As you may be well aware from my coverage of the Chicago Fire on Twitter, I’m a bit of a weeb. A lot of a weeb, in fact. And while you may think it’s not very helpful in this line of work, it does give me quite a lot of exposure to folklore that I wouldn’t otherwise have learned about. In fact, there’s one character that is referenced in an Urusei Yatsura episode that I’d like to talk about: The Rice Carver. The story originates from the early Sengoku Period, around 1500 AD; but some scholars say that it actually dates back to the late Heian Period when most of the major “Monogatari” were written, so that’d be all the way back to maybe 1100 AD. It’s incredibly obscure, but I find it kinda funny, so let me tell it real quick:
Essentially, a peasant wishes for fortune and goes up a mountain to ask the goddess at the shrine on top of the mountain to grant his wish. The goddess, annoyed at his request, gives him such a pointless and time-consuming task that she’s sure that he’d give up. She tells him that she’ll give him his fortune if goes down to the nearby village and builds a 2 meter (let’s call it 6 and a half foot) statue of her visage using only rice. Not understanding that this was essentially a joke, the peasant heads down to the village and sets up a space in the middle of town for him to build his statue. In order to make the rice stick together, he has to essentially chew on it and spit it back out as a paste. Rather gross, especially for a project being downright in the middle of everyone else trying to live their lives. Understandably, the villagers are upset. Why is he using up so much rice? Why does he need to be in everyone’s way? But he doesn’t even pay attention to them, he simply keeps working at his task.
As time goes on, the villagers see what he is building and are enamored by the craftsmanship. Some who had previously ridiculed him began to help him, giving him their portion of rice. Some even talk of how their town could become famous for this, thus helping the village. Months later, the statue is complete, and the entire village is there to cheer him on as he makes the finishing touches. The peasant rushes up the mountain to inform the goddess of his completion of the task and is never heard from again. The villagers decided to commemorate the statue as a monument to good fortune, but that night a terrible storm came to knock down the statue. It seems the goddess didn’t like the statue.
So, why did I just give you a whole lesson in Japanese folklore? Well, that’s because I’m here today to talk about our own hero of folklore: Elliot Collier. This will all make sense at the end, just hold on for the ride. First, we need to learn about who Elliot Collier actually was before he joined the Fire.
Collier’s story starts in Hamilton, a city on the north end of the North Island of New Zealand, also called Te Ika-a-Māui, next to the Waikato River. Hamilton may be the fourth largest city in the country, but after a quick unbiased skim of the notable people from the city, he is obviously the most famous person. This is compared to a bunch of New Zealand Prime Ministers, the featured artist on “Somebody That I Used To Know”, and the one guy who played J. Jonah Jameson’s son in Spiderman 2. You may disagree with that sentiment, but what we can all agree upon is that “Kiwi Messi” is from Kirikiriroa, New Zealand.
Collier comes from a Kiwi father and an English mother, but although eligible for England, he always preferred to be the biggest fish in the smallest pond. During his time with the Hamilton Wanderers while in high school, he scored 8 goals in “?” appearances. That’s right, that’s all I’ve got on his time there (Thanks Wikipedia!). He also, according to his player page on Loyola’s site, made 6 appearances with the All Whites futsal team. Prior to heading off to college, he took one last stop near home with Waikato United- I mean WaiBOP FC- I mean-. It doesn’t matter, the team would fold in 2016, around the same time that Hamilton Wanderers picked up their only recorded silverware in the National Youth League in New Zealand. I’m getting way too into the weeds here. All you need to know is that Collier made it off the bench twice and immediately left for Island Bay United near Wellington. Island Bay actually has at least one other notable former player, which is a left back named Liberato Cacace who is currently with Empoli. But, in 18 appearances with Empoli, he’s only accumulated a single yellow card. Collier, however, scored 16 goals in 19 appearances for Island Bay.
Now, we reach the part in the story where Collier comes to Chicago. Did the Fire sign him out of an academy? Wow, how could they see the potential in him? Wrong, unnamed audience member. Collier actually came to Chicago via the Olé Football Academy to reach the alma mater of Bob Newhart and Stanley from The Office, as well as the home of America’s most famous nun: the University of Loyola-Chicago. Before I tell you more about his time at Loyola, I do want to stop and mention that Olé was actually built as an intentional gateway academy to get good Kiwi players into American colleges. In fact, its two most famous graduates, Tyler Boyd and Ryan Thomas, ended up attending… Moving on.
