us together as opposed to the thousands of things that pull us apart.”
It wasn’t always easy, as Hanson took blame for a lot of things — sometimes unfairly, sometimes jokingly. In fact, at one point a “I Blame Kenny Hanson” meme was born, with those words inscribed over a close-cropped photo of Hanson giving a thumbs up.
“When Kenny was SoB president, they blamed him for everything,” Mitchell says, laughing. “From the team’s performance, if the urinals overflowed in Section 133, if someone’s car was parked in the wrong lot — anything. So it was the running joke on the board and amongst our friends that if anything went wrong, it was, ‘I blame Kenny Hanson.’ And he owned it. That was the greatest thing. He took it in stride with the good humor he treated everything.”
Few people knew about Hanson’s humor and affable spirit better than Monica Herzog, one of his best friends in the Sons of Ben and in life. The two met at a bar near their hometown of Ambler, Pa. and “immediately started talking soccer, the Sons of Ben, and Carolina barbecue.” And Herzog, who became the the SoB’s director of membership while Hanson was president, watched in awe as her friend effortlessly managed the rigors of dealing with 2,000 Sons of Ben members because of his “naturally charismatic” style that always made people feel comfortable.
“He loved people, he loved community, he loved giving back to the community,” says Herzog, who once vacationed in Europe with her husband, Hanson, and Hanson’s wife. “And that’s what he kind of built his life on.”
He loved other things, too. His wife. His rescue dogs. Debating. Diet Dr. Pepper. Fireball. The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. Cooking Carolina barbecue. And definitely his home in South Carolina and the University of South Carolina, where he went to college and met his wife.
“You’ll never meet a prouder Gamecock than Kenny Hanson,” Herzog says.
So when the opportunity arose to move from Ambler to the laid-back Folly Beach, where the Hansons had been vacationing for years, they jumped at it. Still, he remained in close touch with the Sons of Ben and the Philadelphia Union, returning to games often while checking in on how things were going in the River End.
“He came up here and he could hang with the tough Philadelphia guys, but he just had that inner Southerner in him, that Southern heart, that Southern charm,” Mitchell says. “But he would come back all the time. Even last week [during the Union’s 3-1 win over FC Dallas], he was texting me while I was in the stands, asking how the atmosphere was. At least the Union sent him out with a good one, man.”
As the Sons of Ben know all too well, the most important thing they can do at a time like this is try to pick each other up as best they know how — with soccer, tailgating and laughter. Just as they did Saturday night. Just like Kenny Hanson would have wanted.
“As hard as it is, I think the best way to honor Kenny is just loving each other and taking care of each other — because that’s what he always did,” Mitchell says. “As Sons of Ben president, he took care of everyone. Whether you were a season-ticket holder or it was your first game, he treated you with respect and he wanted to hear your ideas on how to make everything better."