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.

He also found himself tutoring the kids in math and English before and after school. Because of their plunge into the new language and culture, most were a year or more behind the class levels of their American peers, and Hammond realized that if they were ever going to make it to college, they'd have to learn more than how to lift weights.

He investigated scholarships and spent more time with the kids after school. He learned about their families. He talked about their futures. He stopped asking them if they were going to college and demanded to know where.

"My biggest thing is to get them to the next step," Hammond says. "Some of them want to go back to Bosnia, but they know they can't, so since they are here, I think they need to learn as much as they can."

Edin Coralic, center, surrounded by teammates Spahic Aldin, Armin Smajic, 
Vedmir Vranjkovina and Adnan Jahic after Soldan’s win over SLUH. "It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."
James Hammond
Edin Coralic, center, surrounded by teammates Spahic Aldin, Armin Smajic, Vedmir Vranjkovina and Adnan Jahic after Soldan’s win over SLUH. "It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."

The past's shadows fell long as Bosnians moved into the St. Louis area by the thousands after their expulsion from Germany in 1997. At the same time they were trying to evict the psychological intruders invading their war-torn memories, the refugees were also forced to set up a whole new house.

Most couldn't speak English, so the adults took jobs paying an average of $7.08 an hour, according to the International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis, and the children, with academic transcripts in at least two other languages, started school years behind their American classmates.

Then, as the children learned English, they became interpreters for their parents, translating everything from phone bills to restaurant menus to insurance forms. "I have students who have to get out of school just to let the parents know what the doctor is saying or go with them to a job interview or to go and find an apartment, to buy a car," says Donnie L. Harris, a bilingual counselor at Soldan. "The students are the ones who are helping the parents. The students are the ones that the parents are depending on to transact the business."

Added like dead weight to that were the normal pressures facing all teenagers from all countries -- namely, learning about their own identities. Because their parents didn't take well to Homer Simpson, gang violence and apple pie, they tended to cling to the culture they once knew.

"This is really an identity issue," says Suzanne LeLaurin of the International Institute. "Adolescents are really trying to find their identity, but there's this added dimension to the identity now. It's a cultural identity."

Edin Coralic was beyond nervousness. It was the second scrimmage against SLUH's junior-varsity squad, and as the forwards advanced toward him with the ball, Soldan's goalie and team captain felt the weight of responsibility crush everything from existence except his obligation to the team.

He'd already maneuvered through several heart-thumping saves, but his defense wasn't communicating well, even though the players as a whole were more cohesive than they were three weeks before when they first lost to this moving mass of machinery now zeroing in on his domain.

Come on, guys, show me something. Show me something.

Coralic watched the SLUH strikers bear down and prepared to dive. As the ball left the ground and ran its well-plotted course, Coralic lunged for it, too late to block its momentum. It blasted into the net, the end of a perfect shot.

The score was now 1-0, but there was still time to catch up. Coralic knew his team could do this. They could beat this team together. They were good enough and playing better together than they ever had, and the entire second half stretched out before them like a shining promise.

As captain of the team, the 18-year-old Coralic was the right hand of the coach and had come, over the past three weeks, to appreciate what the man who knew nothing about soccer was trying to teach the team. Even though Coralic had a rough time convincing the other players of its worth, he began to see that the coach's chalk talk made sense.

Because of the weightlifting, they were stronger; because of the running and drills, they had more endurance. Coach Hammond told them over and over that they had to be aggressive, couldn't just stand around and wait for the ball to come to them, and they were learning to do that almost as well as American football players. If they could just bow from the limelight shed on their individual skills and play as a team, they could win this game.

But Coralic also knew that all of the coach's repeated commands and whistle-blowing had an urgency behind them that went far beyond the field. Even though the coach couldn't pronounce their names correctly and still had to take play cues from the team, he seemed to understand how hard all of this American stuff was for the players. That's what it was, after all -- stuff. Coralic himself, even after three years, wasn't sure of the language and had questions about how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. "My parents don't want me to stay here," he says. "They want me to go back to Europe."

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