'Sombrero Man' spreads passion for Charlotte FC
Plus: Gold Cup coming to Bank of America Stadium; Preview of Colorado game
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Local middle school teacher turns super fan when it comes to Charlotte sports
Hector Cortes, a.k.a. “Sombrero Man,” holds up the four-fingered crowns-up sign during the season opener vs. New England. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC)
If you’ve been to a Charlotte FC game, chances are you’ve seen “Sombrero Man” in action. He’s hard to miss.
At 6-foot-7, donned in a black, white and blue painted Mexican wide-brimmed chapeau, he usually has one hand waving frantically with the drum beat, the other clutching his ever-present megaphone, as he chants and cheers from the “capo” stand.
“When adrenaline takes over, I can't control it,” he said. “I just go up and down and go crazy.”
He’s head “capo” — or fan leader — for the Charlotte FC supporters’ section, which means his job is to rile up the 3,000 to 4,000 fans in the seats behind the East Goal at Bank of America Stadium. By the transitive property of sports, he’s leading the whole stadium too.
If he looks right at home amid the ruckus, consider this: his day job is teaching middle schoolers.
Sombrero Man is known to family and friends as Hector Cortes. To his students, he’s Mr. C. or Señor Cortes. For six classes each day, Mr. C. commands a room of 25 engineering students at York Prep Academy, a public charter school for fifth through eighth graders in Rock Hill, S.C.
Apparently, thousands of rowdy soccer fans — some more sober than others — have nothing on hormonal tweens. Because when we asked Mr. C. which was easier to command, a room of 25 middle schoolers or a section of several thousand fans, his answer came quickly: fans.
“They are willing and able to follow along with the chants,” Cortes said. “Here at school, it’s like, ‘Do I have to go to school? Do I have to learn this way? Am I going to learn this in real life?’ I say, ‘You sound just like my kids.’ The dad in me kicks in when I'm here. I treat them the same way I treat my kids. When they say, ‘Oh, you're so mean.’ ‘Nope. You’ve got to do your work. You’ve got to learn.’”
Cortes is 46 years old and the father of two teenage sons, 15-year-old Ivan and 13-year-old Isaac. He’s known as a strict teacher, perhaps, but when he’s in his sombrero, he’s like a kid himself. And his passion and personality are contagious.
People are drawn to him, whether it’s his students, who like to help paint his sombrero and always ask for pictures when they see him at games, Charlotte FC fans, or even its owner.
Cortes first met Charlotte FC owner David Tepper at a party celebrating the announcement that a Major League Soccer franchise was coming to Charlotte. The two met again on the sidelines at the historic home opener last year, when an MLS record 74,479 fans showed up at Bank of America Stadium to watch Charlotte FC play L.A. Galaxy.
Because of the crowd size that night, supporters’ groups decided to use three capo stands instead of the usual two. Cortes’ stand was in the middle of the section, where the tifo – or fan artwork – was to be displayed after the national anthem. So he waited on the field until after the tifo was unfurled. That’s when he saw Tepper.
Cortes did what felt the most natural – he offered Tepper his sombrero.
“He put it on, walked around and waved at people,” Cortes said.
Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of that sombrero.
Cortes, who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, first donned one at a Charlotte Hornets game eight years ago. He’d become a big Bobcats fan shortly after moving to Charlotte in 2006 with his wife Bea. They bought season tickets after the team signed Mexican-born player Eduardo Najera (2010-2012).
The year the team rebranded as the Charlotte Hornets in 2014-15, Cortes decided to wear his sombrero on Latino Heritage night. He was an easy target for the Jumbotron cameraman, especially after he stood up and danced during breaks in the action. Fans loved his enthusiasm, and some even recognized him walking the concourse without his sombrero at the next game. They wanted to know where the sombrero was.
So Cortes painted “Los Hornets” in teal and purple on it and started wearing it to every Hornets game. As a member of the Roaring Riot Panthers fan club, he painted another sombrero black and blue for “Los Panthers.” When Charlotte FC came to town, it was only natural that he paint a sombrero black and blue and start wearing it to events.
His colleague, York Prep art teacher Whitney Frasier, helps him keep them all painted and maintained. She uses acrylic paint for leather because it’s more flexible, and Cortes is known to toss his sombrero around during cheers, not to mention pass it off to other people.
The night last October when Mexico-native Daniel Rios scored four goals for Charlotte FC, Cortes got to “coronate” him by placing a crown on his head during a post-game ceremony. He had also offered Ross his sombrero. After proper photos were taken with the crown, Rios signaled for Cortes to bring him the sombrero, and Rios wore it as he celebrated his “hat trick” plus one.
Cortes was a big fan of Charlotte FC’s inaugural coach Miguel Angel Ramirez, and the feeling was mutual. After Charlotte FC’s first-ever win last season against New England, Ramirez was photographed putting his hands on Cortes’ face as the two embraced during the postgame celebration. They had some fun on social media several nights later when they ran into each other at a Hornets’ game. They recreated the photo, this time with Cortes putting his hands on Ramirez’s face.
Shortly after Ramirez was fired at the end of May, Cortes said Ramirez invited some Charlotte FC fans to join him at a local bar for an impromptu going-away gathering. Cortes said he was among 50 or so people there. He gave Ramirez his sombrero as a parting gift.
Cortes still has two season tickets to Hornets games and five to Charlotte FC. He has since dropped his Panthers season tickets, as both his schedule and his wallet stay pretty busy. He attended all but three Charlotte FC home games last season, and he missed those to attend his son Ivan’s travel soccer games.
