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Ben Olsen with his fans

Ben Olsen was going to be honored after the third quarter of Tuesday night's Wizards game; a nice gesture for a local icon on the day he retired. Then, of course, Abe Pollin died, and neither Olsen nor the Wizards thought this was the right night for a tribute to somebody else.

Still, Olsen--a longtime Wizards fan--came to the game, and while many of the United supporters found out the tribute was canceled and stayed away, several dozen showed up, in black and red, carrying scarves, and thinking they were going to honor Ben.

Which is why, beer in hand, Olsen wound up spending a good long part of his retirement night shaking hands and signing jerseys and posing for photos and trading memories with soccer fans in the 400 level of a basketball arena. "Ben-ny Ol-sen," the fans chanted when he appeared. "Ben-ny Ol-sen."

"It's this stuff here," said Jeff Werner, when I asked why United fans have gone so gaga over Olsen for so many years. "He just seems like a regular guy. We're sitting here, thinking 'Let's ask him if he'll be on our indoor team now that he's retired.' "

Truth is, there are lots of reasons for the Olsen love, lots of reasons I put him second on my list of D.C.'s Most Beloved Athletes last summer. (A list that no one happened to agree with, but whatever.) He was hard-working, and he'd been here forever; he was both honest and funny with the media, and respected by his teammates; he won titles and played hard during the bad times; he was the most prominent D.C. athlete to live in the city, he seemed liked a regular guy, and he did so while putting his body and extensive body hair on the line every time he took the field.

"Dude, man, he IS D.C. United," Chico Solares once told me. "He's the heart of the team. He's the spirit of the team."

Olsen, though, always seemed, I don't know, perplexed about the whole "heart and soul" thing. Almost uncomfortable. Maybe there's no easy way to wrap your head around something like that.

"I just don't understand it. I really don't," Olsen said after the Heart of a Lion game. These people here, they're just so supportive. I mean, all I do, I play hard, but it's not because I have this great heart. I just like to play soccer. I like to play for this team, and I guess they appreciate it."

Tuesday night, I again asked him the fan question, and now he was more willing to confront and acknowledge his popularity. Well, sort of.

"I just can't believe they do that type of stuff, and it's tough to realize they do stuff like that for me," he said. "It's a little bit tough to comprehend that, but it's flattering none the less. You saw it up there [in the 400 level]. I mean these people are just so supportive. I guess now I can look back and say I've been here a while, I've maybe brought them some joy, I've been a part of some championship teams, and if you follow someone and you're part of a championship team or a successful team, I can see why people, you know, cheer for you. But to that extent? Always a little bit surprised."

Olsen--who lives in Shaw and retains his city cred, unlike certain bloggers--said he would remain in the area, that all his options are in D.C., that "this is home, and I'll stick here for as long as I can." But even if and when he joins the team in a front-office capacity, the Heart of a Lion banners and spontaneous displays of affection and group cheers will inevitably diminish. So I asked if he'd miss the cheers.

"Absolutely," he said. "I've got an ego, man. I've got an ego, and that's one of the things I know I'm gonna miss. There's certain things I'll probably miss that I don't know, but the two things I do know are the fans getting behind you and cheering, and also the locker room. Being with the guys, the team camaraderie, going out and fighting with guys. The locker room culture is something that very, very few people get to experience. You get to work with guys your age, screwing around all day long. I liked all facets of being a professional athlete. I liked the media, I liked playing, I liked the kids, I liked the crowds, I liked the winning. Maybe the travel got to me towards the end, but other than that, I loved it. I've got no complaints."

Anyhow, not to get all melodramatic, but it the evening felt sort of appropriate. Olsen--for entirely understandable reasons--got upstaged by a bigger local sports story, and so instead he went to hang out and be serenaded by the hardcore soccer fans who loved him. Before I headed back to the press area, I asked Olsen whether he ever dreams about fans cheering for him.

"Nah, most of my dreams I'm playing and I can't really move right," he said. "I'm very slow, my legs don't work, I just feel really sluggish, and everybody else is a lot faster than me."

He paused.

"The difference between that dream and reality is actually starting to become less," he said with a laugh, "so that's really why I retired."

By Dan Steinberg  |  November 25, 2009; 10:44 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. United , Wizards  
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As I've said elsewhere, this is akin to the retirement of Cal Ripken and Darrell Green for me. I just hope that Benny remains with the club in some capacity, and think it would be wise of Fenty to take advantage of someone like Benny to promote DC.

Posted by: alecw81 | November 25, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Not as many people follow DC United as some other area teams, so to put this into perspective, to find a comparable icon you might have to go back nearly 40 years to Frank Howard and the second set of Washington Senators.

Posted by: greggwiggins | November 25, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for understanding where United fans are coming from on this, Dan. I know people were lining up to object to your placing Olsen and Moreno ahead of guys like Cooley or Gil or Zimmerman, but they were missing the point your article took (even though it was very clearly explained early on). Redskins fans will be sad to see Cooley retire (assuming he stays here for his whole career), but he's not an icon in 'Skins football history.

sitruc put it well. Ben Olsen is to DC United as Darrell Green is to the Redskins, or as Cal Ripken is to the Orioles. We're talking about players that, years later, people will still be getting brand new jerseys with these guys' names and numbers on them. They're the kind of players fans will be telling their grandkids about. They define the culture of their respective teams.

Posted by: Chest_Rockwell | November 25, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Ben Olsen spent time (back in 2000) playing for Nottingham Forest in England. He demonstrated a level of skill and enthusiasm that showed that he was more than capable of playing the style of football, at the level required of him. He was very much a fans favourite in his short spell, which was unfortunately terminated with a serious ankle injury. Forest were very much interested in signing Olsen, prior to the injury. It was both a pleasure, to witness first hand a skillful and athletic player for whom full blooded commitment was second nature, as well as a sadness that his injury in that spell perhaps limited his ultimate ambitions.

It's good to see that Ben has gone on to have a long and successful career. As a player he was everything that a fan could ask of one of their onfield representatives. Nottingham Forest is a club with an important history, and is the smallest club to have had the honour of lifting the European Cup twice. In my lifetime there are many players who have become part of the clubs legend. For those of us who were privileged to see Ben Olsen play, he joins the elite band of highly esteemed players - even though he was with us only fleetingly.

Please pass on my regards to Ben, and wish him well for the future. Though only a small part of his career, his spell in Nottingham left a mark and he will always be fondly remembered. He was an excellent, committed, and skillful player, who always behaved like a gentleman - on and off the pitch.

Posted by: tetricky | November 25, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Great write up Dan, although I made the press conference yesterday I couldn't make the game last night. Ben is one of those rare athletes that get it. Maybe it's because DC United players are so much more accesible but he's always been one of us. The peoples champ.

Posted by: CHICO13 | November 25, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I saw Olsen/UVA lose to UCLA in the final of the '97 NCAA tourney. I'll never forget him walking right past me, crying, on his way to the locker room. He will always be my favorite soccer player. Thanks to all you gave to DC.

Posted by: ovisgod | November 25, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the love, Dan.

Let's see if Chris Samuels gets this kind of send-off party from the Redskins faithful.

Ben Olsen & DC 4ever!



Posted by: jayrockers | November 25, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

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