From the Rev: Popular Petke

Jan 11, 2015
Popular RBNY Coach Mike Petke was fired last Tuesday

Popular Petke was fired on Tuesday, raising fan ire at the ownership group of Red Bull New York.

The maelstrom of fan discontent surrounding the recent firing of popular, Red Bulls Head Coach Mike Petke is enough to have team executives call a town hall meeting to try and placate season ticket holders. Major League Soccer contributor Dan Itel, in his The Sideline blog, on Thursday, noted the outpouring of fan support – including a fundraising campaign to purchase billboard signage to express fan disapproval with the firing. Pundits will argue about the seeming waywardness of the move for who knows how long. The New York, New Jersey soccer club has been besieged with a history of poor decision making and the sacking of successful, popular coaches as this fan blog mentions; and, until recently, this club has been somewhat of a laughingstock for the seeming star-power but inability to win meaningful hardware. Popular Petke, though, broke through the glass ceiling above Harrison, NJ.

Having spent time with Petke, during his playing years in Colorado (2005-2008), I can testify to his charisma and winsome ways. His popularity was enhanced not only by his personality but a playing career and, later, young coaching career with a fan base that loved and embraced this local, hometown hero. Popular Petke (@petkemike) will most likely land somewhere as a coach in MLS again – but when and where is not at all a certainty, even with NYRB Sporting Director Ali Curtis’ acknowledgment of Petke as in important part of the club’s history. But, often times, these words are bandied about and become fodder for the skeptics and the loyal fans that question front office and ownership motivations.

Mike_PetkePower of Popularity

If Popular Petke’s departure is any indication, one might say that there isn’t much staying power to a person’s popularity or charisma – at least not in professional sports. Of course, the hero to goat analogy is synonymous with sport, but Petke didn’t have a “disastrous” season that is typical of these kinds of firings. If a loss in a conference championship isn’t good enough for ownership or management, then nothing short of either playing in or winning the MLS Cup would have saved Petke, one might presume. In short, that is a tremendous amount of pressure to place on a 38 year-old in his first professional head coach position. At 39, I know that I wouldn’t want that kind of pressure – either for myself or for my family. Add in dealing with player egos and salaries, a city where sports teams and figures come under great scrutiny, and a new cross-town rival in New York City FC – yep, that’s enough. Gone are the days when a player or coach could have any hope of longevity based on popularity. It seems that popularity is powerless when it comes to the pressures of winning.

pressure gaugePressure vs. Popularity

So, who comes to mind for you when you think of someone popular who fell victim to some point or crucible of pressure? A popular athlete? Employee? Boss? A pastor? A coach? A spouse? A friend? At what point did they crack? How much pressure was applied before they gave up? What did it take to break them? Perhaps the recent book Unbroken and subsequent film comes to mind. Louis Zamperini knew the heights of popularity and success as an Olympian and the tremendous pressure of trying to survive a Japanese World War II Prison of War camp – that pressure would haunt and linger in his mind in the years that followed his liberation. His solace and peace finally coming as he surrendered his fears and his hatred toward his captors to God several years after the war.

And here is where there is often a departure – sure fans and friends and family may be up in arms over Petke’s firing. Those who are close or near will commiserate and attempt to comfort. But when will peace come? To live in this space is often a lonely space where it feels that no one else can go with us. When we go through the trauma of a goodbye, a firing, a death – no matter on what level of the psyche and spirit it occurs – we will often replay moments. Moments that we thought we could control. Moments that we thought we might have effected the outcome. Moments where we wish we had made a different decision or chose another path or had another result, even, befall us.

I am not saying that Petke will have anguishing nightmares as Zamperini did about his captors and captivity, but there will be the sleepless nights, the moments of feeling inadequate or doubting self-worth, the moments of wondering if a recovery from such a blow will ever happen. And if much time passes on before a new day or new challenge it might even create a great depression that might threaten the heart and soul with some darker night.

Praying for Petke

As a chaplain, my own burden has been that any player (or coach, or staff, or family member) that falls under the ministry of CrossTraining (even if for a season) is someone that I am called to serve – no matter where life may take them. The look and feel of that service might change over the years and miles, but for me, I am still called to be available to serve and to love and to care for them. Perhaps, you think it impetuous for me to imagine myself still a chaplain to Petke – and maybe it is. But still, I will pray. I will pray for Mike Petke and for his wife and his kids. I will pray for his parents and family and friends. I will pray for those hurting. I will pray for those angry and upset by this loss. Because I have been there many times – sometimes myself, many times in a caring role for others. I have seen when people, in spite of their popularity or achievements or personality were fired or let go. I have seen the popular and powerful come to the end of their journey here on this earth. I have watched as the pretty and popular sink into the abyss of depression and sadness seemingly to never rise again. It is a hard place. It is a dark place. It is a place where, as the psalmist put it, the soul cries out of the depths (Psalm 130). And when no one else can go into those depths where life might plunge us – there is One for whom we can wait upon for deliverance. And He hears our cries.






Rev. Brad Kenney