Soccer To Success

Often we see the glamour of the present while being oblivious to the gory journey of the past. I came to America, completed a tertiary education and have been working in the corporate world (for 8 yrs now); to many, this might seem “glamorous”. However, what is definitely not glamorous is the journey that took me from a third world country to the land of opportunities – America.

For those who know me, you may or may not know how I came to America. No, I didn’t jump on the bus and hit I-95 North from Jamaica (like someone once thought). Neither did I hop on a raft or boat and paddled to the shores of Miami. I came to the shores of America via a plane – American Airlines – to pursue a soccer scholarship at Howard University (in 1993).

Ironically, even though my proverbial “ticket to America” was a soccer scholarship, my coming here almost didn’t materialize. Why? I had signed my contract, gotten the acceptance letter and obtained my US visa. The only thing that I didn’t have was my real ticket – I (my family) couldn’t afford the plane fare! Some people would call this a dilemma, but this was more like a disaster: It all boiled down to this: a $20,000 (USD) a semester scholarship was being hijacked by a $240 (USD) plane ticket. Fortunately, one of the supporters of my high school (Cornwall College) soccer team intercepted my fate – stepped in and bought me a one way ticket – just 3 days prior to the time I needed to report to Howard. I am forever grateful to Mr. David Gordon for his generosity!

So was mother luck on my side? My fate was aided by David or should I say that it was a case of David slaying Goliath – the ticket. Now was there another Goliath to slay in the US immigration? Normally, US immigration wants to know that you are planning to return to your homeland (and as such stipulates that visitors purchase a two way ticket). When I arrived at the entry port of Miami, the immigration officer just stamped my passport with a big smile and said, “Welcome to America.” I was admitted to the land of opportunities. And did I capitalize on this opportunity? Yes, indeed! My ticket to America was also my ticket out of poverty!

I mentioned poverty here, but it warrants some elaboration (just elaboration, not an exaggeration). I experienced my fair share of poverty while growing up but was fortunate to experience the milder side of it; I never went to bed without a meal. I didn’t lack the basic necessities either: shelter, clothes, etc. Not lacking something didn’t mean enjoying a luxury of it either: For clothes in particular, I had the basic clothes for school – khaki uniforms; but as for church and regular clothes, my entire “wardrobe” could fit into a shopping bag and that included my at most 2 pairs of shoes (when I was fortunate to have two). What I lacked were some of the essential things that would have made my Education — The key to Success — a less torturous journey.

My Education was something my mom took very seriously (because she knew first hand what it meant not to have a proper one). I took it seriously also, else I would suffer the ill consequence of her wrath via the proverbial rod! It was during my educational journey between ages 7 -12 that poverty started getting more torturous: khaki’s was affordable, and I could afford textbooks because they were free. While textbooks were free, lunch wasn’t and neither was it readily affordable! It cost only but 10 minutes to walk back home to have lunch that my mom would prepare, so that’s what I did for several years.

At age 10, I can remember one time when the soles fell off my only pair of shoes. My mom asked me if I wanted to go school barefoot, until she goes into town the next day and buys another pair. Without missing a beat I said, “Yes!” I went to school the next day barefooted … at least that’s what I told her. I had the true intentions of going to school, but instead, I stayed on a hill overlooking the school; I was too scared to go on the school grounds barefooted because I would have been teased. So apart from not having the luxury of 2 or more shoes, that period of my educational journey was not too bad.

However, when I started going to High School which was in town, and textbooks weren’t free, the journey became more torturous. Until my 4th year in high school, I couldn’t afford all my textbooks: however, my friends were kind enough to lend theirs. Also, having 2 pairs of shoes was a luxury, having one was a blessing. Most of the time I was blessed! I had only one pair of shoes – an all purpose pair – that I wore to school, church, in the yard, pretty much every where. I distinctly remembered one school night when I went to catch crabs and my shoes got soaked and dirtied by the muddy swamps. That night after returning home, I had to cleaned off the shoes, light a coal fire and set the shoes by it so that they could be dry and ready for school in the morning.

For most of my teenage life I played the sport – soccer – that paved the way for my future barefooted (on dirt, grass and on the street). And yes, I played soccer in that all purpose shoes too. Also my having shorts to play soccer was a luxury that I couldn’t afford; so I either played in long pants or I cut any pants that were damaged to make makeshift shorts. Barefoot, shorts or not, I loved this sport and played it even when my mom insisted that I should not – complaining that I should focus on my Education.

Ironically and fortunately, it was my playing soccer that alleviated my torturous Educational journey. The alleviation started when I started playing for my high school senior team. I instantly was blessed with a pair of soccer cleats and shorts. Plus, as I became more renown (in the soccer arena) some old boys gave me stipends to assist with my schooling: books, shoes, etc. I must add that this enabled me to enjoy the luxury of having 2 pairs of shoes; and if one was soaked after heavy rains, it wouldn’t pose a problem for my getting to school the next day.

Three years later after I started playing for my high school senior team, I was drafted for the Jamaica national U-19 team. That national pedigree paved the way for my getting the soccer scholarship. Unlike America where kids in high school have scholarship opportunities at their disposal, this was not the case for me. I wasn’t aware of any potential scholarship, didn’t apply for it; but was grateful that one of the old boys (from my high school) who went to Howard came to Jamaica and visited his Alma Matta, saw me and informed Howard’s coach of my credentials. A couple months later I was blessed with a soccer scholarship; I embarked on it and worked my way to a BS in Mechanical Engineering, then a MS in Computer Science and eventually a career in the software industry for the past 8 yrs.

So would you call my journey a success? I was listening to a pastor recently and something that he said resonated profoundly in me: “Your success in life is not measured by the amount of money that you have, but by the blessing that you received and the number of lives that you touch”.

On the first point – money – neither do I have plenty of it nor am I lacking it. I was successfully blessed to get the soccer scholarship and because of that was able to climb the socio-economic ladder (where I started virtually at the bottom). Moreover, this climb was aided by myriads of people who deposited their time and money into my life. I am forever grateful to all of them!

These people have been a blessing to me, have been blessed (by blessing me) and indeed are successful. Furthermore, they will inherit more success and blessings because of the lives that I plan to touch. These lives are the ones that I see around, especially, when I visit Jamaica: kids not going to school; kids playing soccer barefoot or in pants; kids with little clothes – things we take for granted like underwear is a luxury for them, just like they were for me. These kids don’t choose to stay out of school; they don’t choose to play soccer barefoot, etc. Their situations are predicated not by choice but by circumstance – a poverty stricken one! I was fortunate to endure some of the milder wraths of poverty, but these kids are less fortunate than I was.

I would like you to join me in touching the lives of these less fortunate kids and make a difference in their lives. Your help will be priceless (to them) and so too will your reward. Your help, no matter how small, could be their ticket out of poverty – if for even one life, touch it!

– Robbie Hemmings