NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The bond between person and place can be forged in all manner of ways.
Pleasant memories go a long way toward allowing roots to run deep. The people connected with those moments can add to the sense of permanence. Even moments of tragedy can provide a rallying point, enabling links with the broader community.
The nomadic existence of a professional athlete can make establishing such connections difficult, yet building such relationships is imperative, both in good times and bad.
In the past three weeks, Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman has encountered a broad spectrum of such experiences. On Feb. 11, he was traded from championship contender LAFC to expansion outfit Nashville SC, with Nashville shelling out a record amount of assets -- at least $950,000 in allocation money plus an international roster spot -- to acquire the U.S. defender. He scored the first goal in the team's MLS history in last weekend's 2-1 defeat to Atlanta United, in front of an announced crowd of 59,069, a record for a soccer match in Tennessee.
"Scoring the goal, it's really special because that's something that's always going to be there," Zimmerman told ESPN as he sat in a conference room at the team's training facility Monday. "It's definitely on the highlight reel of moments in your career that you'll never, ever, ever forget. And I guess no one else in Nashville will ever forget it. So, that was awesome. I wish we could have gotten something out of the game just because I felt like we deserved it. But it was an amazing atmosphere."
Yet those events have been pushed aside by what followed. The tornadoes that struck the Nashville area early Tuesday morning have, according to the Tennessean, killed at least 25 people and injured dozens more. Nashville players David Accam and Daniel Rios both sustained property damage but were otherwise unharmed.
Zimmerman didn't hear of the devastation until later Tuesday morning, when he received a flurry of texts from friends asking if he was OK. That morphed into a team text in which everyone was checking in on one another.
"In the middle of the night, some guys had to go pick up some people. It was super crazy," he said. "But I'm just devastated for the city. Obviously really grateful for our team and the way that everyone's safe, but our thoughts and prayers go out to those that were affected and obviously there's a lot of relocation to do for a lot of people."
The events of this week have added a poignant layer to Zimmerman's arrival in Nashville. On that Monday, Zimmerman's thoughts drifted back to how he arrived. The U.S. international got word of the deal that saw him land with the expansion side the night before it was announced. He and his wife, Sally, were about to sit down to watch an episode of "The Bachelor" when he received a text from John Thorrington, LAFC executive vice president of soccer operations and GM, asking for the defender to give him a call. In a prescient moment, Sally asked her husband, "Are you getting traded?" To which Walker responded, "Sally, there's literally a zero percent chance I'm getting traded right now. He probably wants to talk about some barbecue thing with the team or some logistics on a few different things."
Yet when Zimmerman called him back, Thorrington broke the news to him that he was being dealt to Nashville, a team that Zimmerman admitted he didn't even know who the manager and GM were.
"We were both like, 'OK, Nashville, all right,'" he said.
Phone calls with LAFC manager Bob Bradley and Nashville GM Mike Jacobs followed. Bradley expressed his appreciation for everything that Zimmerman had done for the team. Jacobs related how Nashville had been trying to land Zimmerman for the past year. The sentiments of both men were appreciated, yet were tinged with discomfort.
"No matter how LAFC can spin it, it always feels like whenever you get traded it's like it's a rejection," Zimmerman said. "You're like, 'What happened?'"
Zimmerman added that there was no bad blood between him and LAFC, and that owners, coaches and teammates all reached out to communicate their good vibes.
"I understand why they needed to make it happen for their cap space and their roster," he said. "But sometimes it can still hurt. You can't put a monetary value on what you feel you mean to someone."
Jacobs told Zimmerman how much the team wanted him, how the hope was that he would be a cornerstone for years. The sense of deja vu was palpable, however, in that the words echoed precisely what LAFC had said two years earlier when the Black and Gold acquired Zimmerman in a trade with FC Dallas.
"Nashville kind of freaked me out because I was like, it's scary. I've heard this before and out of nowhere, I was gone," he said. "But I've always been a loyalist. I'm committed to where I am, because that's the only way to do it, be 100% in."
Zimmerman's eagerness to connect with his new city was revealed in the days that followed. After his arrival in Nashville, when he wasn't doing appearances, he and Sally were looking for a house to purchase.
"I would go to bed with the Tetris effect," he said. "I was just seeing maps of Nashville, seeing the different houses, the price points and everything. I was obsessed with it just because I wanted to make it feel like home."
A bid on a house was made three days after getting into town and accepted the next day. It was unaffected by the storms.
"That house is a symbol that I'm committed to being here," he said.
For Zimmerman, the week's events have further cemented that bond. Nashville SC is now hitting the road for a match against the Portland Timbers (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET; stream live on ESPN) amid the most difficult of circumstances, with partners and in some cases children left behind. Other parts of the city are still reeling.
"It is our job, and now our focus goes onto the pitch, playing for Nashville, for a cause bigger than ourselves," he said. "We're trying to take care of our part on the field, in training and this weekend in Portland so we can represent Nashville and Tennessee and our family as well."
But the team won't be gone for long, and there remains plenty of work to be done when it returns.
"We're able to partner with different outreach programs, connecting to different areas of the city that we may not have ventured to," he said. "For me, I went to Germantown for dinner the night the tornado hit. And obviously the street over is now really, really affected. I haven't been to East Nashville yet, so now it's like, 'OK, how can I help out with East Nashville?' And I'm learning the different parts of the city, how we can help people.
"There's a unifying effect, for sure. People coming together whenever there are hardships and natural disasters. It's just another chance for us as leaders in the city to step up and see how we can help."
Even in the face of tragedy, the roots continue to take hold.