Collier joined the Ramblers in a tumultuous time, as they’d just moved from the Horizon Conference (where the University of Illinois-Chicago was playing) to the Missouri Valley Conference (where the University of Illinois-Chicago just moved to). But he was in safe Kiwi-friendly hands under Neil Jones, who himself hails from Takapuna, a suburb of Auckland (which is also on Te Ika-a-Māui). And with his help, Collier would make an All-MVC team in all four of his seasons (Second team in ‘14 and ‘15, first team in ‘16 and ‘17), even reaching first-team NSCAA All-West in 2016.
The thing is, despite being a striker, Collier was seen as a guy who would just create goals for everyone around him. His presence on the pitch was enough to make goals happen. So while he only picked up 16 goals in 69 (nice) appearances, he also racked up somewhere around 11 assists during that time. The reason that number is uncertain is that it appears that the stats for the 2015 season were wiped from the Loyola site. But, despite that incident, Collier helped to lead a 2016 Ramblers team to not just their first (and so far only) MVC title but also an NCAA tournament berth and what appears to be their only win in the College Cup. Even between seasons, Collier wouldn’t stop working, even getting 8 appearances with Chicago FC United in 2016, scoring 2 goals. He also ended up with the Michigan Bucks in 2017, who just so happened to have been the team to knock out the Fire in the 2012 US Open Cup, but never made a single appearance.
Collier was an integral part of one of Loyola-Chicago’s most successful seasons. But our boy Elliot wanted more. And despite not getting the invite to the MLS Combine, he was eligible for the MLS SuperDraft come 2018. And honestly, this was a draft that I genuinely put in work to scout. I remember reading the names Jon Bakero, Mason Toye, and Ben Lundgaard constantly as I tried to put together a predicted draft plan for the Chicago Fire. While I wasn’t writing anywhere at the time, I simply had to write about my favorite player in this draft: Albert Ruiz.
I was enamored with the guy. Coming out of Florida Gulf Coast, Ruiz was an absolute beast. A finalist for the 2016 MAC Hermann Trophy as a junior, he already had the record for the fastest hat trick in NCAA history. In 2016 alone, he scored 22 goals in just 20 appearances. But, he was injured going into 2017 and his stock fell. While I may have talked tough, saying that I would take him in the first round if possible, I would’ve been happy if he were a late round pick. Many of the Fire’s best players came in the third round specifically. The year prior the Fire took Brandt Bronico in the third round, but historically they’ve gotten Mike Banner in 2007, Chris Rolfe and Gonzalo Segares in 2005, Logan Pause in 2003, and both Jim Curtin and Henry Ring (who deserves his own article) in 2001. Hell, even current backup goalkeeper Spencer Richey was taken in the third round by Vancouver in 2015. Why couldn’t we get this right in the third round?
At this time, the third and fourth rounds weren’t live-tweeted. They weren’t at the draft venue. It was a conference call between all the teams where I guess they’d essentially throw around names and hope one will work out for them. The Fire had given up their natural 3rd round selection at #61 to Portland so they could sign Richard Sánchez off the allocation list (again, story for another time). But, the Fire had received an earlier 3rd rounder in a trade with DC United in 2016 that sent away failed DP Kennedy Igboananike. And so the Fire sent in their name fairly early in the second day of the draft. And when I saw it at the ISA Annual General Meeting that day (or maybe the next), my heart sank. While he would eventually get an appearance in preseason training camp for the club, my golden boy Albert Ruiz was not their pick. Instead, it was some dude. A 6’4” striker out of Loyola-Chicago. The first Rambler to ever be selected. Elliot Collier.
From the get, I didn’t really like the guy. I’ll be honest about that. Maybe I was blinded by the idea that my brilliant scouting at the age of 18 could possibly have failed to have even seen this guy’s numbers. And, based on the horribly limited information, I just could not get a grasp on who this guy was. Preseason footage has always been a bit difficult to find and I honestly could not tell you how he performed in preseason. The problem with preseason is that it’s essentially a warm-up. It’s a training scrimmage. The best players on each team not only get less minutes, but they don’t usually step up during these games. But there’s one man who needed to do more. It was Collier, who during his time with the Fire, wouldn’t go a single preseason without notching at least a single goal. But we wouldn’t notice that. Not yet.
For now, Collier was still a relatively new guy, only truly hated by one fan: Me. Again, this came from pure pettiness. All this research and for what? For the Fire to essentially pick out a guy from obscurity and say “Yeah, that works.” I couldn’t allow it. I’ve seen giraffe birthing videos at Brookfield Zoo and the only difference between those videos and watching Collier on the pitch was that there was a ball in front of Collier. Although, now that I think about it, there is a ball in the foreground of the video they keep on loop at the giraffe exhibit. He’d earned the nickname “Peter Crouch Jr” from the fan base after the perceived ineffectual Stoke City striker. But, Crouch has gone on to become a beloved name among those who love to talk about “football heritage.” So maybe we were onto something.
