THE USA is not interested in soccer. Sorry, Adidas, but it's true. We'll watch a reality show about David and Victoria Beckham, but a televised 90-minute soccer match? Forget it.
However, to enter PGE Park when the Portland Timbers are playing is to enter a different world—where you can check out the type of debauchery that can usually only be seen at soccer games in other countries. Timbers fans are usually rabid and boisterous; they revel in singing, swearing, drinking, and loving their soccer team unconditionally.
At the front of this huge mass of fans—the Timbers Army—stands Timber Jim, their beloved mascot. Looking the part of a true axe man, he is clad in jean overalls and brown steel-toed boots. He brings a chainsaw, which he uses extensively. He does front handsprings, hangs from the rafters beating a drum, and climbs 80-foot poles to rile the crowd up. He doesn't even get paid for it.
At the opening game against the Puerto Rico Islanders on Thursday, April 17, "Timber Jim" Serrill is retiring. Citing a "body that just won't hold up forever" and a desire to spend more time with his family, 53-year-old Serrill won't be leaving Portland; he'll just be stepping out of the limelight. Preferably sitting in the stands with one grandchild on each knee.
In case you wondered, Serrill is a real lumberjack. His work history includes everything from being a smoke jumper through college, a helicopter logger, an axe man, to what he is today, a line clearance tree trimmer for Pacific Power. Or, he laughed, "a city logger."
"ALL I NEED IS A POLE."
Serrill fell into his role as Timber Jim in 1978 when he began bringing a chainsaw to the games to rev up the crowd.
"It just kind of snowballed. When I first got there, all I did was cut slabs when they scored. I'd sit in the dugout and wait for a goal. One thing led to another, and I decided if I'm going to do this thing, I'm going to do it right. That's when I started climbing the pole, doing tricks, and leading songs."
The pole climb involves an 80-foot tall "scag," with a 14-inch diameter for Serrill to stand upon. Since 1978, Serrill's been through four poles. But insurance problems have made the possibility of a new pole unlikely. That could also be to blame for Serrill's retirement.
"I really don't want to do a watered-down act. I offered to come out of a helicopter for the last game—but they don't want anything too dangerous, and nixed it. I asked them if they wanted me to come in off the roof... of course the insurance company's going nuts."
"THE BENEVOLENT CULT"
When asked about the popularity of the Timbers Army in Portland, Serrill says, "I'd like to think it's me—but it's really a grassroots movement. A core group of 30 drive the thing. I got people making T-shirts with my image on them, and I have no clue who they are. They just love doing it. It's a benevolent cult."
The Timbers Army has shown their love for their mascot in tough times. A car accident took the life of Serrill's daughter Hannah in 2004, and at almost every game, they pay tribute to her memory. "I'm awfully emotional, I don't know if you know the story about my daughter. But when they sing 'You Are My Sunshine,' it reduces me to a puddle.
"The city of Portland has something really unique. The Timbers Army is 14,000 people. That's just the Army. That's not talking about your soccer mom, your casual fan, and everything else. What we have in Portland is truly unique. My dream is to have that whole stadium singing, all 20,000, standing up, from the first kick to the end. And then us kicking everybody's ass in the country, and then getting moved up to MLS [Major League Soccer]."
The Timbers are tight lipped on whether or not a movement to MLS is in the works.
Says Serrill, "I think eventually it's going to be MLS. Maybe not next year, but by 2010 it will be MLS. It will be time for a new image. As far as I'm concerned, I'm too frikking old to be out there."
As far as replacing Timber Jim, the Timbers are still on the search. There's no word yet on who the replacement will be.
"I've recommended somebody. This kid's been in Afghanistan, fished in Alaska. He can rip your head off without even trying. He's that strong. That's the kind of guy I want to replace me," says Serrill.
"But whoever they bring in, as long as he just cuts slabs off a log, he'll be instantly popular."
"I WISH I COULD DO IT FOREVER."
"I feel like I'm letting people down," Serrill says sadly. "Stepping out, being a so-called 'icon'; it's kind of silly, but I have a good time. I'm able to get people revved up. Sing songs they probably wouldn't normally sing. I don't get money for doing this. What I have is a legacy. That's all I got.
"I love it. I'm going to miss it. But I'm not going anywhere. That's the thing that's kind of weird. People think, 'He's retiring, we'll never see him.' Bullshit, I'll be around. I'm not leaving. My grandchildren are fourth-generation Timbers Army. I'll be there with them."