American Dreams

I first met Abdi and Omar Mohamed in 2006, or maybe it was 2007. I can’t remember the exact date. I didn’t record such things back then. It was through our local soccer club in Northeast Columbus, called Blast FC. My son Xavier played for the Blast, which brought together the more competitive and skilled recreational players whose parents were willing and able to fork out the extra fees for some great coaching and more competitive games. Lesh Shkreli, a former professional soccer player from the former Yugoslavia, ran (and still runs) the boys’ side of the club. Lesh was always generous with his time and offered a few scholarships to talented kids from the neighborhood. Enter Abdi and Omar.

My son’s age group featured a duo of Somali boys, which later became a trio, who lived nearby and loved soccer more than anything. Abdi and Omar Mohamed (unrelated, although they claimed to be at first) were both extremely shy and polite and they each had smiles that would disarm a would-be bank robber. These characteristics made it easy to offer them the occasional ride home from practice when they needed it. Little did I know that this simple and minimal act of kindness would enrich my life for years to come.

The occasional ride home turned into the occasional pick up for practice or for a game, which then led to me providing rides for the boys to tournaments, which then gave rise to me signing off on parental forms and handling birth certificates and all kinds of other ancillary matters. I became a surrogate soccer dad. I don’t say this because it was a hassle or a burden of any sort. I always wore it like a badge of honor. To earn this right, I needed to go to each boy’s house and meet his father. To shake hands and look the patriarch in the eye, because both Abdi and Omar were (and still are of course) well-loved and well-cared for by their respective families. However, as part of a wave of Somali immigrants who settled in Columbus, Ohio, their families often took working class jobs (sometimes multiple) and simply didn’t have the luxury of taking the boys to their events. In Abdi’s case, his father was (and still is at an advanced age) a hard-working small business owner. Omar’s father was working in a factory on third shift. The families greeted me kindly, offered me food and drink, and thanked me for my service. Just like that, I had a bigger family. I became the boys’ primary provider and decision-maker for soccer concerns.

Soccer concerns dominated most of our free time in this age bracket. The boys diligently practiced throughout the year often 4 days a week in addition to games. Lesh always found indoor spots for his teams to practice, so skills training went year-round. We played in indoor leagues in winter and outdoor leagues in spring and fall. Now having been around the game for 40 years, I can say that Lesh offers some of the best youth training around. If a player was serious, he could potentially go far. My own son thrived in this environment with his own accomplishments. But his is another story. This is a story about two of “my” other boys who took their training seriously and went all the way.

As our team aged, some boys developed their skills beyond others. Omar certainly stuck out from the rest. He displayed skills and creativity in games that impressed everyone, including the opposing team coaches and parents. Abdi was always incredibly talented and smart, but he lagged behind in size, which made it easier for bigger kids to knock him off the ball. Omar was our superstar. Abdi kept working. A couple of years later, we picked up a third Somali boy, Mohamed Adam. Mohamed was a big boy and he carried himself authoritatively. He became our midfield enforcer and garnered a lot of attention. Omar kept shining. Abdi kept working.

Often, we would have to stack the four boys in the back of my small sedan to get everyone home. My son and Abdi were the smallest. Inevitably this led to shenanigans. The bigger boys wouldn’t pick on Xavier as much even though I encouraged it. If we’re going to be a family, everyone is going to get equal guff. But the reality is that Abdi took most of the ribbing. Just when I could see the frustration on his face, I’d verbally slow down the shenanigans and tell the bigger boys to watch out because Abdi is going to be bigger than all of them one day. Abdi would figuratively thumb his nose at them and sit a little taller, smiling. Don’t get me wrong here, the boys were all respectful and treated each other like – well – brothers. They may pick on each other in the car from time to time, but let someone from the opposing team step on Abdi or whack my son from behind. Paybacks are hell. Usually, that came from Mohamed.

As the boys aged, we did like all families do. We started to drift apart. Soccer club politics, playing opportunities at other clubs, high school interests, all kinds of things set in. But even when you don’t see your teenagers all the time any more, there is still a bond. Every now and again, we’d run into each other around town and catch up. It was – and continues to be – great. We keep contact through social media and I have followed the boys’ soccer careers ever since.

Dreams Come True

Everyone from the team is now in his early twenties. Three years ago, Omar signed his first professional contract to play for FC Cincinnati. Since then, he’s moved to the Portland Timbers, spent time on loan in Sweden and Switzerland, and if all goes right, he’ll be joining his old manager back in the US for another pro team this fall.

Omar and I share a friendly hug after a rainy game in Cincinnati

Abdi joined The Ohio State University out of high school in 2015 and started as a freshman at center mid, where he played for three seasons. For his senior year, he transferred to the University of Akron and changed to the position of right back. Akron is a smaller college than OSU, but their soccer program is much bigger. This past season, the Zips went all the way to the final in the College Cup and I cheered Abdi on from my living room. Abdi’s performances in college earned him a spot in the Major League Soccer (MLS) College Combine. We got together for a good luck dinner prior to Abdi’s departure, a photo from which is the lead picture in this post. I presume he did well because this past Friday, January 11, 2019, he was selected by New York City FC in the second round of the MLS Super Draft.