It’s not much to write home about, but I was there for Elliot Collier’s first, and so far only, MLS goal. My dad and I decided to head up to Minnesota for the club’s first away trip there on March 17th, 2018 (nearly five years ago to the day this article will be released) and it was scored near the away supporters’ corner in the 59th minute. Collier, in just his second professional appearance, received a pass way over toward the right wing and immediately lost the ball within a single touch. But that didn’t matter to him. He kept running. And through some comedy of errors within the Loons defense, the ball ended up at Nemanja Nikolić’s feet. He took a shot, but Matt Lampson was there to stop it. Lampson had ended up in Minnesota thanks to a trade during the 2018 MLS SuperDraft to send the Fire up from 15th to 10th so they could select Mo Adams. Minnesota, for their part, took Dartmouth centerback Wyatt Omsberg with that pick. Anyway, Lampson made that save, but Collier kept running to become the only other red shirt in the box. And while Niko was off-balance after the shot, Collier ran right into that ball and sent it into the back of the net. It was quite possibly the exact thing that I mean when I say “bungled in a goal.” The celebration in the away end was great, although a thrown beer would have ripple effects throughout the rest of the season, eventually having a domino effect that would lead to Sector Latino’s ban from SeatGeek Stadium.
Collier’s mere existence sent ripple effects through the history of the club. But, after a calf injury late into May and a single beautiful late goal against Louisville City in the Open Cup, Collier was loaned out to Indianapolis for the rest of the year. Indy Eleven struggled to find playing time for him, and it showed. He would end up scoring one in late September against Tampa Bay, but both there and with the Fire it was hard to tell what position he should be playing. He started out on the right wing, then moved to the left, then he was placed at the 10, but his usual position is striker! No one could figure it out, and honestly, the Fire didn’t know what to do with him either, immediately dumping him to Memphis 901 FC the next season.
This was Memphis’ inaugural season, allowing for the possibility for players to be the “first” to do something. And so this man Collier, who has only scored 3 competitive goals in the last year, obtained the great honor on July 7th 2019 to score the first hat trick in 901 history. He did it with help of assists from fellow 2018 Fire draft pick Josh Morton and Fire academy product Cam Lindley. And that final goal, a thing of absolute beauty, could genuinely be compared to the work of Diego Maradona. Maybe even Marshawn Lynch. Collier collects a throw-in well into his own third. Then, he just runs. That’s what he does. He didn’t deke players, he didn’t pull any moves. When I say he “broke tackles”, I mean it. He looked like a running back, stumbling and rumbling his way toward paydirt, finding some way to keep the ball just barely out of touch for defenders until he finally sent an off-balance shot to the far post. If we were judging Collier on goals alone, this may be his magnum opus. But Collier isn’t done yet. He still has much more to do.
Near the end of 2019, Collier received his first call-up to the New Zealand national team. He made two appearances. One was a 5-minute cameo against Ireland. The next was a start at right wing against Lithuania, on the other side of fellow Hamilton native Marco Rojas. Both were losses, but something about his time in Memphis and earning those call-ups with the All Whites must have stirred something within new coach Raphael Wicky and not only was he given a new contract, but he was given a new chance with the Fire’s first team going into 2020. Fans were dumbfounded upon hearing the news that he’d be receiving a new contract with the club, but there wasn’t an uproar yet. At least not until he started seeing some real minutes.
No one could figure it out. Every game, without fail, Collier would seem to pop up at some point in the match. Of all 23 games that season, Collier would only miss two. He sat on the bench in Foxborough in March, and he wouldn’t make an appearance at home against the Red Bulls in late October. Otherwise, Collier was a fixture on the pitch for the Fire. He never played the full 90 and only made two starts the entire season, racking up a total of 534 minutes that season. And no one could figure out why. Whenever the 70th minute came around, you could hear the sound of Fire fans groaning, holed up in their quarantine dens, waiting for literally anything to come from Collier. But Collier’s focus wasn’t on scoring goals. His focus was on survival.
