A Beautiful Game
Join OTF’s Robert Suarez as he welcomes a special new friend to the Chicago Fire family…
It was a typical early spring morning. Too cold and raw to be called spring, but the sun was also too high in the sky for it to be called winter anymore. Yet, better days were around the corner.
As I returned home from my job in Harvey, Illinois, where I’ve worked the overnight shift for over 20 years now, I turned onto my quiet residential lane, weary from another night’s work. Through the glare of my windshield, I saw a young boy struggling to balance himself on a bicycle.
He wore a winter coat and precariously negotiated the sidewalk. His bike seemed much too large as he moved slowly and unsteadily. I slowed my car to a crawl, watched, and wondered why he wasn’t in school like all the other kids. The boy finally struggled to a shaky and uncertain stop just off the pavement. I was relieved he hadn’t taken a spill.
A few days later I saw the young boy again. This time I smiled at him and waved. He smiled back.
I asked my wife and kids about the little boy. Was he visiting? Did his family move in down the block? Why isn’t he in school? Has anyone seen his family? What’s his name?
I got no answers except from my 5th grade daughter. She informed me she had seen him trying to ride a bike as well and said he had a funny name.
“Now that’s a big help,” I thought to myself.
I saw the little boy several more times over the next few weeks and continued to offer friendly salutations. He began to wave back and smile at me too. I also noticed he had finally taught himself to ride his bike!
Eventually, I learned the little boy had been adopted by our neighbors the Kourises. They’re a nice Catholic family who founded a missionary orphanage in Africa. We only knew them casually, but greatly admired their wonderful work.
As spring finally came to stay and the weather warmed up, I saw the little boy more often. He seemed to look for me and would offer me a big grin and a hearty wave each time I drove by.
Occasionally, I saw him at our end of the block. Our street is only one block long and ends in a cul-de-sac with a nice grass center area. I live in the last house, and would sometimes see him playing in the grass center.
He played like most little boys his age do when they have no playmates. Sometimes he’d lay in the grass to better engage his action figures. Other times he’d stalk an invisible something-or-other with a plastic bow and arrow.
One day, I saw him sword fighting with an invisible foe. He had a plastic shield and helmet and was oblivious to everything around him as he battled his imaginary nemesis. He heard me approach, and when he caught sight of me, took off his helmet to offer a big, bright, and beautiful smile.
I asked him his name. He replied “Abdul,” and extended his hand like a real gentleman.
I asked him a few simple questions, but by the perplexed look on his seven year-old face I could tell he did not understand me. I was unsure if the problem was language or whether he was too young to understand my questions. It didn’t really matter anyway. We were friends now.
Abdul started coming over every few days or so. He seemed happy to see me (as I was happy to see him), but it bothered me that he had no playmates. I complained to my wife that he should be in school. “Little boys need to hang out with other little boys,” I said. “It’s good for them.”
Soon afterwards, I saw Abdul playing with a soccer ball in his front yard. As he waved to me, I noticed his shirt – a Chicago Fire jersey.
“Of course,” I thought. “Futbol!”
The next time he came over I went out to meet him and asked him directly, “Hey Abdul, do you like football?” He emphatically replied, “Yes!”
I offered him a tattered old number four soccer ball I found in my backyard. It didn’t hold much air, but it was still kind of round.
Abdul dropped his bike, hitched up his pants, and we began passing the ball back and forth. He played goalie for a while and then we moved to ball juggling games. As we played, I learned he could count to at least twenty in English.
He seemed amazed that I could juggle a bit. I explained I’d been a soccer coach many years ago. I’m sure he could not understand as I babbled about how I used to require my players to practice ball juggling every day.
I realized Abdul was a smart little guy when he picked up the ball, pointed at it, and said, “It is a number four football!”
I was quite sore for several days after our little football drill. My old knee (and my new one) ached, but I felt strangely reinvigorated. “Abdul needs a proper ball,” I thought.
I made a few inquiries to some Facebook friends for help. I am blessed to have so many young friends, former soccer players whom I coached decades ago. I only had to ask once.
A week later I received a new soccer ball courtesy of Claudio Frigo. Claudio was one of “my kids” back in the late 1970’s and is now a Vice President in the Premier Soccer League. He asked for nothing more than to see photos of Abdul with his new ball.
The next time Abdul came over, I presented him the new ball. He promptly noted, “It is a number five football!”
After a short kicking session, I walked Abdul home with his new ball and spoke to his adoptive mother. I inquired about Abdul and his situation. Mrs. Kouris was very friendly, but had to leave. I kept my questions short.
She told me Abdul was from their orphanage in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She explained she was home schooling him in the same way she had done with her own children, and added he was working hard to improve his English. Apparently, he had not kept up with his language classes in Africa.
I asked Mrs. Kouris whether she’d allow me to take Abdul to a Chicago Fire match. She loved the idea, but added her husband, George, would have to go too, which was fine by me.
She commented that football was Abdul’s favorite activity in Africa. She told of how the boys played for hours in a small fenced-in yard with no grass, or even dirt. Rather, it was an area covered with gravel, small rocks, sharp stones, and even glass.
Mrs. Kouris said all the kids played bare foot and she recalled seeing Abdul dive fearlessly through the air for a ball on more than one occasion. Of course, he paid the price for his actions at times, but loved playing football so much that he hadn’t a concern for his little body.
Later, I told my Facebook friends of my plan to take Abdul to see the Fire play at Toyota Park. I knew that seeing a professional match would be something the little boy would never forget.
Of course, I only had to ask once, and within a few days received a six-pack of tickets (and a parking pass) to a game of my choice. I studied the schedule and decided on the Portland Timbers on Saturday, June 8th.
