Hello, and welcome to American Tifo, a newsletter for, and about, North American soccer supporters. Thank you for being here. If you haven’t already, subscribe! If you’re a member of a supporters group, please consider sharing this with the rest of your SG and encouraging them to subscribe as well.
On June 10th, the day that New Mexico United held its 2022 Pride collection release event at the team store, the line stretched down the block. But as people queued up by the door, eager to enter, they were blocked by a low slung, black chair, holding the first place in line. This was Stone’s spot. It’s the one he had held for a record 18 hours one time, rolling up at 5pm in anticipation of a New Mexico United jersey drop that wouldn’t be released until the next day.
He had always been first in line, and now he always would be.
A diehard New Mexico United fan and an active member of The Curse supporters group, Robert “Stone” Chouinard passed away suddenly on May 13, leaving a gaping hole in the lives of his family, friends and fellow supporters. Now, they’re left grappling with how to move forward and how to ensure Stone’s life and legacy is remembered.
“He has his place in the front row at the stadium and always will. I have to believe that he’s watching over us and still supporting us just as much,” said Charles Rumbaugh, a friend of Stone’s and New Mexico United supporter.
An Albuquerque native, Stone was a diehard sports fan. He especially loved the Green Bay Packers, even buying stock in the publicly-owned franchise, which allowed him to brag that he was an NFL owner. But when New Mexico United came along in 2019, it was an even deeper passion.
“If he could eat the United team, I’m pretty sure he would have,” said Beverly Chouinard, Stone’s sister. “It was eat, sleep, breathe United.”
He snapped up every jersey, every scarf, and made sure he was first in line at every club function.
That love extended to his fellow supporters.
“A lot of people would tell me that he was the first person they ever met in the United supporters group, and he was the first person that made them feel welcomed,” said Chouinard.
Monica Tenorio and her family met Stone at a tailgate, their space often placed near Stone’s easy-to-spot yellow tent. “We met at a tailgate, then sat next to each other in the supporter section, and our friendship just went from there,” she said.
Monica shared the same birthday with Stone, so he introduced her to people as his ‘Birthday Sister.’
“He had the biggest heart,” she said. “He was willing to help everybody, even strangers. He was a proud friend, he was so proud of his friends and all their accomplishments.”
“Out of nowhere, really quickly, he became one of my closest friends,” said Rumbaugh. “He just always went out of his way to make sure you were okay. I had some personal stuff that I was dealing with in my life, and he took notice of that, and would go out of his way to make sure I was doing ok, that I was on the right track.”
Stone and Rumbaugh also bonded over the opportunity that New Mexico United gave them to be part of something bigger than themselves.
“I think ultimately what the club meant to him is the same thing it means to a lot of us, it gave a lot of us this new sense of family,” said Rumbaugh. “I know from a lot of conversations with him in the past that he and I were in the same boat. We’d made mistakes in the past, and we were trying to overcome past things in our life, and we almost looked at United as a new beginning.”
His generosity and passion for the club and its people made him a beloved figure at United matches, always in the front row. When Monica’s son, Carlos, would capo at Isotopes Park, he would purposely stand in front of Stone’s field of vision, leading to constant joking between the two.
“He was always making sure I had a smile on my face,” he said.
Stone’s passing blindsided the United community, leaving them reeling. But in order to really understand the impact that Stone made when he was here, you only need to look at the things that have happened since he’s been gone.
On May 14th, at United’s first match without him, an away game in Charleston, South Carolina, a moment of silence honoring Stone was held before the kickoff. It was an act of kindness from the Charleston Battery that touched United supporters.
“It caught us all off guard. We didn’t expect that,” said Carlos.
Sympathies would pour in from other supporters and groups around the league like Phoenix, El Paso, Colorado Springs. Even MLS and NWSL groups reached out.
“It shows that we’re all humans, that we all have lives. It’s just a game at the end of the day,” he said.
Ten days later on May 24th, New Mexico United held its first home match without Stone. The players, coaches and supporters wore black “RC” armbands and The Curse unfurled a giant tifo donning his face, complete with his red beard and black glasses. Fans held pictures of him, his giant grin shining even brighter than his yellow jersey. United won 7-0, the 6th goal coming from 18-year-old Albuquerque-native Christian Nava, a player Stone had been particularly vocal about. At the home match before that, just a few days before he passed away, he guaranteed Monica’s daughter, Karen, that Nava would score at the next home match.
“I was sitting next to Stone, and he was like, ‘Nava is going to score at the next game, I’m telling you, I already know it,’” she said. “Sure enough, the first home match without him, Nava scores his first professional goal.”
The next day was Stone’s memorial, a community tailgate. As Monica and her family were setting up, she turned around and was stunned.
“All of a sudden, I turn around, and the whole team is getting out of their cars. Senior squad, U-20s, Academy players, coaches, front office staff. They’re coming up to us and giving condolences, even though they had lost somebody too,” she said.
“We’re just mind blown at how much people care about him,” said Chouinard. “We’re blown away at how much he meant to them, even to the point the actual team ended up taking a shirt that had his last name on it, and the entire team signed it. Just the fact that they cared enough to do that. Not only that but the fan support. The Curse pretty much helped pay for his entire service, I had to do almost nothing. We were just blown away at all of the support that we’ve gotten for him.”
At a recent march to the match, Monica held Stone’s picture as she marched. It was pouring out, so Stone’s picture got soaked.
“But it was just nice to have him be a part of it,” she said. “We saved his seat. My friends saved his seat, number 12 for him. We put the picture there for him. It’s been really hard.”
Despite all of these bittersweet moments, seemingly laced with his spirit, every day has been hard.
“We’ve been having so much fun the past four or so years, that this was the first thing that hit all of us like, ‘Oh crap,’” said Rumbaugh. “This is an escape for all of us, but sometimes life will follow. This is the first tragedy that’s really happened to this group of people, and it’s hard to wrap my head around.”
But, there has been a silver lining.
“It’s brought a lot of us together again,” said Monica. “It’s made us stronger.”
“Life and death happens,” said Rumbaugh. “But when it hits an entire community so suddenly, that’s something else. I think we consider ourselves lucky that we have each other to rally around. That’s what’s so great about The Curse and about New Mexico United. But at the same time, there is that dark hole, especially those first few weeks. He was always the guy you can count on to be there. I think it’s hit everyone that this guy was so dedicated to the people he loved, he was always about going out of his way to check on them and ask if they’re ok, and I think it’s made a lot of us realize that you have to stop and take the time to ask that person the same question.”
For now, all Stone’s family and friends can do is continue to share stories about Stone’s kindness and devotion, and keep his memory alive.
“I hope people will just always be accepting of everybody, even if they’re new, even if it’s a new face,” said Chouinard. “Just always be that friendly, helpful smile and that person you could go to, because that’s the person that he was.”
When Monica thinks about what she wants Stone’s legacy to be, she knows it can only be one thing.
“The love you have for your community, your family, your friends,” she said. “Doing whatever you can to show them that you support them. I don’t know if he realized how important he was, or how much he meant to the club. But he meant a lot to them, and he meant a lot to us.”
Great piece, Maura. Thank you for this <3