If you’d been at The Enchanted Forest amusement park on Friday you might have noticed a mother there with her two young children, hurrying to find a quiet spot. A World Cup soccer match was about to start, and so she pulled out her cell phone and joined the Fox Sports broadcast from Russia.
“It brings me to tears every time,” she said.
Not Russia. Not the teams playing. The voice of man she loves.
That woman is Nicole Strong. The voice belongs to her husband, John, the lead play-by-play broadcaster for Fox Sports during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. But today — Father’s Day — it’s the broadcast the rest of the world will never see that I want to tell you about.
That broadcast will originate 6,000 miles from Russia, from a home in suburban Portland using FaceTime. A four-year old little boy with red hair and dimples will sit tall, and pull his seven-month old sister close. Jacob and Stella will wait for the connection. Dad’s face will appear. They’ll hear his voice. Then, it’s smiles and giggles.
“They just love it,” Nicole said. “It’s our morning ritual.”
Full disclosure, I know the Strong family well. When John graduated college from the University of Oregon at 22, he joined my radio show staff. He’s brilliant on air, but an even better person. I was honored years later to serve as his best man at their wedding. Then came Nicole’s baby shower, hosted at our home. A few days after that, Jacob showed up. He was born several weeks premature, so small at birth that he rested more in his parents’ hands than their arms when they held him.
Jacob’s not tiny anymore. Strong isn’t just his last name. He doesn’t so much greet you as he tackles you. And man, is he ever his father. Looks like him. Talks like him. Walks like him, right down to the thrown-back shoulders and I’ve-Got-Somewhere-To-Be gait. Stella is more mom, who was an all-conference soccer player at Washington State. But if we’re announcing rooting interests Team Strong is my favorite World Cup team.
“Right now, we have the broadcasts on in our home non-stop,” Nicole said.
Their dad has always seemed headed somewhere big. Everyone saw it. His parents. His sister. His teachers in high school at Lake Oswego High, and later, his college professors. By the time I met the kid we called ”Strong-a-pedia” in a radio studio I was well aware that the world didn’t just have a Bob Costas-talent on its hands, but the man who would eventually become the voice of American soccer.
Strong did play-by-play in his parent’s living room growing up. And there were Portland State football games he attended with a friend, where they proceeded to do the play-by-play call from the stands, much to the annoyance of those around them. Then, came high school football games broadcast on the Internet that Strong jokes, “were listened to only by my parents, my friend’s parents and a running back home sick with mono who couldn’t go to the game.”
He worked on my radio show. Soon, he had his own show. Then, the Timbers hired him as their inaugural Major League Soccer broadcaster in 2011. It was a blast for him as years earlier he’d rooted for the team from the Timbers Army. Then, it was like Elon Musk hooked one of those SpaceX rocket thrusters to him. ESPN called. So did NBC Sports. Then, Fox Sports and this World Cup.
“My challenge has always been, having been thrust into the deeper end of the pool, can I figure it out?” Strong told me last month. “First, tread water. Now, comfortably float. It’s an ongoing challenge of taking advantage of the doors that are opened for you, but then, making sure you can actually stick there.”
It’s been said that Paavo Nurmi was born to run. And that Monet was destined to paint. And that Cristiano Ronaldo was born to score goals. But as long as we’re declaring those things, what of the broadcaster who so masterfully called Ronaldo’s World Cup hat trick in front of an estimated 3.2 million viewers across the Fox Sports platforms last week?
That guy was born for what he did, too.
On Saturday, Strong was on the Argentina vs. Iceland match. Argentina’s Lionel Messi missed a second-half penalty kick, Iceland survived with a draw despite not taking a second-half shot and Strong shouted as time expired, “to borrow a line from North American sports history, Iceland beats Argentina 1-1!”
It was so smart. Wicked smart. Viewers who expect an American broadcaster to play a big moment like that straight don’t know Strong and his penchant for drawing a swift, intelligent line to the perfect comparison on a moment’s notice. His call on the World Cup tie was a reference to both the 1968 college football miracle “Harvard beats Yale 29-29” headline and USA’s 1-1 World Cup soccer tie with England in 2010 that The New York Post hailed with, “US wins 1-1.”
I loved it. Because it not only demonstrated how well researched and prepared Strong is, but because it wasn’t the safe call. Parts of the world still don’t think America knows soccer and yet here’s the voice of our soccer nation diving beyond the obvious, mining deep for genuine context.
“I always felt more comfortable in front of a microphone than in front of actual human beings,” Strong said, “particularly if they were female.”
He and Nicole talked just fine when they started dating in 2009. They sat for hours on a bench not far from Joe’s Crab Shack in Vancouver, overlooking the Columbia River, talking. Not about soccer, always. About middle names, favorite foods and dreams. About Nicole’s post-college transition from coaching soccer to playing some professionally. They talked until the sun went down sometimes.
“That little bench was our spot,” she said.
Then, one day, Nicole sat on the bench but John didn’t. Instead, he dropped to a knee in front of it, produced a ring, and asked, “Will you marry me?”
Their story is one of love, soccer, career, kids, and who knows what comes after Russia? The moon? The sun? Another World Cup? This one in the United States?
“You know what blows me away is how composed and mature he seems every step of the way,” Nicole said. “There’s nerves, sure. But he’s always composed beyond his years. It doesn’t surprise me because I know him and believe in him. But at the same time, it’s all so mind blowing.”
It’s why Nicole has those tears in her eyes every time she tunes in. It’s why their children will grow up with their father’s highlight calls stacked in their memory banks. It’s why so many people in our region, watching a World Cup match — myself included — might feel connected to an event going on so far away.
The United States Men’s National Team didn’t qualify. Turns out, we still have a rooting interest.
John Strong is spending his Father’s Day in Southern Russia, where he woke up in what he described as a “small town and a very small hotel room.” He’ll spend the day in the city of Rostov-On-Don, calling the Brazil vs. Switzerland match. It starts at 11 a.m. Pacific time. The kids will tune in and watch. Maybe you will too. But it’s the broadcast today between Jacob, Stella and their dad that I want to tell you about first.
That event begins with smiles, and a “Happy Father’s Day!” of course. Eventually, the conversation will turn to the envelopes taped to the wall in the living room of their home. Their father put them there before he left. All 40 of them at the start. They’re to be opened one a day, each containing a clue to a small gift dad picked out for Jacob before he left.
“It’s just a little something every day,” Nicole said. “It’s a good visual for him, and it’s a positive connection with dad being gone so long.”
There are 29 envelopes left. It’s a long tournament. Jacob will open one today. His mother will read him the clue. Then, a scavenger hunt ensues. And it ends with that red-headed boy bridging a 10-hour time difference with his father by squealing, giggling, and telling dad what he’s found.
Stella just smiles through the whole thing.
Giggles and smiles — the kinds of things that close a 6,000-mile gap in an instant.
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