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Our City: Joe Bendik and the Hero’s Journey

Goalkeeper Joe Bendik is certainly the hero Orlando City fans deserve

MLS: D.C. United at Orlando City SC Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Our City is a weekly column dedicated to taking a wide-angled lens to the culture that surrounds Orlando City and Major League Soccer

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” - Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

It is safe to say American scholar of comparative mythology Joseph Campbell wasn’t thinking a lot about goalkeepers when he wrote the 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Actually, most of us don’t think about goalkeepers all that much. They are invisible in wins and the scapegoat in losses. Orlando City’s Joe Bendik has risen to folk hero status among the purple-clad faithful over the past two seasons with consistent play and supernatural saves. Maybe he’s just living the story arc of heroes across time?

Campbell’s work analyzes various hero myths across diverse cultures and historical periods to understand where there are root similarities. From Gilgamesh to King Arthur, Campbell identified recurring themes in the hero epics humans have created. Here is a very concise version of Campbell’s hero’s journey:

  • Born into an ordinary world, the hero hears a call to adventure.
  • The hero initially refuses the quest.
  • Meets the mentor.
  • Crosses the threshold to assume the challenge.
  • Faces many tests while meeting allies and enemies.
  • The hero reaches the “innermost cave” where the trial happens.
  • Endures the “supreme ordeal.”
  • Achieves the reward and returns on the “road back,” pursued by vengeful enemies.
  • Reemerges from his adventure transformed by his experience and has the ability to benefit the ordinary world.

Still with me? If any of that sounds oddly familiar, George Lucas was highly influenced by Campbell when he the original Star Wars trilogy.

While I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of Bendik’s life, Orlando City’s heroic goalkeeper has certainly tread at least parts of this mythological path. Every young soccer player is born into the ordinary world of kicking the ball with friends and playing on youth teams. At some point, some of those players are identified and end up playing at a higher level. Bendik’s journey took him to Clemson University, a perennial men’s powerhouse soccer program. You’ll have to ask Bendik if he ever felt like refusing the quest, but the stacked odds against becoming a professional athlete mean everyone probably has that moment when they think it might be time to give up on the dream. The early parts of his career playing a collective 14 games for Norway’s Sogndal and the Portland Timbers between 2010 and 2012 certainly had to be trying times.

If you are looking for the hero’s mentor, look no further than Bendik’s relationship with goalkeeping coach Stewart Kerr. The former Celtic stopper worked with Bendik at Toronto and Orlando — although he has now moved on to Vancouver. Much has been made of Bendik’s growth and confidence under Kerr’s tutelage. While a good deal younger than Merlin or Obi-Wan-Kenobi, Kerr could certainly be seen as that mentor that every hero needs. I’m sure there were other coaches and mentors along the way as well. It was when Bendik assumed the starting job at Toronto that we could interpret as the moment he crossed the threshold and assumed challenge.

As Bendik’s heroic journey has come to Orlando, he has certainly met plenty of tests, allies, and enemies. Following in the footsteps of popular first-year goalkeeper Tally Hall, Bendik inherited a defense still finding its footing, with personnel and coaching changes marking the first year. Much of Bendik’s folk hero status comes from making so many remarkable saves when his defender’s put him in very difficult situations. This season Bendik has teamed with allies Jonathan Spector, Donny Toia, Scott Sutter, and Tommy Redding to aid in the quest. On the enemy side of things, he has already faced some of the toughest goal scorers in the league in David Villa (twice), Bradley Wright-Phillips, Justin Meram, and the duo of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. Despite a very tough night in front of the goal last night against Houston, Bendik and his allies have generally been giving as good as they’ve gotten so far this season. While other players have gotten headlines for their contributions, Bendik has been a stalwart in back keeping Orlando City in games as the team grind out early season results.

It is at this point in the hero quest that we as fans have bought into the story. We love Bendik. In the stands the fans scream his name after big saves like they would for a friend on their pick-up soccer team. I’ve actually seen fans wearing goalkeeper kits on game day, which is usually pretty rare. His acceptance of a new contract without a big raise only further endeared him to the Orlando support.

While Bendik has earned every bit of his folk hero status, the story arc isn’t over quite yet. With the team competing well, our hero is in Campbell’s “innermost cave,” that is to say the heart of the challenge. Leading Orlando to glory the rest of the season, into the playoffs, and winning a trophy in the “supreme ordeal” that is the MLS playoffs would cement Bendik with the supernatural heroic status. Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves though, there is a still a lot of the hero’s journey left this season for Bendik and his allies against the forces of evil across the league.

So what do you think? Is Bendik your hero or do you see this applying to another player on the team? Is Will Johnson or Kaká more the Obi-Wan character in this heroic story? I’d love to hear your thoughts either here in the comment section or reach out to me on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory.