The drums pound relentlessly, a pulsating backbeat to the joyous songs, cheers and beer drinking in Toyota Park’s north end zone bleachers.

On the field, the Fire presses forward against Atlanta United. David Accam gains control of the ball deep in the penalty area, then finds Luis Solignac across the goal mouth and — boom — he scores. Celebration erupts in the bleachers. A gigantic flag, known as a tifo, unfurls as people underneath pass the fabric back while singing, dancing and high-fiving.

Play resumes, the tifo is collected and stashed away. The drums continue, the cheers carry on and the party won’t stop until the final whistle.

Welcome to Section 8, arguably the most intense fan group in Chicago sports.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love football, basketball, baseball and hockey,” Section 8 fan Alex Conner said, “but not any one of those sports has a fan base that’s standing and continuously singing for the entire game.”

The sense of community also differentiates this fan base. Section 8 hosts annual charitable events such as the Rock Against Racism tailgate and a New Year’s Day soccer tournament. It organizes transportation to road games and viewing parties for those who can’t make the trip.

On Sunday, Fire players and fans marched together in Chicago’s Pride Parade.

What also sets these fans apart is their love-hate relationship with the Fire: They thoroughly support the players, but they’re sometimes at odds with ownership.

“I’d say the most (unified) protest of the front office was in 2005 when (general manager) Peter Wilt was fired,” Section 8 Chairman Scott Greene said. “I believe no one even went into the section for the first eight minutes of the game.”

When they finally did enter, everyone wore black. Then, at the start of the second half, black rolls covered the crowd.

Two years ago, some Section 8 fans chanted for the ouster of owner Andrew Hauptman, as the Fire was mired in another losing season.

But this year, with the Fire’s success (seven straight victories at home and nine consecutive MLS games without a loss), the sentiment has been positive.

Section 8, whose name comes from its original location in Soldier Field where the Fire first played, now resides in sections 116-118 of Toyota Park. Officially known as the Independent Supporters’ Association for the Fire Soccer Club, it is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization run by an eight-person board of directors Green heads. There are monthly meetings and a documented set of bylaws that is 12 pages long.

“Our whole purpose is to enable fans to be better fans,” Greene said.

Here are snapshots of some of those Section 8 fans.

Raul Jimenez, 44, West Chicago

Raul Jimenez took a regular ambulance, stripped it bare and created a party on wheels. Cushioned benches. Beer bongs on the back doors. A keg next to the passenger door. Fire memorabilia covers almost every inch inside the vehicle, decals decorate the outside and four flags are mounted to the roof.

Meet the “Fanbulence,”a hot commodity at the Section 8 tailgate.

“It’s a big investment, like 10 grand,” Jimenez said. “It’s worth it, though. You get a little back, some money back, but it’s just the fun you have. (That’s) all that matters.”

Originally, Jimenez bought the ambulance to transport his son, Jesus, who was about 8 at the time, and the rest of his soccer team to games.

But after the group eventually went to a Fire game, Jimenez saw how much his son enjoyed it and created the Fanbulence.

“It got into my heart — the Fire,” said Jimenez, who says he moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1984 and now works as a chef at Ferrara Candy Company in Forest Park.

The Fanbulence has been a Section 8 tailgate staple for five years. He also takes it to road games.

“When you’re a fan and you support a team,” Raul said, “you don’t care how long you drive.”

Jeff and June Krueger, 61 and 56, Bartlett

Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune

Jeff and June Krueger live a simple life. They have been married for 32 years and have a 26-year-old son. They both work at the Sears corporate office in Hoffman Estates and enjoy gardening during their free time.

At Fire games, all bets are off.

“I’m a totally different person when I’m here,” June said. “This is a different world. This is my favorite world.”

Their son, Alex, was the one who introduced his parents to the Fire. As a kid, he did a soccer summer camp where, at the end, all the participants got a ticket to see the Fire play. Parents invited.

“I started getting obsessed, literally obsessed,” June said. “Like there’s going to be a soccer game on somewhere. There has to be. That’s what kind of started it because we could never find the Fire on TV. So we were like screw it, we’re getting season tickets.”

After that, it didn’t take long at all for Jeff and June to join Section 8.

Before their first game as season-ticket holders in 2000, Jeff and June ended up in the middle of Section 8’s tailgate.

“If it weren’t for tailgating here at the Fire, I never would have met these people because if we passed each other on the street, we would have ignored each other,” Jeff said. “We’re suburbanites, they’re downtowners. We’re West Side, they’re South Side.”