Abdi Mohamed selected by New York City FC (NYCFC) on Friday, January 11, 2019

Beaming with Pride

As I watched the video on my phone of Abdi being selected by NYCFC a sense of pride welled up inside. Not because I had anything to do with Abdi’s success. No, his work is all his. Just like Omar. For that matter, just like the other successes that other boys from the team have had. Rather, the sense of pride that I have for Abdi as he hugged his father in that ball room in Chicago after being drafted was my sense of pride in America. Say what we will about all the negative headlines and the three ring circus that we call Washington DC. But the fact remains that this country, warts and all, still provides a chance for a young man who came as an immigrant from war-torn Somalia to settle into sleepy Westerville, Ohio and to “make it.” Obviously, Abdi has a lot of work ahead of him. Getting drafted essentially means that he’s earned the right to put his head down and keep working the way he’s always done. But just for a moment, let’s celebrate this young man. And yes, let’s celebrate America, which is still the land of opportunity.

Running My First 50k

I started this blog post the morning before attempting my first 50k run. The title of this post very well could have read, “My first ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF) Race.” As I stated in an earlier post, Taking a Zero Day, I had some setbacks in my training routine running up to the race. Those setbacks lingered. And then lingered some more. My foot never really healed all the way. The most I had run at one time for the 3 weeks prior to the race was 4 miles, and my foot hurt every time. So to think I could make it 31 miles was pretty silly. But, somehow it worked.

Before the race, I took a mental assessment over breakfast of my physical and mental states. Here is what I wrote down:

  • Body feels good, well-rested and ready to work
  • Ankle pain 3 out of 10, worst when I flex the outer part of my foot upwards
  • Thinking about which wheel will fall off first: most likely my ankle, maybe my legs from a lack of running, least likely my cardiovascular system
  • Considering disappointment of being listed on the race results as DNF
  • Thinking about letting down Matt – my friend and running partner – whom I roped into this crazy idea
  • Given that it is a trail race, I cannot walk the required pace to make the cutoff time
  • Realistic probability of finish: 30%
  • Trying to quash the negativity, I am starting affirmations and visualizing a pleasant run in the woods

Then it was time to go. So I stopped thinking and put myself on auto-pilot. I loaded up my truck with my pre-packed supplies from the night before, and drove to the race start in the dark. When I say I stopped thinking, I put all my meditation practice into effect. I stopped assessing and ruminating. I stopped thinking about disappointments and pain. I used the skills I have learned in meditation to go through the motions and accept whatever came. Once at the race start, I continued to go through the motions. I met up with my friend, we made the decision to run light and rely upon the aid stations for food and drinks. Soon it was time to start.

The Rocks and Roots Trail Series at Alum Creek State Park in Lewis Center, Ohio, is one of the best organized I’ve ever experienced. It is a very small race, capped at 400 runners, and it is organized by runners for runners. I highly recommend it if you can get a spot. The leading picture for this post is one of the many stunning views you’ll experience throughout the two 10k loops of this fun and challenging course. So with some quick, no-nonsense announcements and an old-fashioned, “Ready, Set, Go!”, we were off at 8 AM.

I started off limping and then eased into a slow, methodical stride. A funny thing happened. My foot pain spiked early and then within 10 minutes subsided back to a 2 or 3 out of 10. I thought, “I can live with this.” So I just kept going. That’s how it went. Minute by minute, hour by hour, I just kept going. One foot in front of the other. 4 hours into the race, we had completed our first 30k (18.6 miles). If you’re doing the math, these are not fast miles, but that’s OK. We decided that this was a “just finish” race because it was our first attempt at this distance and, given that it was a trail race where we go up and down ravines and hop over downed trees, this was never going to be flat out. At 30k, the course was getting really boggy. There were significant portions of the course where the term “running” simply did not apply. Think, “ankle-deep pancake batter” and you get the picture. For these portions, we slowed to a walk and then picked back up on drier parts of the trail.

Somewhere around mile 29, I caught a root with my bad foot and it sent pains spiking through my leg. So I walked for a bit. My running partner and long-time friend – ever patient – walked along just in front of me, willing me forward. There was no stopping now. I had to cover the two miles back to the finish line anyway. So I walked on and used deep, focused breathing to let go of the pain. Soon I was back to trotting on drier spots and slogging through the mud.

And then it was over. We popped up out of the woods and came down the final stretch to the finish, where 20 or so people were cheering us on. Just over 7 hours of constant movement, and we had done it! Our first 50k. Matt and I crossed the finish line together, just as we had started. I want to be clear here that he could have gone ahead and beat my time by a good 30 minutes. But that isn’t who he is. After getting our medals and picking up our bags, we cheered the next 5 runners down the path. As the post-run chill sank in, we decided to call it a day and head back to our families, exuberant at our accomplishment.

As I put the finishing touches on this post, I feel great. My foot is a little swollen and tender, but I’m able to walk and be productive the day after a 50k (31 mile) race. I accomplished a major 2019 goal on day 6 of the year in the face of adversity. Perhaps I spend too much time on Zen Buddhism in my blog, but I will tell you dear reader that without my experience in sitting meditation, there is just about zero chance I would have attempted this race, let alone finished it. With that said, I also want to recognize the power of the team. Because without my friend Matt running along with me, I would have limped slowly across the finish line wondering what more I had left in the tank. Here’s to friends and zen!

Cheers!