Collier’s entire game as a whole had been described as “a dude who runs around a lot.” And while there were some theories that he must’ve had some sort of dirt on Wicky, that’s kinda what the Fire wanted. It’s why Fabian Herbers saw more playing time during this era of the club as well. The defense is tired, just toss out Collier to run around and confuse them. Create a possible extra target in the air that’s really more of a dribbler. In the same way that a hockey player can define their worth as a grinder, someone on the third line that’s gonna go out there and dig out the puck in the corner with the same intensity in OT as they did in the first period, this is how Collier worked. He was not a good player, but he did not care. He would go out there and play for his job every time he stepped out onto the pitch. And maybe he didn’t earn it with talent, ability, or production at this level. But he earned it with passion and intensity. He could fail harder than any other player out there.
There’s this stat that will come into play later that I want to mention called “On-Off”. It’s something I discovered through Football Reference that basically calculates how a team does with a player out on the pitch vs when they’re not out on the pitch. Basically, it’s a formula that compares the +/- of the team depending on if the player is out there. The way that this can be read is essentially how important a player is to the club they play for. As long as you scrape out those with a very small sample size, you’ll be able to pick up on who is the most important player to have out on the pitch for the team. Maybe they were not doing well out there, but they could have an effect on the game. At the end of 2020, Collier finished the season with an On-Off of -1.47 behind only Connor Sparrow and Brian Gutiérrez, who both received less than 100 minutes on the season. But strangely enough, when using +/- in xG Collier’s On-Off jumps to effectively third on the team with +0.95 (Terán excluded because of his 16 total minutes).
Despite starting the 2021 season with an ankle injury, Collier’s second appearance of the season would be a start at home against Philadelphia. I remember going to this game. It was bright and sunny. I went with my friend and podcast co-host RJ. As we sat in the 300 level, eating ice cream nachos and trash-talking everyone on the pitch, we noticed something. Collier actually made a difference on the pitch. While not a good player by any means, it seemed like every other Fire player was afraid to take a man on, while Collier would blindly run into danger. He did not care. Not when faced with one of the best defenses in the league, not when he inevitably lost the ball. I don’t know whether we call it bravery or stupidity, but he was so willing to take anyone on. He wanted more.
This sentiment within the fanbase spread thanks to an article from Hot Time in Old Town back in 2020 that portrayed Collier as something of a hero. I don’t know when it started. Something changed within the Fire fanbase. Maybe a whole year bunkered up in our rooms like a Frank Yallop tactic got us all stir-crazy. It was a joke now. Collier’s constant appearances had coalesced into a meme that included fan cams and my own personal addition of a very specific Gawr Gura meme. Everyone was in on the joke. Instead of groaning upon Collier’s regular 70th-minute substitution, we all laughed and cheered at the very sight of the man. He was soon everyone’s “favorite” Fire player. And his numbers, quite honestly, reflected that sentiment. Despite seeing nearly 200 fewer minutes, Collier improved his On-Off to +1.20 and was the only player with a positive +/- in both actual goals and xG. He had proven his worth.
But, just as soon as he was embraced by the fanbase, he was let go by the club. At the end of the 2021 season, Collier’s option was declined, and he ended up being let go. Despite being dumped, he landed in San Antonio, where he helped the team to the 2022 USL title with 4 goals in 22 appearances. Maybe some of them started at the 70th minute. But his name is constantly on the lips of Fire fans. Why? Why do we care so much about this strange man that provided next to nothing to the club during some of the worst seasons of Chicago Fire soccer that we’ve ever seen?
In all facets of life, humans seek order. That’s why we are inundated with conspiracy theories and people who think they can solve cold case murders because they’ve got a microphone and an Anchor account. When faced with disorder, with absurdity, we don’t know how to process it properly. Around the time Collier was drafted, I’d gotten really into existential absurdist philosophy and Albert Camus, who was actually a goalkeeper for his local team in his native Algeria. This probably had no bearing on the rest of the fan base, but every time I watched Collier step onto the pitch, I thought of Camus. There aren’t any records of how he performed on the pitch, maybe he was just as bad. But his concept of absurdism seemed to provide a guide to how to view the stardom of Elliot Collier:
“All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be considered calmly.” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
We as Fire fans were faced with a consequence: Collier on the pitch. We could not rationalize that action. There was no way to legitimize it, as he was already out there, but there was no way to cancel it either, because he was already out there. There may be questions to be had about Wicky as a coach, but there was no question about whether or not Collier was out there. And Fire fans took it in the same way as they began to take everything. In the words of Figaro, “I must force myself to laugh at everything, lest I be obliged to weep.” The absurd has become mundane for Fire fans. And with so many strange characters and stories swirling around the lore of this club, it makes sense that Elliot Collier became a lightning rod for this absurdity. The Baby Giraffe! Peter Crouch Junior! Kiwi Messi!