Now, Jeff and June are considered the parents of Section 8. They go to every home game and, when possible, road games. Their gardening can take a hit during the season, but it’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make for the experience at Toyota Park.

“Normally she’s pretty reserved,” Jeff says of June. “She’s not a dancer. But a couple of seasons ago … they were playing music after the game, and one of the guys down there and his wife were dancing. And she was like wow, they look so good dancing together. He ended up teaching her how to dance that night. … She does not dance anywhere else, but right here at a Chicago Fire game.”

Nicole Hack, 36, Pilsen

The last time Nicole Hack was with her father was at Toyota Park for Section 8’s annual meeting.

Now, seven years later, at the base of the stairs that lead to Section 8, on the Wall of Honor dedicated to Fire fans, past and present, there are four plaques on display: One of them is for Al Hack, who passed away on Feb. 14, 2010 from a heart attack.

“That’s like a really special tie to our family and why we love soccer so much,” Nicole Hack said. “It’s because of him.”

Hack’s father coached her and her younger sister, Allison, when they were growing up. They went to Chicago Power games, the indoor soccer team, until purchasing Fire season tickets in 2004. It became a family tradition.

The year after her father’s death, Hack continued to attend every Fire game. It’s where, she said, she felt closest to him. Section 8 rallied behind her family and showed endless support.

In 2015 and ’16, Hack was the director of communications for Section 8. The Fire finished last in both of those seasons, but she never stopped encouraging fans to stick with the team.

“A lot of times, I wished I could ask my dad for advice,” Hack said. “But other than that, just being around the culture for so long, it was prideful for me. I wanted to do something for the community.”

It didn’t stop with Section 8 either.

Hack helped create a female Fire supporters group, as well as the Red Stars’ fan group, Chicago Local 134.

Through everything, Hack always has made time for Fire games.

“I’m able to see (my dad) every time I’m at the stadium, regardless of the Wall of Honor,” Hack said. “That’s where he is for me.”

Parker Brewster-Graning, 9, Humboldt Park

Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune

In the Section 8 tailgating area of the Toyota Park parking lot, hours before the Fire-Atlanta United game, there’s a lemonade stand run by 9-year-old Parker Brewster, wearing a “Come on you Men in Red” T-shirt and a brown Pokemon hat.

His parents, Amber and Josh, stand behind to lend a hand when needed, but Parker has everything under control.

“I felt bad for all the homeless people (in Chicago),” Parker said. “So I wanted to raise money for them.”

All of the proceeds go to Cornerstone Community Outreach. This year, Parker has raised $1,500 at games and $815 online through donations.

Ever since he was 4, Parker has been a a regular in Section 8 at Fire games. He goes with his dad, who had season tickets with friends well before Parker was born.

“He enjoys himself, meets people and we have a good time interacting,” Josh said.

When Parker was younger, he and his family would sit toward the top of the bleachers to somewhat avoid the chaos.

“The section’s not for everybody, that rambunctiousness,” Josh said. “But he likes it, which is pretty good since I’ve been doing it for so long.”

That connection is why Section 8 adopted Parker’s lemonade stand, which changes to hot chocolate when it’s cold. Josh originally joined Section 8 after meeting a couple members in the parking lot before his second Fire game.

Because Parker donates all of the money, his parents reward his selflessness with a gift. Last year, he asked for a custom-made Fire jersey with his name on the back. He plans to play for the team one day.

“I don’t really play a position,” he said. “But if I were to, it would either be goalie or midfield.”

Josue “Josh” Gomez, 39, Wrigleyville

For five years, Josue “Josh” Gomez was an outsider looking in. He had front-row Fire season tickets to watch the game he always has loved. They were great seats, but his eyes kept wandering over to Section 8, where all the fun seemed to be.

Finally, he moved to join the crowd.

“I didn’t know if I was going to fit in or not, but it was completely opposite,” said Gomez, who says he moved to the U.S. from Guatemala in 1988. “You find anybody and everybody. We do an outstanding job of making sure everybody feels welcome.”

That was a decade ago. Gomez never returned to his original seat. His two children, Marcus and Katherine, were basically raised in Section 8. They always came to the games. So did his wife, Stacie, who still avidly follows the team.

Gomez eventually became the Section 8 director of events, organizing tailgates and other social events.