If this wasn’t enough, Rob Thompson, another one of “my kids” from back in the day, offered Abdul a chance to meet a couple of the Chicago Fire players. I thought, “How sweet is that?!”
During the few weeks leading up to the Fire match, Abdul would stop by periodically to “chat” with me.
One morning, I was sitting on my back porch, admiring the adjacent woods. Abdul arrived, I asked him to sit, and went inside for a moment. I quickly returned with fresh slices of pineapple. His eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “Pineapple!”
“Ah ha!” I thought, “the lines of communication are improving.” He promptly devoured his share.
A few days after the pineapple, Abdul came over just as we sat down for dinner. I invited him to join us and we fixed him a big, juicy hamburger with everything he wanted piled on.
Then, as I was about to take my first bite, he reverently made the sign of the cross, bowed his head, and slowly, deliberately recited his mealtime prayer of thanksgiving. It was a special, meaningful moment.
Meanwhile, I learned Abdul was playing in our local park league. He told me he played with the “orange” team. He seemed to be having a lot of fun.
Match day finally arrived. I, along with my wife and two daughters, picked up Abdul and his dad two hours before kick off.
Within minutes, Abdul fell asleep in the back seat. As we drove to Bridgeview, I finally got the full story on my little friend.
George Kouris is an interesting man who shared his insights on what life is like in Sierra Leone. He gave us first-hand accounts of some of the wonderful things, but also of the terrible human suffering.
Sierra Leone is rich in resources, but as is so often the case, 98% of its people live in poverty. Yet the people there are very warm and friendly towards westerners.
Interestingly, Sierra Leone is a country without religious strife. Christians and Muslims work together peacefully and associate freely with one another. They even inter-marry.
Like most places, the situation in Sierra Leone is complicated. George told me he had known Abdul (whose real name is quite long, and begins with Joshua) since he was a toddler. His mother gave him up for adoption in desperation, hoping he’d find a better life at the orphanage.
I asked about school. George explained they considered public and Catholic schools first, but their hopes were quickly dashed. Apparently, all the schools are using laptops and computers most of the day.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” George said. “In fact, it’s great.”
“But Abdul cannot possibly adapt to that technology at this point. He is still struggling with English, and cannot be expected to take on the technology gap at the same time as the language gap.”
“Right now, he needs personal attention, not a computer.”
I agreed, and began to get a grasp of how difficult it must be (for George, his family, and Abdul) to take on a challenge like this.
As we neared Toyota Park, I was so taken in by our conversation that I got off on the wrong exit. We had to use George’s smart phone to navigate us to the parking lot.
At first, Abdul seemed tentative, perhaps intimidated by the stadium, as he stayed close to George. But once we entered the concourse, I saw Abdul quickly shed his apprehension. He saw the pitch and instantly became excited.
We had nice seats near the large contingent of traveling Portland supporters. They were quite impressive and Abdul liked their loud cheers and banners. He enjoyed the constant drum beat emanating from Section 8 and Sector Latino as well.
As it progressed, I noticed Abdul followed the game and seemed to understand what was going on. Although, soccer took a temporary backseat somewhere along the line when he got his hands on a big bucket of popcorn and a large Coke.
Abdul was having a blast. The rolling electronic sideline billboards enthralled him. He particularly enjoyed one that showed flames along its length and excitedly pointed it out to me.
“Look!” Abdul exclaimed. “It is fire! Chicago Fire!”
Needless to say, the biggest highlight of the evening came when Daniel Paladini’s direct free kick tied the score near the end of the match. Abdul instinctively jumped up in unison with the hometown crowd, and yelled “Goooaallll!”
Abdul, along with the rest of the Fire faithful, was besides himself. Only the exploding fireworks in the sky distracted him enough to stop him from jumping up and down.
I enjoyed the moment as well, but received the most joy from watching the little guy’s reaction. It was amazing.
After the game, we got together with Rob Thompson. George felt it was best if I accompanied Abdul in the Stadium Club. I lucked out. Rob gave Abdul and I our two passes and in we went.
I think perhaps I was more excited than Abdul to get inside. Rob introduced us to his wife and son, Alex, who is a year younger than Adbul.
As I chatted with Rob, we noticed Abdul and his new buddy Alex had found a ball and were off in a corner playing a pick-up game with a few other kids. We chuckled. Too cute.
Rob, being better acquainted with the team, saw Daniel Paladini (hero of the match) enter the club and quickly called the boys over for a photograph. Daniel was so gracious, and without delay talked with the boys and posed for several photographs with them. What a classy guy.
Shortly thereafter, Rob spotted another player, Jalil Anibaba. Being of Nigerian ancestry, Jalil was very happy to meet Abdul and pose for photographs with his little West African brother.
It was getting late, and although I wanted to get autographs for Abdul, the line was too long. So, we said our good-byes to Rob and his family.
However, on the way out, we came across the Chicago Fire trophy case. Again, I’m not sure who was more excited about our unexpected discovery – Abdul or me.
“Photo op!” I yelled.
As we exited Toyota Park, I raced Abdul in vain to the car for a distance of over 100 yards in an unpaved parking lot. I almost won.
George and I continued our discussion about Sierra Leone in the car as the little guy slept soundly all the way home.
The next morning, I awoke with a sore back, aching knees, and swollen ankles. But the night before, as I faded into blissful sleep, I did so knowing that, against all odds, a cute little African boy, an orphan, was sleeping down the street in peace and the security of a loving family in America’s heartland.
Sometimes life really is as simple as a beautiful game.
OTF contributor Robert Suarez is older than dirt, but slightly smarter. Coach Bob mans his “Bobservation Post” high above a rural Indiana corn field, from where he proudly dispatches missives of futbol insight, experience, and opinions via his telegraph (with enhanced morse code, version 2.5). Follow Bob @rxs225