A TEAM OF THEIR OWN

They fled war-torn nations and came to St. Louis. They pursued their passion for soccer at Soldan High -- and got a coach who didn't know the game. Then the real lessons began.

The fighting in Bosnia had mostly ended by 1996, but thousands were dead and hundreds of thousands more had fled to countries such as Germany. By 1997, Germany had expelled the 320,000 Bosnian refugees living within the country's borders, but with more than 1 million people unemployed in Bosnia and 20 percent of the population living below the poverty level, going home wasn't a choice most of the refugees could make.

"In '97 we decided to go back to Bosnia to see what the situation was, but it wasn't so good," says 17-year-old Mirza Bijedic, who adds that a Serbian family had moved into his family's house. "My uncle, I don't know what happened to him. He married a Serb woman, and when the war started, she took off with the child. We never knew what happened to him."

Mirza pauses. Then shrugs. "I think he's dead. Nobody can be alive there that long."

Armin Smajic, 17, and Haris Razic, 16.
Armin Smajic, 17, and Haris Razic, 16.
Fullback Edvin Hodzic and sweeper Adnan Jahic (foreground): "I passed out pieces of paper to them inquiring which position they wanted to play," says Coach James Hammond. "Then I told them to go ahead and get in position. 
As they did that, I took notes."
Fullback Edvin Hodzic and sweeper Adnan Jahic (foreground): "I passed out pieces of paper to them inquiring which position they wanted to play," says Coach James Hammond. "Then I told them to go ahead and get in position. As they did that, I took notes."

After being expelled from Germany, most of the Bosnian refugees came to the United States, where the U.S. State Department funneled them to cities like St. Louis with low unemployment and immigration levels. By this year, more than 13,000 Bosnians had found their way to St. Louis, making the area's Bosnian population one of the largest -- if not the largest -- in the country.Mahdi Botan's family fled Somalia for Egypt in 1992 after enduring two years of civil war in their country. "Before the fighting started in 1990, everything in Mogadishu was nice," the solemn 17-year-old says. "We used to play soccer, me and my friends, every day. But then you could hear the shooting every night, and you couldn't sleep. I slept under my bed."Some people took us to the airport, and there were a lot of people there who didn't want us to get on the airplane. I don't know where they came from, but they had guns. We ran for the plane. The flight man took off the second we were on there.

"We were so happy to be leaving Mogadishu," Mahdi says. "Everybody was leaving Mogadishu."

The same year Mahdi's family left Somalia and civil war broke out in Bosnia, James Hammond, then a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was posted to the military processing station in St. Louis. He'd been in the military for more than a decade.

Hammond joined the military when he was 16. His mother, Annie, raised her nine children on a maid's salary in Augusta, Ga. "There just comes a time when you realize you have to start taking care of yourself for a change," Hammond says, shrugging. "By going through all of the changes of the Army, basic training, moving from one base to the next, facing my fears head-on, I learned to face my fears and respect authority," he says. "What I really learned, though, was that there was a lot more to the world than living in a small ghetto."

By 1996, Hammond was stationed at the Melvin Price Support Center in Granite City, Ill. He had come a long way. He was an officer and a physical-training instructor for the troops; he had traveled around the world, earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and won several international power-lifting championships along the way.

"I left," Hammond says, "because I realized there were more challenges outside of the military."

Hammond left the military for good in 1996, the same year Mahdi and the Bosnians arrived in St. Louis. He decided that he wanted to teach and enrolled at Harris-Stowe State College to get a certificate in secondary mathematics -- "I don't really like math; I like the challenge of it," he says -- and landed a job in 1997 teaching behaviorally disordered students at Soldan, a St. Louis public magnet school that focused on international studies. By the fall of 1999, the school's student population was one-third Bosnian. When Hammond arrived, though, students such as Vedmir Vranjkovina were in the first stages of culture shock.

"When I first came here, the first six months, I just stayed home," says 16-year-old Vedmir, the team's center forward. "I wouldn't go out. I didn't want to go out. I wanted to go back to Europe."

Then Hammond was asked to coach the soccer team.

Coach Hammond wakes up every morning at 4:30. He never smokes, uses illegal drugs, drinks much alcohol or ingests much caffeine. A 5-pound bag of sugar has lasted him more than four years. He can do 100 push-ups in a minute and hundreds of sit-ups at a time. He runs at least five miles every morning, trains for power-lifting competitions every night, bench-presses 420, squats 705 and still finds time between teaching and coaching to take piano lessons and earn straight A's in the calculus classes he takes at night school.

But Hammond's self-discipline didn't begin to prepare him for the first few weeks of soccer practice at Soldan. In a word, it was chaos. The team was already way behind the others in terms of training, and the students' inability to speak much English and Hammond's inability to speak any Bosnian or Somali did nothing to hamper the players' suspicion that their coach knew nothing about the game.

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