Gomez works as a marketing manager for Elite Market Group, an event marketing company out of New York. If there’s something going on in Chicago, he’s more than likely there. He even has worked at large venues, such as Super Bowl XLII in Arizona and the NHL All-Star game in Minnesota.

Still, Section 8 always will be his favorite.

“I love being with people,” he said. “I love making people happy, and I love having a good time.”

Scott Greene, 28, Bridgeport

Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune

On his 10th birthday, Scott Greene received a gift that never has stopped giving. He and his travel soccer team got all-access passes to a Fire practice, and that experience lit his Fire fandom.

“Then I just followed them in the newspaper because I didn’t have cable growing up,” Greene said. “I still do have the 1998 MLS Cup on VHS somewhere at my parents’ house.”

Greene didn’t start going to games until 2006 when the team moved into Toyota Park. As soon as he saw Section 8, there was no question: He had to be a part of the madness. He always considered himself a rambunctious fan — not many kids get told to shut up at baseball games — so Section 8 was the perfect place for him to let loose.

“It got me out of a shell,” he said.

Once Greene realized how much work goes into Section 8 — setting up tailgates, managing a budget, planning trips, etc. — he no longer wanted to take it all for granted. So, he joined Section 8’s board of directors as the chairman.

During Greene’s first term, the Fire was at rock bottom. It finished last the season before Greene took over and did so again when he was in charge.

Now the team is winning but he believes the fans would remain true today if the Fire still were struggling.

“I still want to see them,” Greene said. “I want to say hi, share a beer and find out how they’re doing. It’s that family atmosphere.”

Alex Conner, 31, North Center

Five years ago, Alex Conner left his job, packed up his home in northern Indianapolis and moved to Chicago. Little did he know how quickly he would become personally invested in the Fire.

As an avid European soccer fan, rooting for Manchester United specifically, the idea of an MLS team always intrigued Conner.

“That was something I wanted to experience right here in my own backyard,” Conner said. “It has been really up and down roller coaster with the Fire over the five years.”

The Fire qualified for the 2012 playoffs after back-to-back flops, but things progressively got worse rather than better. Finishing last for two consecutive years leaves a sour aftertaste.

Yet Conner continued to support the team.

“I’m the type of sports fan that once I have some sort of experience beyond just going and watching a game, the team gets my loyalty for life,” Conner said.

This season, Conner isn’t missing a single moment at Toyota Park. He rides the same Pub to Pitch bus to the stadium and stands in the same spot within Section 8 — right in the middle, high enough to get a clear view of the field. No matter how hot it gets, Conner wears his long sleeve Bastian Schweinsteiger jersey with pride.

“Every week is being scheduled around: Is there a home game?” said Conner, who works as a federal sales director at RedSky Technologies.

Section 8 gave the Fire an edge over any other American sports team Conner supports, such as the Cubs or the Indiana Hoosiers.

“It has been a sports experience unlike any other,” Conner said. “This season hasn’t even reached the halfway mark, and — not to be overly dramatic with the wording — it’s been nothing short of magical.”

Ben Burton, 44, Chicago

Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune

Everyone in Section 8 knows Ben Burton.

The man can’t walk through the tailgate area without someone waving, calling his name or stopping him to chat.

“I just like to flirt and make everyone laugh,” Burton said. “I have a weird brain in case you haven’t noticed.”

But that same brain helped form Section 8. There were multiple Fire supporter groups back when the team started playing that he and many others came together to formalize what they were doing. Burton is one of the founders.

It was just in time, too. The Fire had to hop around during its early years. It spent three years at Soldier Field, relocated to Cardinal Stadium in Naperville for a year and then moved back to Soldier Field. It moved into Toyota Park in 2006.

“Throughout all that turmoil, we thought a strong core entity was going to help hold it together, and it seems to have worked,” Burton said. “With all the migration — from Chicago to Naperville to Chicago to Bridgeview, we could have fallen apart.”

He played soccer growing up and continued with rec leagues into adulthood because it made him feel like a kid again.

Burton, who works for Salesforce, has owned season tickets since the Fire’s first season in 1998.

When the final whistle blew in the Atlanta game, Burton was on the concourse. He hugged surrounding people in celebration and kept an eye on the fan base he helped create below.

“It has nothing to do with me at this point in time,” Burton said. “It’s nice to see everybody who gets together here. I still see people I’ve known for now 20 years, so that’s more rewarding than anything.”

Twitter @terrinvictoria


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