When he looks into The Wall on an Orlando City gameday, amid the sea of purple, Mason Stajduhar sees one blue jersey with his name and number on it.
“He’s in the dead center of The Wall,” Stajduhar said. “You can pick him out right away.”
It may seem peculiar that someone would own the kit of a goalkeeper still waiting to make his professional debut.
But for Tim Myers, Mason Stajduhar is so much more than No. 31.
“I’m actually a cancer survivor myself,” Myers said after meeting Stajduhar at Sylvan Lake Park on June 26. “As soon as he was diagnosed it was a no-brainer for me.”
Stajduhar, City’s 20-year-old Homegrown goalkeeper, had just finished treatment for Ewing’s Sarcoma a week earlier. The two, ironically both from New England, spoke for a short while before taking photos with the blue No. 31 ‘keeper kit.
“Sometimes he’s facing The Wall, because he’s leading the chants, so I see my name and number on his back,” Stajduhar said. “It’s very, very cool.”
The first meeting was a long time coming. It was a couple weeks into the season that Myers tweeted photos of his jersey to @OrlandoCitySC. Stajduhar saw the tweet and responded with a video message thanking him.
Thanks for the support! We’re big fans of this and so is Mason. ? pic.twitter.com/3hedtBLmTI— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) March 29, 2018
“I know the struggles he just went through,” said Myers, who was 24 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “The support system that you have is what makes you be able to get through things. I’m proud of him. He has the Orlando City family and he has his family to help him get through what he just dealt with.”
And on Wednesday – eight months after he was diagnosed – Mason’s doctors told him he is in remission.
“I’m back to 100 percent football,” Stajduhar said.
A fleeting moment, a forever memory
Before Stajduhar’s diagnosis, Myers’ gameday kit was a green one given to him by legendary Lions ‘keeper Miguel Gallardo.
“I remember he asked me for a jersey through social media,” said Gallardo, who played four years for City in the USL Pro and is now with the Club as a TV and digital reporter. “His story is important and it struck a chord with me. I was like, ‘I gotta find this guy a jersey. I just have to.’
“He seemed over the moon when I finally gave it to him. It’s really cool that I was able to give him a little bit of happiness through his struggle.”
From then on, Myers wore it to every City match, a lone spot of green in The Wall of purple.
“I like to be seen, loud and proud, to show my support for the team,” he said.
In truth, Myers wasn’t even a soccer fan until he saw the energy in the supporters’ section.
“I want to be a part of that. I’ll learn the sport of soccer.”
The passion of the supporters that is the essence of Orlando City SC was built from the bottom through the shared commitment of the supporters and the early Lions themselves.
“We understood that right from the beginning,” Gallardo said. “We created this culture that any player that came in had to understand that this is part of the Club. You’re not just here to play, you’re here to build a brand. A lot of those die-hard fans are fans that were here since Day 1, those fans brought more fans. These people that would never even watch soccer before but just to see that atmosphere, the passion, the investment that people make in this Club – it’s contagious.”
Five or so years later, Myers ran into Gallardo and fellow former City ‘keeper turned Orlando police officer Tally Hall at a tailgate.
“I was taking a photo with [Hall] and two other super cool fans, Rachel and Jessica,” Gallardo recalled without hesitation. “He came up from the back and he snuck in the picture too and we had a little moment.”
The moment was fleeting, but for Myers, the memory will live forever.
Paying it forward
Gallardo learned at a young age what meeting a player can mean to someone.
When he was about 10 years old, he met José “El Tato” Noriega, who played for his hometown team Santos Laguna in Mexico, at a hardware store. He approached Noriega and asked for his autograph.
“He was super nice,” Gallardo said. “That was a game-changer for me when I became a pro because I knew the feeling that it gave me when I went up to him. Knowing the type of impact you can make on, not just an adult, but a child, is really special.”
So it was an easy for him to search through his attic for a kit to give to Myers. And it’s by some fortunate stroke of fate that Myers can show support for Stajduhar the way others have shown for him.
“Her name is Rebecca Barnes. She ran the Disney Marathon for me. My goal when she did it for me was to run a full one for her, just to show how much that meant to me,” said Myers, who will run a half marathon in September.
Stajduhar, too, has received tremendous support. Not just from his family and girlfriend, but from his teammates and colleagues around MLS, including U.S. national team legend Tim Howard, Clint Irwin and Matt Lampson, himself a cancer survivor who founded The LampStrong Foundation as his way of giving back.
“It’s really cool when guys like that reach out to you and show you their support,” Stajduhar said. “I was very grateful for it.”
For now, Mason is just basking in the light that is remission and being completely back to soccer. He’ll have his opportunity to pay it forward soon enough.
“Some type of work, whether it be a marathon or a foundation or visiting kids at the hospital,” Stajduhar said. “I want to do something, for sure.”