MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Amid the nearly 300 memories that Orly Lev could have of Mike Petke, the one that comes to mind never made a headline in a New York newspaper or was talked about on a Red Bulls broadcast.
As Petke plays in his 300th MLS regular-season game Thursday night against Columbus, Lev will be standing with the Empire Supporters Club and will give his name a shout during player introduction, just like she always does.
In 1999, Orly Lev was hospitalized due to Crohn's disease (digestive problems), a malady with which she was diagnosed four years earlier as an 11-year-old. Hospitalized for several weeks, she was missing school in large chunks but most important to her, Lev was missing going to MetroStars games.
Even though the team was horrific that year, finishing 7-25, Orly went to every game she could, standing and chanting with the supporters. But when she was hospitalized, the green field of Giants Stadium was a distant memory.
Then, a little piece of the game came to her.
One day Petke walked into her hospital room. A second-year player who was sporting dyed-blonde hair and known for his tight man marking, the central defender was a favorite of Orly’s. Petke was standing there with a signed team jersey, poster and a dozen roses under his arm. He also brought Orly his smile.
“For the next few days, all the nurses in the hospital kept asking me who the handsome man was that visited me,” Orly recalls 11 years later.
It was one hospital trip, but it meant an awful lot to the then teenager. Petke eschewed any type of publicity that the story would bring. He refused to bring in a video camera to document the visit for the team’s website and didn’t want a story to go out about the visit.
Petke would ask Orly’s brother and sister about her status when he saw them at the games. He would call her at the hospital to routinely check in. When she was well enough to return to Giants Stadium, he would sneak the family into the Stadium Club to hang out with the team post-game. The bond went beyond the single visit.
“The visit to me in the hospital meant the world,” Orly said.
Even with the signing of Juan Pablo Angel three years ago and the growing likelihood of the addition of Thierry Henry to the fold this summer, it will be Petke who will remain the face of the franchise to the hardcore fan. Petke is always the first one to clap to the supporters and acknowledge their presence, win, lose or draw. The line to get his autograph or snap a photo with him is always the longest at any team event with the fans.
“I remember my second year in the league when three fans had asked me to sign something after a game. I did it rather quickly and then just moved on,” Petke told MLSsoccer.com. “My dad grabbed me by the scruff and told me that, ‘Those are the people you’re playing for,’ and that I should treat them better than that.”
To this day, Petke treats the fans more than just respect – it is a love affair with the New York fans that comes from his heart. Some in attendance, he muses, are there and don’t have jobs, making sacrifices to attend. He vows to never take for granted his job.
“When Petke’s first instinct after a game is to come to the supporters and applaud or support, I think that encourages the fans to keep coming back and keep supporting like they do,” said Empire Supporters Club member Anthony Poulin.
“I mean as fans, you really don’t get much else. You pay to see them play, cancel plans with the wife or kids and expend hours of energy singing and jumping all for this vicarious feeling that your support matter. When a player like Petke confirms that feeling, it makes you want to do it all over again.”