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.

Wild Horses Save The Beach

If I’m honest, I don’t love the beach. There, I’ve said it. Yes, yes, it is beautiful. But I’m more of a go-out-and-explore than a toes-in-the-sand-with-a-beer-in-my-hand kind of person. So it was with some trepidation that I set aside a week to go to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I am quite clear on how silly that sounds. My lovely mother lined it up so that my sister and her family and I and my family could come together with her for a week at one of the most popular beach destinations in the Eastern United States, and I’m feeling trepidation? I’d probably make a good extra in an Adam Sandler movie.

We’re now in the second half of beach week. We’ve gone to the pool, we’ve caught some rays, we’ve gone to the beach, we did battle with some large waves and decent riptide, and we (I) got a small crustacean stuck in our swim suit. With a couple of days to go, I was thinking that was it – rinse and repeat – although hopefully I could avoid another sand crab incident. But then my wife and better half decided to pull on a thread that has been dangling in front of us. All of our rooms include this seemingly obligatory picture of horses on the beach. Someone mentioned something about wild horses at dinner the other night, but we didn’t think it was a real thing. I mean, this is the modern, arguably overdeveloped Eastern sea board of the US, and it’s the beach. Horses? Pulling out her trusty mobile device, she quickly learned that there is in fact a not-quite-indigenous population of wild horses roaming free on a 7,500 acre stretch of American beach.

Spanish War Horses

In the year 1492, there was this Italian guy who left from Spain to find a short route to the East Indies. He kind of muffed it. But, he did run across this new place that had some prospects. You’ve probably heard that story. So fast forward a bit and pretty soon the Spanish are sending boats to the American coast pretty routinely. The Outer Banks, it turns out, are particularly difficult to navigate. A naturally occurring string of barrier islands that span 200 miles, there are shoals and riptides and all kinds of fun little things for boats to stumble upon. No one knows for sure, but it is assumed that either the horses were tossed off a grounded ship to lighten the load or they somehow survived a wreck. Either way, a group of Spanish war horses (their DNA has been verified) made it to shore in the Outer Banks and have been hanging out in the wild for about 500 years.

Now, I’m an American and I love America, warts and all. But one of the things we Americans are not good at is leaving well enough alone. So forgive me when I declared shenanigans at the idea of a rogue colony of Spanish War Horses living on the beach in North Carolina. I think it would have been much more likely that settlers discovered the horses, tamed them, and their story was swallowed up by history. What I didn’t realize is that the Outer Banks are a relatively new build-out. As late as 1985, there were no paved roads in the Corolla Beach area. So at this point, the horses have been here a good bit longer than the people.

Hop In My Hummer

My skepticism in check, I’m now fully on board. I’ve got to see this. My wife unholstered her trusty smartphone to figure out that Wild Horse Adventure Tours was the best gig in town. We were able to pick our tour time, complete the transaction, and sign the waivers all from the phone. Fantastic! But wait, it gets better. The company has outfitted original Hummers with 12 bucket seats for passengers in an open air environment. The evening was cool for North Carolina and again, the tour company was on point with blankets for all the passengers. We met our Tour Guide, Pippy, whose enthusiasm for the area and the horses was infectious. So we sat in comfort and made the 20 minute trek out to Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.

Wild Horses

The tour was fantastic. It included a good bit of the natural and human history of the area as well as the horses. Pippy masterfully guided the Hummer back into the dunes. The first thing that struck me about the area was the number of gigantic beach houses interspersed among the dunes. I want to be clear here. There are no roads. To get to these mostly two-story homes built on at least one story of stilts to avoid the floods, people have to have 4X4 vehicles to navigate the dunes and trapped water in the area. Also, I don’t quite understand how they’re building in a wildlife refuge, but this is much more like the America I know. If you’ve got a cool million to throw at a beach house in a probable flood plain that has no roads and requires a rugged vehicle to reach it, we’ll find you a permit to build. But I digress. We were back in the dunes about five minutes before finding our first harem of horses. The herd is made up of about 100 horses, but these split off into harems as the males are quite territorial. A harem is comprised of at least one stallion and one mare, but – to quote Pippy, “The stallion will take on as many mares as he can handle, usually 3-5.” The horses are beautiful, and I’m sure they are wild. However, they’re certainly not easily spooked. As we drove around the only navigable parts of the dunes, we frequently came quite near the horses as we passed by slowly. We were even treated to a good look at the herd’s only colt of the season, as he was eating grass next to an outdoor air conditioning unit in the backyard of one of the mega-houses. In all cases, the horses went on about their business grazing and doing what horses do as we and other tour companies patrolled the area.While we did not see horses running and frolicking in the waves as the pictures in our condo would suggest, it was still an excellent experience. We learned a little history, saw a good bit of the dunes between the Atlantic and the Currituck Sound, got fairly up close and personal with some wild Spanish War Horses, and got to do all of it in the comfort of a well-navigated Hummer. If this is life at the beach, I am revising my future beach-going trepidation.

Here are a few more photos I took on our travels