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Soccer is My Weapon
They call soccer, the world's game. And for years, the world has played at Manchester Central. 25 years ago kids came from Greece and Italy. Today, it's Colombia and the Sudan.
For the players, soccer is not just sport- it's a connection to the life they left behind, and their ticket to a new life in the US. You don't have to speak English well, or know pop music to shine on the soccer field.
But a brilliant performance on the field doesn't guarantee success in school or life.
For our final installment of Culture Lessons, Dan Gorenstein spent time with one of Central's star players- a Sudanese refugee- to see how far soccer has taken him.
In a white school, in a white city, in a white state, it can be tough to be an African teenager.
You certainly look different.
You dress a little different too.
And when you speak, it's with an accent....that much easier for classmates to dismiss, not even really trying to hear.
But when Barnaba Madol arrived in Manchester he had a way to break through the barrier.
8:02 I can't speak English or anything, so I use my weapon, soccer. And soccer...soccer does the talking for you. Ok, if no one wants to know you. Ok, grab a soccer ball...
On the field, it's hard to ignore someone- especially if he can help you whup somebody else.
.... as long as you have talent...people will be willing to know you...that can be a key to make those friends. Oh, we got to help this guy. He can help us win games. We are going to need this guy.
Barnaba had built up considerable soccer skill playing in Africa for ten years.
But for the first time in his life there wasn't much room for soccer.
At age 15 he only had a 4th grade education.
His teacher Sheila Drowney says he had a lot of ground to cover.
1:30 When Barnaba came he had pretty good spoken English. His writing skills, were pretty weak. But...he is a thinker, so at the end of the year, we would read a story and he was able to grasp themes and ideas, and that was good. And in math the same thing.
More than once, Barnaba found his remedial classes humiliating.
5:02 I was like, I am in high school, why am I doing the things that the 1st graders and 3rd graders do. So I was thinking to myself, wow, I am just starting all over again.
He was...academically, socially, culturally.
Barnaba and his classmates from Brazil and Bosnia and Pakistan, spent much of their days trying to teach their tongues new tricks.
The students, ignorant of the Red Sox, Jay-Z and Dave Chapelle spent much of their time on the third floor of the school, removed from the center of Central.
After long days of noun and verb agreement Barnaba would walk a few blocks to the local Boys and Girls Club for help on his homework.
He did the best he could to follow the script.
The one where the newcomer tries to pull himself up by his bootstraps.
But as he walked through the halls of Central, he still felt isolated.
5:46 it's a racial thing. You can see a lot of people wanting to know who you are. They are eager. And those people. they are the ones who really want you. They welcome you. There are some who just walk by and smile....and you don't see the muscles in their face...you know when you are smiling you get those muscles and you can see wrinkles, well the only thing you see is their teeth. You can see they are not really smiling from inside of them. They are not really trying to say, 'yes. I am happy for you to be here.' I can notice. I can notice. No muscles.
Barnaba had the sense that if he could prove himself on the soccer field, his life would get better.
He figured that plan had worked for some of his African friends and he was more than ready to see those smiles with muscles.
In his junior year he decided he would go out for Central's soccer team.
The first day of tryouts Varsity Coach Chris Laberge remembers he was a little uneasy when Barnaba showed up.
:07 ...I look at him, and take a step back. He's intimidating. He's much darker complexion than anybody I have ever been around...
At that initial instant, skin color was all Coach Laberge could think.
1:49.... He's got very red eyes, where normally it's white, it's red. It's hot. He's sweating a lot. And I don't know, I've never seen him kick a ball. but I am thinking to myself, if I am a little bit intimidated, what are the other kids going to feel like?
In that same moment, Barnaba could not afford to think skin color.
4:40 I said to myself, I am going to come here, and all I know is my friends. So that made me feel race, b/c all I know are all blacks, I didn't know any white guys there. So I am like, don't think about that, just play. Try to be better than everyone else.
That afternoon of tryouts, Laberge paired Barnaba with a senior for a hustle one-on-one drill.
A short-ish, skinny white guy.
A tall-ish, lanky black guy.
Laberge rolled the ball onto the field.
The first one to reach the ball would become the attacker; the other would try to steal the ball away.