Cortes doesn’t want to disappoint his friends with Charlotte’s other two professional sports teams, so he doesn’t like to come out and say that Charlotte FC is his favorite. But he certainly devotes the most time to it, of the three. And looking around the diverse crowd he leads on Saturdays, it seems that every night at Charlotte FC games is Latino American heritage night. If you ask Charlotte FC fans and staff alike, they say Cortes is a great ambassador for both English- and Spanish-speaking fans. He helps bridge the gap between the two.
Cortes is a member of two supporters’ groups, Blue Furia, which is more than 90% Latino; and Mint City Collective, which is Charlotte FC’s largest fan group. He has not only helped write and teach chants but also translated Spanish ones to English so that all can participate.
He’s a fixture at the weekly Wednesday night chant practices. And he’s the lead capo in a regular rotation that includes four for each game. He is typically on the capo stand for the second half – four capos divide the game, with two leading the crowd in each half. When he’s not on the stand, he’s generally helping another capo by handing him or her chant cards which capos use to notify drummers and fans which chants are coming next. Or he’s helping lead chants with his megaphone.
The day after games, Cortes said, he wakes up “feeling like I’ve played a football game,” with sore legs and back and a tired throat.
“I’m 46,” Cortes said. “I’ll do this as long as I can or they let me.”
Then he laughs.
“Young guys want to do it but then get nervous when game day approaches,” he said. “Once they stand in front of 70,000 people, they freak out. It’s not easy.”
Cortes said when he found out Charlotte was getting an MLS team, he vowed to buy season tickets and tattoo his row and seat number on his wrist. That was before he found out the supporters’ section would be general admission. But the capo stand has proven an even better seat than one he could identify on a tattoo.
“Best seat in the house,” he said. “I get to go on the pitch. I get to see everybody (in the stands). And when I turn, I get to see the pitch and the players. I'm literally 10 feet away from whoever's goalie at that time.”
Concacaf Gold Cup coming
Since Charlotte FC began play last season, we’ve seen Premier League powerhouse Chelsea play an exhibition here. We’ve learned about the U.S. Open Cup — a David-vs.-Goliath style tournament — that gets weaved into the regular season schedule. And this season, we’ll get our first taste of the Leagues Cup, a tournament that pits the best teams of MLS and the Mexican Leagues against each other.
Think that’s a lot? Wait, there’s more.
We found out this week that Charlotte has been selected as a host city for the 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup. That’s Concacaf, as in the Confederation of (co) North (n), Central America (ca) and Caribbean Association (ca) Football (f). So all the national clubs from our part of the world crown a continental champion of North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The Gold Cup is played every two years.
Charlotte will host a doubleheader in the group stage, which begins in late June and wraps up in early July. The official draw will be announced later today.
Charlotte got to host Gold Cup doubleheaders in 2011, 2015 and 2019 and welcomed the Mexican national team here each of those times. Attendance grew from 46,012 to 55,823 to 59,283 during that span. This will be the first time Charlotte hosts Gold Cup action since an MLS team began play here. It’s also three years prior to the U.S. hosting the 2026 World Cup.
While sites have already been established for the World Cup (including Atlanta, Boston and Dallas), Charlotte can still make an impression during this time to make a case for hosting a pre-World Cup friendly (exhibition) or to host a team here.
“Charlotte has proven that it is a soccer city,” Charlotte FC president Joe LaBue said in a release. “And hosting the region’s leading men’s national team competition three years before the 2026 World Cup is an incredible opportunity to showcase our city on a global stage.”
Up Next: Charlotte FC (1-4-2) vs. Colorado (1-3-3)
When/Where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte.
How to listen: WLNK 107.9 FM.
Charlotte FC looks to turn the page from perhaps their worse loss of the season when they gave up three goals in six minutes in a 3-1 loss at Real Salt Lake.
They return to Bank of America Stadium where they went 10-6-1 last season but are only 0-2-1 this season.
Winger McKinze Gaines, who missed the Salt Lake trip with a muscle strain, is expected to be back available for selection. But midfielder Ashley Westwood (thigh), goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina (back) and center back Guzman Corujo (knee surgery) are still working their way back from injuries.
This is Andre Shinyashiki’s first chance to play against his former team. He won 2019 MLS rookie of the year in the first of three seasons with the Rapids before they traded him to Charlotte last season days after a 0-0 draw between the teams in Colorado last April.
For the second week in a row, Charlotte faces a team that has scored only three goals. Real Salt Lake broke out with three goals last week.
NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be the pregame coronation honoree Saturday night.
Related editions of Fútbol Friday, The Charlotte Ledger’s weekly newsletter on Charlotte FC:
May 27, 2022: ‘Chico’ Unmasked: Meet Charlotte FC’s Super Fan: Getting to know 'La Muerte,' the team's unofficial mascot, whose tab for a trip to a game in Seattle was picked up by the Charlotte FC faithful.
April 22, 2022: After a deadly shooting, she’s finding solace in soccer: When her soccer-loving boyfriend was shot and killed during a break-in, Heidi Underhill found support from fellow fans; ‘I really think it saved my life.’
Carroll Walton is a longtime baseball writer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution now cutting her teeth on soccer and the Charlotte FC just as fans in Charlotte do. She would love to hear from you. E-mail her with questions, suggestions, story ideas and comments!
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