Charlotte Forever

Will Crooks for The Players' Tribune
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Twitter was going crazy, and so was I.

It was December 17, 2019. I was in my parents’ living room in Wilmington, North Carolina, relaxing at home with my family, when my phone started lighting up. Charlotte — my hometown — had been awarded an MLS expansion club. While the city freaked out on social media, I went out to the front porch and called my agent.

“Did you see the news?” I said. “We have to get back to Charlotte. I don’t care what it takes. We just have to get there.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said, reminding me that I had one year left on my deal with Chicago. “Slow down. Just focus on this year, and I promise we’ll see what we can do about next year.”

I can’t think of anything I wanted to hear less in that moment.

You have to understand that for me, Charlotte has always had a … gravity. I grew up playing soccer about an hour away near High Point. Even though I had some good offers to play Division I elsewhere, I felt UNC Charlotte gave me the best chance to play professionally. So I stayed home. I guess the city wasn’t ready to let me go. The first time I left was because I had to. Chicago had drafted me and allowed me to live my dream of playing professional soccer — something I couldn’t do in Charlotte.

Now, with a new MLS club, it was almost like my hometown was trying to pull me back in.

“Did you see the news?” I said. “We have to get back to Charlotte. I don’t care what it takes. We just have to get there.”

One pandemic-shortened season later, it succeeded. Charlotte made a trade to bring me home for its 2022 inaugural season. And to top it off, they announced it on December 8, 2020, the same day I married my college sweetheart, Rebecca.

It was easily the best day of my life.

It’s funny how when you look back on your life, you notice certain themes — little undercurrents that seem to have led you to where you are and who you’ve become. The city of Charlotte has always been one for me. That’s been the setting for most of my story. 

But there’s another theme that I honestly didn’t pick up on until I sat down to write this article. Something that has found its way into my life many times over the years, like Charlotte has.

Cliche as it sounds, it’s gratitude. And it comes from little realizations throughout my life that not only are there people out there far less fortunate than me, but that I have both the ability and responsibility to help.

I first noticed this when I was 13, playing soccer at Wesleyan Christian Academy. We had an exchange program. That year, a couple of kids from South America — Mitchell and Miguel — joined our soccer club. They became members of our team immediately, and one thing I’ll always remember is when they first introduced themselves. They told us about how back home in Colombia, they had up to eight people living in a tiny two-bedroom home. They had come to the U.S. to play soccer and go to college, but even though they were maybe 15 years old, they also had to get jobs to send money home to their families because back in Colombia, in their small towns, there were very few jobs. For many people, including teenagers like them, the only option was to join gangs, forced to do God-knows-what just to make enough money to keep the lights on at home.

I was floored. I couldn’t even comprehend that kind of struggle. Coming from a middle-class American family, we weren’t super well-off, but we also didn’t have to worry about money. Sure, my brother and I weren’t allowed to touch the thermostat. If a light was left on or the refrigerator door was open too long, Dad let us know. So yeah, we were frugal. But we didn’t struggle.

It made me feel grateful for what I had. But as a 13-year-old, I didn’t think about how I could help. I just listened to their story, felt the gratitude, then tucked it away in the back of my mind, filed it under “perspective,” and carried on.

Will Crooks for The Players' Tribune

Over the years, that theme kept coming up. In high school, I started listening to motivational speakers like Inky Johnson. I found inspiration through his talks, but also his story. If you haven’t heard of him, he was a football player whose career ended when a hit left his right arm paralyzed. But the part of his story that really struck me was how he grew up in a family with 14 people living in a two-bedroom house and somehow made it out, played college football, and, despite his injury, persevered and built an incredible, meaningful life for himself. 

When I first heard this, I immediately thought of Mitchell and Miguel. I again felt the same gratitude for having grown up in a financially stable home with a loving family and my own bed — the kind of things many of us take for granted. And every time I listened to Inky and heard him tell that story, it was a little reminder.

That brings me to something that happened this past year, which changed everything. 

My wife and I had begun volunteering with a Charlotte nonprofit called Beds for Kids. It's an organization that furnishes households for families in need. On one trip, we carried furniture up to the second story of an eight-unit apartment building, and the only thing that shocked me more than the size of the tiny one-bedroom apartment was the fact that it was home to a family of four — just like mine growing up. The parents slept on a pull-out couch in the living room so the kids could have the bedroom. 

As we assembled the furniture, I couldn’t help thinking how much those parents cared for their kids, sacrificing the bedroom for them. I had volunteered with Beds for Kids before, but for some reason, this visit was … more real than the others. And I just knew that continuing this kind of work was how I was going to help lift up the city that I love so much. Making meaningful connections with people all over Charlotte continues to solidify the bond I have with this city. And being a leader in the community so we can all help each other and be good neighbors is a responsibility I take seriously.

Will Crooks for The Players' Tribune

I’m passionate about the city of Charlotte. Every player who signs here, I tell them, “Welcome to the best city on the planet!” They just kind of laugh, but I mean it. To me, Charlotte is the greatest city in the world. It’s a small city with a big-city feel. You’re two hours from the mountains, three from the beach. It’s safe. Family-oriented. A city of great people with good hearts and incredible Charlotte FC supporters. I always say that performance reflects happiness. Well, I’m happy and grateful that I get to wake up every day in my favorite city and play for a club I love, in front of fans who support us no matter what.

And to work alongside Beds for Kids to help raise money so we can have more families living comfortably in and around the Charlotte area, which ultimately helps elevate the city, is truly an honor.

And now, I have received the much-needed support from a major MLS sponsor, Audi. As part of its Goals Drive Progress fund, Audi is contributing $40,000 to Beds for Kids, which will allow us to provide furniture to hundreds of families in the Charlotte area. It’s an honor. It’s just one more thing that makes me realize that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

The city of Charlotte has given me so much. It’s where I fell in love with the game of soccer. It’s where I grew up. Where I met my wife. Where we’ll eventually raise our family. I’m thankful that Charlotte FC brought me home, and I can only hope that I can give back to the club and city what they’ve given to me over the years.

So when you talk about gratitude … I get to play the game I love in my favorite city. And I get to lift up my hometown by helping people who are truly in need, giving back to the city that’s given me so much. 

I don’t think I could ask for anything more.

The Audi Goals Drive Progress initiative supports MLS athletes making an impact off the pitch through financial contributions to nonprofit organizations that create sustainable communities, foster equity and inclusion, and enrich the lives of those in need. Through the Audi Goals Drive Progress fund, Audi will be providing $40,000 to Beds for Kids Inc. in celebration of the work that both the organization and Brandt do for their community. For more stories on Audi’s commitment to supporting MLS athletes and their community initiatives, please check out additional content from the “Celebrating Impact” series.