A “folk hero” is a character who is embedded into the minds of a greater community. Traditionally, it refers to someone who is remembered in a more exaggerated form than who they actually were in life. Take, for instance, Illinois’ very own Abraham Lincoln. I grew up weirdly obsessed with the Civil War and the life of Lincoln and always found so many strange stories surrounding him, some of which were very much proven to not be true. But a lot of them were really fun. Or, maybe even consider the previously mentioned Diego Maradona, a man who I believe is the greatest to have ever laced them up. His life is filled with stories and there’s a certain aura that surrounds his name whenever it’s spoken. You know exactly the kind of person that he was: a legend.
Folk heroes could also simply be a hero that is cherished by a small group of people. Maybe no legends, but held up with some exaggeration and were revered by that group of people. There’s a random fictional steelworker character named Joe Magarac, similar to John Henry, that was specifically written to be a folk hero for immigrant steelworkers in Pittsburgh. I’m sure many of us who are old enough to remember still make jokes about the Daley Family, although maybe that’s not the best example of a “Folk Hero”.
What I’m saying is that Elliot Collier seems to qualify as the Chicago Fire’s Folk Hero. A man whose name is beloved and spoken proudly despite any logic saying otherwise. He transcended his role as a role player and became a face of the franchise, embodying whatever the hell has been on the pitch for the past decade. … Oh, you don’t remember that? When Collier earned his canonization as the most Chicago Fire player to ever put on the shirt? Let me remind you.
It was October 16th, 2021. Nobody knew it yet, but this away match against the New England Revolution would be the last time that Collier would touch the pitch for the Chicago Fire. I was at a Chicago Red Stars game, where they would win with help from an early Kansas City own goal. I was using the Fire’s app trying to stream the game on my phone, but sometimes there’s a bit of difficulty. It’s also important to note that while I had a great experience with taking screenshots, I’d never taken a screen recording before. But the moment I saw this, I had to do something. To my knowledge, this dumbass janky recording is the only footage left of this incident.
Collier receives a pass cutting into the box from the left. In front of him is right back Brandon Bye, the man who was taken 8th overall in the same 2018 draft as Collier. Collier appears to have some options towards the center of the box, with at least Brian Gutiérrez making a run. But Collier doesn’t care. He has never cared. This man has not given a single shit in his entire life and laughs at the idea of consequence. He squares up to Bye, who at this point was already a steady starter in the middle of one of the greatest single-season team performances in MLS to date. And he proceeds to prance around the ball like Bambi on ice and taps the ball to the right. I don’t think Bye had ever seen a man so large do something so ungraceful. He falls, ankles completely broken. Well, more accurately, he chose wrong and thought Collier would go to the outside and try to send in a cross. Andrew Farrell comes in to cover, but it’s too late. Collier has a wide-open look on goal from about the distance of the penalty spot. He swings a powerful leg down toward the ball… And shanks it well wide right. But this isn’t over yet. There are stories of how sometimes Babe Ruth would swing so hard that he’d spin around if he missed. And Collier, like the Great Bambino, absolutely biffs onto the turf.
Watching that play… Why did I need to write an entire 5,000-word article for you when I could just show you that video? Collier isn’t even looking at the goal, he’s staring down the defender as he does that trying to go for the no-look. That is the Fire. With grand intentions, dazzling and baffling, ultimately landing on their asses whenever they try to do anything right. They are the fool. They are the clowns of MLS. But they are so much more. They’re our clowns. And Collier ran that circus without a single level of interest in his body. What he did, he did for himself. But we all saw it as so much more.
He is the Rice Carver.
I’ll tell you something about that folktale. You’re probably wondering why I had you read it at the beginning of this article, but the lesson in it is that sometimes things just happen. Like making up a Japanese folk tale. Which I did. Because there is no piece of ancient literature that can explain or describe a man like Elliot Collier. I spent nights researching real Japanese folktales, digging through Arthurian legend, and even leaning on Greek Mythology. Nothing. There is no text about an unchanging and absurd character who somehow changed those around them despite showing a clear lack of interest. Collier is a Folk Hero, through no fault of his own, through no intent of his own. He simply did what he wanted, how he wanted, and existed. His monument to absurdity, practically lost to time in many ways. He needed his own story, there needed to be some way to rationalize this man who with no effort changed the hearts and minds of an entire fanbase from confusion to love. Maybe it wasn’t everyone. Maybe it really was just me. But despite any lack of skill, grace, technique, and coordination, Collier was always there. Always running. Always trying to do his own thing. Always working on his own monument.
I love Elliot Collier.