By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Sam Levin
By Timothy Lane
By Sam Levin
By Dennis Brown
Two thoughts occurred to Coach James Hammond as he marched up and down the sideline of the field where his team, the Soldan Tigers, played its first scrimmage game of the high-school-soccer season. The first thought, sparked by the 10 years he spent as an officer and physical-training instructor in the U.S. Army, was that he wanted more than anything to see his team win. The second, born more recently, was that it would probably be better for the team to lose.
It was the second half of a game against the junior-varsity Billikens of St. Louis University High, a perennial power in soccer whose varsity team went to the 1999 state-championship final. The score was tied 1-1, and Hammond's own players, an undisciplined, unorganized, unconditioned mob of flailing arms and legs, stampeded over his training instructions like a herd of clubfooted buffalo. They were all over the field. They weren't passing the ball. The defense wasn't communicating. The forwards dribbled the ball the length of the field and were too tired by the time they got near the goal to do much but stop to catch their breath. The sweeper -- where was the sweeper?
"Come on, guys," Hammond called, alternately clapping his hands and folding them across his chest. "Show me something. Show me something."
Granted, his team was at a disadvantage. Most of the players were new this year, and they had only been practicing together a few short weeks, whereas the other teams were loaded with experience and had started practicing much earlier, in the summer. But that was tough. Life was tough. The military taught Hammond that you worked through these sorts of things.
What the 35-year-old coach was more concerned about than the game were the players themselves. Except for Mahdi Botan, a 17-year-old from Somalia, every member of the team was newly arrived from Bosnia. Though Hammond was informed every day by the boys that Bosnians are some of the best soccer players in the world, and though these kids did have the technical skills to blow most other teams out of a contest, their conditioning and ability to play in concert were almost nonexistent.
They were also arrogant about Hammond's skills, sniffing at his advice as if it were yesterday's lunch. Not that he was any expert, as the referee of this particular game publicly noted on several occasions. But when Hammond was called on the first day of school this fall and asked at the last minute to coach the team, he told them that he didn't know a thing about soccer, absolutely nothing, and in fact hadn't played a game of soccer since long before any of these kids were born.
So when the school's athletic director told Hammond that if he didn't coach the team, Soldan wouldn't have a team, Hammond felt the old, familiar nudge of a challenge. He hadn't gotten to where he was now by treating challenges like unsolicited junk mail, and when you came from behind like he had, you learned to take things on.
Hammond's response was instinctive. He dipped into his store of self-discipline, agreed to take the position and rented three how-to-play-soccer books and a video. It was tough, but life was tough sometimes.
Now, after a few weeks of practice, Hammond questioned whether he had done the right thing when he accepted the coaching position.
But something else about the players was bothering Coach Hammond that day. He knew as well as anybody that this was about more than a game of soccer.
All of the team's members, including Botan, had come to the United States after violent expulsions from their civil-war-torn countries. They moved from one country to another -- Germany, Denmark, Egypt -- trying to learn new languages, tolerating strange customs and following different rules, and when they were politically or socially ostracized in one place, they went to another, then another, then another. Now Bosnians made up almost one-third of Soldan's student population, and though they rarely talked about the atrocities that had punctuated their young lives, Hammond knew that the past hung over them dark and rippling, like a shroud.
But that was the roster life handed them, and Hammond knew from experience that you sometimes took it in the gut. These kids were starting all over again, and if they were going to succeed in the United States, they would have to meet the challenge head-on. To do that, Hammond knew, they had to learn discipline. Without it, they would fail -- at soccer, and at anything else they pursued.
If this game was any indication of how much discipline they had learned from him so far, they were in trouble.
"Come on, guys. Take it down. Show me something. Show me something," Hammond called.
In the last few minutes of the game, SLUH scored again, and Soldan lost 2-1.
But that was OK. There would be another scrimmage against SLUH in a few weeks, and maybe, Hammond thought, this loss was exactly what the boys needed.
Back in 1993, a year after civil war broke out in Bosnia, Edin Coralic knew exactly why his family was on the bus leaving their hometown. "I understood that if we hadn't moved, we would have been dead by now," says the 18-year-old. "I was 10 or 11 when we left, and I remember getting on the bus. It was the only bus that would leave my city for the next two years."
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."
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.
"I passed out pieces of paper to them inquiring about which position they wanted to play," Hammond says. "They put their names on the paper and the position, and then I told them to go ahead and get in position. As they did that, I took notes."
And he couldn't pronounce their names. No amount of discipline on his part could make up for the sheer volume of syllables in these kids' names. Trying to spit out the complicated twists and turns of Vranjkovina or Kafedzic across a field of Bijedics and Kukics and Nicsics was like trying to recite high-speed tongue-twisters with lemon wedges in his mouth. How could he yell at them like coaches were supposed to if he had to run through the entire list of names in hopes of finally hitting the right one?
One thing the coach did understand, though, was physical training. A decade in the military had taught him that. He figured that if he could start the team off with physical conditioning, he could catch up on the technicalities of the game later.
