It seems like only yesterday that Mike Petke was running out of the tunnel at Giants Stadium in the red and black of the MetroStars, a bleach-blonde 22-year-old rookie defender trying to justify his status as a first round pick.
Petke was playing left back then, his garish hair complemented by no shortage of flair: bead necklaces draped around his neck, a Breathe Right strip on his nose.
Petke announced on Tuesday that he will be retiring at season’s end, drawing to a close one of the most colorful and dramatic careers in franchise history. He spent eight seasons carving out his own identity while simultaneously instilling himself as the face of the New York franchise – no matter which team logo was on the front of the jersey.
This is his second tenure with the club, having been traded away after the 2002 season and then being reacquired by the club in 2008. He played for both D.C. United and the Colorado Rapids, but his heart inevitably belonged in his native New York and across the river in New Jersey, where he won fans over even during his first days as a rookie.
In 1998, he won fans over with his intensity on the field, hard slide tackles and the way he celebrated every team goal like it had just won the MetroStars the MLS Cup. In 1999, in the midst of a 7-25 season that remains among the worst in league history, it was Petke who yelled at fans wearing bags over their heads to not give up on the team.
One year later, he dove into the visiting supporters’ section at RFK Stadium following an overtime win by New York over the defending MLS Cup champions.
And who can forget that same year when, after Tampa Bay’s Mamadou Diallo stamped a hole with his cleat into the lung of MetroStars’ goalkeeper Mike Ammann? Petke scored a goal in the next game and lifted up his jersey, only to show a T-shirt underneath with the message “Revenge Is Coming.”
[inline_node:305977]So, too, was a fine from the league for the stunt. But the message became part of Petke lore among the team’s faithful, and the T-shirt, with the message scrawled in marker, hangs in the Empire Supporters Club’s bar in New York City to this day.
With the retirement of Petke goes the passing of an era in MLS, from a time when the league was struggling and many wondered openly whether it would survive to today’s league, which is challenging the big boys in the American sports world for attention.
Petke certainly did his part to keep the wheels in motion, spurning two contracts from Germany to stay in New York and play for his hometown team.
As a junior in high school, I won a contest and had the chance to attend a clinic that Petke and several other players were hosting one Sunday afternoon in June. I remember standing there in awe of Petke, unable to talk as I watched him juggle the ball and give tips and advice to the other players.
I’m not sure if I heard a word as I simply watched Petke, then just a rookie, interact with the other teenagers there.
Such was the power of Petke, his passion for the club extending even to a two-hour clinic on a muggy Sunday afternoon. He posed for every photo, signed every ball, shook hands with every parent, stopped to talk to everyone who wanted a moment. Even then, I knew there was something special about Mike Petke.
All these years later, I feel the same, assured to know that if Petke returns to Red Bull Arena someday in the future as a fan among those who adored him, he has nothing left to prove to any of us.
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012