Death, grieving and the Portland Timbers: How a family honored a loved one

Sue Kropilak’s kids kept telling her to look at the scoreboard at Providence Park.

They’d been to what feels like a million Portland Timbers games over the years, but Sunday was a different experience and her son Jamison was persistent. Just keep looking, mom.

Unbeknownst to her, Jamison had called in a favor from a friend who used to work at the stadium. There would be some familiar faces on the big screen at the Timbers’ Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs game against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday.

Jamison had a friend who used to work for the gameday staff at Providence Park. He sent her a hopeful message; maybe she still had some contacts in the organization who could get a photo of Jim and his family on the big screen at the game?

It worked.

"I messaged her and said, 'hey I need to do this, get something up there to honor my dad,'" Jamison told MLSsoccer.com this week. "She was able to get a picture of the four of us at the bottom [that] said 'we love you Jim.' For me, that was my favorite part – to reminisce and see that on the screen. It was awesome."

Said Sue: "They kept saying 'watch the screen, watch the screen!' So we have a picture of it. That was very fun. But just to be there with my family – we knew that Jim was there with us."

When Sue and Jamison talk about Jim, they sound happy and genuine. Their loss is huge, and they've cried more than they ever have, but they've tried to focus on reminiscing and celebration. It was the same on Sunday.

"At one point I turned to the boys and said 'he would absolutely love this," Sue said.

"There was one moment," Jamison explained. "I was standing there with three of my best friends behind my mom and my sister, the four of us put our arms around each other. We took a second – but it wasn't a sad second, it was a moment to take in everything that was going on. It wasn't a sorrow moment, it more of 'this is awesome that we're here.'  Like my mom said, my dad would be so happy if he was here, but he was there with us."

Jim Kropilak always had time for family, friends and, well, anyone with a smile. 

A lover of people, his family and faith, Jim was the proud grandfather who always had a picture of his children or granddaughter handy. He loved his wife, Sue, his son, Jamison, and daughter, Kaitlin, who had a genetic disorder that caused special needs. 

"He loved the special needs community and adults with special needs," Sue said. "We had a group that came to the church that met every month. He was always down to the church early. They knew he loved them."

Jim was lead pastor at Somerset Christian Church near his family's home in Oregon, before his son got married and moved to Los Angeles. He was the soccer dad that all the players loved. He touched many lives with his generosity, setting an example for Jamison.

"My dad would talk to anyone about anything, and that's how I live my life as well," Jamison said. "He loved his family so much, he would do anything for his family," Sue added.

Last week, on the day before Thanksgiving, the Kropilak family awoke to devastating news.

"I get on the phone with my mom, and she's crying. I was in shock," Jamison said of a call he received at work last Wednesday. "She said 'Dad has passed away.' But when we talk, when she says dad, she usually means her father. But she kept talking and I'm like, you mean Grandpa, right?' Then she said 'no, Jamison, your father passed away.' That's when everything came down and hit me." 

Jim, beloved father, husband, grandfather and pastor, had died suddenly at age 56 due to a heart attack.

The Kropilaks enjoying one of many days spent at Providence Park

As Sue, Jamison and Kaitlin mourned, they decided to take a different approach to their grieving. They embarked on a "Celebration Tour" of Jim's vibrant life, with stops at all of his favorite places on earth, with his favorite people. It started at his favorite coffee shop, Insomnia Coffee, with his drink of choice, chai. 

That evening, they visited Jim's favorite pizza joint, Pietro's Pizza, and lifted a slice of pizza in his honor. The next morning they picked up Jim's favorite breakfast sandwich from My Favorite Muffin. The Celebration Tour continued to gain momentum and there was no stopping it.  

"They surprised me with tickets to the playoff game," Sue said. "They said, 'we're going. It doesn't matter how much it costs, we're going to go.'"

The Kropilaks at another game

Jim's love of soccer stemmed from his love of family, as he happily became Jamison's supportive soccer dad and coach. That seamlessly flowed to outings at Providence Park to watch the Timbers.

"It all started with my love of soccer and my dad's love for soccer, and also his love for me," Jamison said. "It became a lifestyle. We'd go to as many games as possible, just to be able to be there as a family." 

One year, the team drove from Oregon to Kansas for a game – no quick ride. 

"Jim drove one van, I drove the other. It was quite the trip," Sue said. "The fun part, and what I miss, is every one of the boys wanted to be in Jim's van. It's been really awesome to see how many of the old soccer buddies who reached out to Jamison to say I loved your dad, he was always there to support me. It's been very cool."

A shorter journey was to nearby Providence Park. The Kropilaks' attendance at Timbers games dates back to the club's USL days, right into their inaugural season in MLS.

"We started going to the Timbers game when they were in the USL; we've gone as much as we can," Sue said. "I think I missed just one game in the inaugural season, and my mom missed maybe three," Jamison added.

Jim loved to give Sue Timbers tickets. His friends would laugh when he told them what he got her at various holidays and birthdays, but he knew that's what she wanted.

"We went to Providence Park for Mother's Day. He laughed and told friends that he bought me Timbers tickets because that's what she would want," Sue laughed as she reminisced. "He always knew 'if I could buy my wife Timbers tickets, then I'm doing good, she'll be happy.' No vacuums for me!"

Sunday provided Sue, Kaitlin and Jamison the perfect opportunity to continue their celebration tour, with the Timbers set to face Sporting KC in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship.

Sue, Jamison, Kaitlin and friends at Providence Park on Sunday

Their powerful story of love and remembrance has gone viral. Sue's interview with KATU has reached many on social media, including Timbers owner Merritt Paulson.

Their celebration tour continued after Sunday, still stopping by Jim's favorite places. The next sporting event they're attending is a Portland Trail Blazers game on Wednesday, but there's no end in sight.

"There's a bunch of places down in LA that I've already thought of, that I'm going to try and keep it going and take some of my buddies," Jamison proudly said. 

Their story has provided inspiration for those struggling with loss themselves. It's so easy to draw parallels from the Kropilaks' love for Jim to our own lives with our loved ones.

"One of my friends from high school reached out to me, her Grandma has cancer," Jamison said. "She told me 'I have no idea how I'm supposed to handle this, but I'm watching your story and that's what I want to do to honor my Grandma now.' That's huge. We're not doing it for recognition, we're doing it for my Dad, but it's cool to see people I've known that think it's fantastic."

While in the stands at Providence Park on Sunday, ladybugs landed on both Sue and Kaitlin. It must be a sign, they thought, because Jim loved ladybugs and, of course, the Timbers. Jamison thought it, too, then laughed to himself – what about me, Dad? As his inner dialogue continued, he recalls joking to himself, "you know what – if you're sending signs, feel free to drop me a few dollars instead of another ladybug." Jamison chuckled and continued to root for his family's team.

In the second half, David Guzman appeared to break the deadlock with a goal. Immediately, the Timbers' Army celebrated with confetti before the goal was called back for offsides. Still, the stands were doused with confetti.

Upon the final whistle, Sue, Jamison, Kaitlin and the rest made their way for the exits. As Jamison walked down the stairs, his eye caught something on the ground amid the confetti. Wait – could it be?

It was a $20 bill. 

"How he saw a $20 bill amid the confetti he was walking on – isn't it awesome?" Sue asked. "Okay, Dad was here with us. He was here with us."


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