:05 ...inside of me there was something telling me, 'you can't let him beat you to the ball.' so we put up a good fight for the ball.... it was getting kind of rough and rugged....I give people elbows. Boom. Hit him. He came back, he went, he was chocking, 'Ah, you hit me man. That was good, man. You play well.'...it kind of left a mark...I am here to play, I am not here for you to run on me.
Barnaba had caught the coaches' eye again.
But this time, it wasn't for his skin color.
2:!8 ...Barnaba is out there, and he's got energy and charisma. Playingn out there. And I can see right off in the first ten minutes he's a good player.
Quickly Laberge named Barnaba a starter.
He co-captained the team his senior season.
The status transformed him from someone students stared at for his blackness or stared right past; to someone students knew.
He would wear his jersey in the halls, yelling at kids to support their soccer team....his soccer team.
3:21 it's like sharing something. So like, Central basically game me my respect. I am not just another student...I am a real student and doing something for the school.
Coach Laberge is fond of saying that soccer opens doors, especially for his foreign players.
Two of Barnaba's friends- both from Africa- had received soccer scholarships.
But due to so-so grades, or ordinary test scores or something else entirely, Barnaba didn't have any doors opening.
Instead he spent his winter inside, hanging out at a soccer facility in Bedford, not sure what to do after graduation.
While there, he ran into a former teammate and, it turned out, an opportunity.
Josh the player Barnaba had elbowed that first day of soccer tryouts, introduced him to the coach of a prestigious prep school.
After watching Barnaba play, the coach invited the two guys to spend a year playing for New Hampton School.
The offer drew the young men together.
2:33...We started hanging out more. We would have a game at 9, we'd go out to breakfast...and ever since then we started hanging out. Set a training schedule, we would run and lift together. It's more like a one-two punch. The package deal. We work good together. We call ourselves the package deal.... Defense. Offense. He can score and I can give him the assist.
The year at New Hampton would give them a shot at improving their grades and going to college on a soccer scholarship.
It was the kind of opportunity Barnaba had been angling for- helping himself through knowing soccer and knowing soccer people.
Looked at the right way, it was Barnaba's Hollywood ending, complete with sun setting as he heads off towards endless American possibilities.
Looked at another way, it was Barnaba putting all his chips on red.
Diligence, soccer skill, charm and decency don't guarantee a thing.
Central teacher Sheila Drowney fears Barnaba isn't ready for life after high school.
8:20 ...It's a worry when you have kids graduating, like B., who maybe are not stellar in academics. It gets worrisome...when you see them graduating and the skills they should have are not really where they should be. ... give him a textbook, or tell him to write a two page essay and that's going to be really difficult for him.
Sfx: announcing Central graduation
The 2006 graduating class is milling about, behind a huge curtain, waiting for the ceremony to begin.
Lined up in their caps and gowns, most kids are thinking about summer vacation, saying goodbyes and college.
Minutes before Barnaba walks across the stage, he's thinking about ripped tendons, sprained ankles and concussions.
4:08 ... I don't want to get hurt. If I get hurt everything is gone. If I get hurt, I won't be able to be who I am. Just stay away from getting hurt.
But Barnaba knows he has to go all out to attract college scholarships.
If Barnaba really applies himself at school, if he stretches, and stays fit, maybe he can sidestep all the hazards out there.
But no matter what he does, he's still black, in a white state, about to go to another white school.
He was rudely reminded of that just a few weeks ago.
He and his aunt were leaving his apartment to run an errand.
They stepped out into the street.
As they crossed a driver sped up.
:53 ... and I said, 'whoa, watch the street man.' He stopped really hard. Scary stop. And I thought to myself, wow, what is this guy going to do?... and he comes out, really angry. And coming at me, he is calling me, 'nigger.' He's calling me, 'motherf___er.'.....He walks back to his car and pulls out a soda bottle, just right at me. He missed....still walking at me, swing, and hit him in the upper lip.
The neighbors chased the guy away.
Barnaba says he doesn't know if the incident was racially motivated or not.
He's refuses to dwell on it.
5:02 If you let those things get in your way, you never succeed. Where I came from is Sudan. Man, there is some religious problems there. I already been through enough. And thinking about it, I don't want to do it anymore.
Racial tension, courses at his new school, soccer â€“ Barnaba knows that many challenges lie ahead.
He approaches it all with the attitude he had when he arrived in this country.
When his worried mom told him he would have to start 9th grade with only a 4th grade education- he said, 'don't worry, mom, they want me to do, I'll do it.'