Tijani Ayegbusi tried his best to tune out the obnoxious fan with the loud voice.
For two-plus hours, Ayegbusi said, the fan had badgered him and some of his teammates on the Chicago Soul, an indoor soccer team that plays at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates.
It was annoying but tolerable.
Toward the end of the game, however, the tone took an ugly turn.
The fan aimed his venom toward Ayegbusi, a 30-year-old native of Lagos, Nigeria, and one of two black players on the team. Ayegbusi heard the fan call out to him by his name.
“When he yelled my name, I didn’t even look at him,” Ayegbusi said during a recent phone interview from his home in Chicago. “But what made me look at him when I heard him calling me names – racial names. I looked, like, does he really mean that? What is he saying?
“He called me a monkey.”
When Ayegbusi looked over, he said, the fan spit in his direction. He repeated the slur.
“Then, I knew he meant business,” said Ayegbusi, who described the fan as a white man who looked to be in his 20s. “He was sure of what he was doing.”
Ayegbusi gave chase, leaping over the boards and chasing the fan up the stairs at the end of the Soul’s Feb. 18 game against the Milwaukee Wave. He chased the fan into the concourse before a teammate caught up to him to intervene, and the fan ran down another set of stairs.
“When he saw me coming – because he knew what he did – then he started running,” Ayegbusi said. “By the time I got upstairs, one of my teammates, Carlos Munoz, saw me going [into the stands] and he came after me, just to come and grab me like, ‘T.J., just let it go.’ ”
One day later, the Major Indoor Soccer League suspended Ayegbusi for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs, for entering the stands to engage in a dispute. The league suspended Munoz for one game for following Ayegbusi into the stands.
The penalty was harsh but necessary, MISL senior director Chris Economides said Tuesday.
“We need to set an example here,” said Economides, who sent a memo to each of the league’s teams after the incident. “I don’t care what happened. You don’t go into the stands.
“We want to send a very clear message to the player, to the organization, and to the entire league that we will not condone anything remotely associated with this.”
Other leagues also have come down hard on players entering the stands.
The most notable example came in 2004, when then-Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest entered the stands during a road game against the Detroit Pistons. That set off an ugly, dangerous melee between fans and players in the stands and prompted a season-long suspension for Artest as well as several other lengthy suspensions.
Thankfully, last week’s incident did not escalate to violence.
Ayegbusi said he could have understood a one-game suspension for his actions. But the remainder of the season?
“It was too severe,” Ayegbusi said. “That wasn’t fair.
“Because whoever it is should put themselves in my own shoes. What would you do if somebody comes right in front of you at your home, right at your doorstep, and called you names and spit towards you? What would you do? What would you do?”
The memory is fresh, and it hurts.
Ayegbusi raised his voice in anger as he described the fan’s behavior. He spoke softly as he described what it was like to be the target of racism. He insisted that no players on the Soul antagonized the fan during the game.
Ultimately, the personal insults caused the greatest pain. But Ayegbusi also will be hurt professionally – the Soul are competing for a playoff spot in their inaugural season – as well as financially – he estimates his lost wages could come close to $10,000.
Ayegbusi has played professional soccer for 14 years in one form or another. He played for clubs in Nigeria before coming to the United States in 2002 and joining the MISL in 2004.
He has endured a lot of kicks over the years.
The fan’s words represented a kick to the stomach.
“I felt terrible about it,” Ayegbusi said. “I felt unworthy. For somebody to call me that kind of name … from what I know in this country, you can’t speak at somebody [like that].”
No, you can’t. It’s unfathomable and inexcusable that some people still do.
Ayegbusi regrets what he did, but only because his actions and subsequent suspension hurt his team. He had a goal, three assists and 12 blocked shots in 16 games this season.
The Soul invited Ayegbusi to travel with the team to Kansas City for their most recent road game. Ayegbusi was grateful for the offer, but he declined.
“I just wanted to stay back home,” Ayegbusi said, “to take a break from the game right now.”
He expects the break to be only temporary. Last week’s incident might have ruined his season, but Ayegbusi said it would not spoil his career.
Ayegbusi hopes to return to the Soul next season.
“Soccer has taken me to so many places,” Ayegbusi said. “I’m not going to stop because of that boy.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.