Every afternoon at 2:15, the team reported to the weight room. Strength was as important as speed, so Hammond required one circuit of the weight room every day. If players complained, they repeated the circuit. Next they ran up three flights of stairs, across the hall, down three flights of stairs on the other side and back again, 10 times. After that, they drilled. When they were late for drills, they ran laps. When they weren't late for drills, they ran laps. Finally came a scrimmage game on the field. If they touched the ball with their hands, 10 pushups. If they talked back, 10 more.
The players, who bragged that they learned to play soccer before they learned to walk, were appalled. To have this know-nothing American drill sergeant blowing whistles at them every time they turned around wasn't their idea of good soccer.
"From 2:30-4:30 it was practice every day," says one member of the team. "Weight lifting, then run laps, then stretching, then scrimmage. It was like being in the Bosnian army."
It wasn't exactly Sunday brunch for Hammond, either.
"They didn't want to run; they wanted to play soccer. They didn't want to do drills; they wanted to play soccer. They didn't want to do sprints; they wanted to play soccer," he says. "So at first I had to let them know, "OK, I understand that you probably know soccer better than I do because you've been playing for years. I'm a novice, OK? But I do know how to train people, and you all need to get in shape.'"
Hammond's insistence that the team work out every day as part of its training wasn't because the players weren't good. In fact, since the first loss to the SLUH junior varsity, they had won every game they played, with point margins that predicted a season sweep -- Soldan 10, Cleveland 0; Soldan 9, Gateway Tech 0; Soldan 10, Beaumont 0.
But these early victories were too easy, and the Public High League was not known for its soccer. What worried the coach most was that these wins bloated the players' heads with illusions of flawlessness.
"Like running," says Hammond. "When we first started, they didn't want to run. They'd say, "Do we really have to do this?" and I'd say yes and blow my whistle. I had to instill in them the team concept, so if one was running too slow, I'd make them all run more. I'd always say to the individual, "Don't let your team down.'
"Because these kids have the skills that they have, they don't feel that they have to worry about conditioning. They think they can work on skill alone," Hammond says. "The basic fundamental is that if you're going to win, you have to have the discipline, the conditioning to work as a team.
"But they thought they knew everything," Hammond says.
Indeed, the boys seemed to have welded their sense of self to their ability to play soccer. They might not speak English very well, might be behind in their schooling and have to work triple-time to catch up, but they could dribble a soccer ball better than most Americans, and they knew it.
"I learned to play soccer on the streets," says Vedmir. "That's the difference. In America you learn it in a club, but we learn it in the streets. It's different. It's technique.
"If you have technique, you can play soccer," he continues steadily. "Being strong and conditioned, everybody can do that if they practice, but if you play every day on a small field with your friends like I did, you learn to play what you think. You don't teach it in a book how to play; it's in your heart."
Hammond understood that although technique might enable the team to win against the other public high schools, whose soccer teams weren't as well endowed with experience, it wouldn't help them beat teams like SLUH. And that second scrimmage against SLUH was fast approaching.
Three weeks after practice began, the school informed Hammond that because he didn't have his teaching certificate yet, Mike Miller would be taking over as head coach. But Hammond, as assistant coach, continued the day-to-day training.
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."
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."
Coralic, like most of the 300 Bosnian students at Soldan, doesn't hang out much with American kids. The Bosnian parents don't encourage it, and because Bosnians make up one-third of the school's population and because there are Bosnian restaurants, stores and coffeehouses all over the city's South Side, it's not hard not to.
And it's not as if American kids his age could ever understand what he or any of the others had been through anyway, what they saw or what they dreamed about at night.
"When we left my city in Bosnia," Coralic says, "I remember waving goodbye to my uncle, and we were all crying. The Serbs occupied the city, and they opened up labor camps for the Muslims and the Croats, and they started taking people away from their homes and just killing them. My dad and my brothers were in labor camps for several weeks, but they returned home, thank God.
"You got attacked by normal civilians, people you knew yesterday as friend but who attacked you today because you're Muslim. The area that we lived in was 90 percent Serbian and 10 percent Muslim, and we heard from my uncle that all of the Muslims in the town were killed -- all of them. There were 27,000 Muslims and Croats killed just in my city."
Coralic's family left Bosnia in August 1993, one year after the fighting started, and moved to Germany, where they stayed for four years until being deported to the United States. In every place he lived, even here in the United States, he played soccer. It was the one constant amid all the stuff. In the space of five years, Coralic lived in three different countries, learned two new languages and grew to know change like a neighbor. When he got to St. Louis in '97, he had only one question about the new school:
"Do they have a soccer team?"
Soldan did, and at this particular moment, that team was losing to SLUH 1-0.
At halftime, the coaches called the players together and asked them to join hands. Most of the hurried pep talk was a jumble of you-can-beat-this-team-if-you-play-together kind of stuff, but then they got the psychological boost they needed.
"You're the best players in the district," Coach Hammond said. "You call yourself Bosnians? Well, go out there and play like it!"
As they ran back out onto the field, inspiration competed with adrenaline in the players' veins. Says Vedmir Vranjkovina: "We were motivated to win. Everybody was. Everybody ran after the ball. You can be a good player, but you still have to fight to reach something. You can be a good player, but if you stand around, it brings you nothing. You have to fight to do everything, and everybody was running and fighting to get the ball."
SLUH never scored another goal.
Come on, guys, show me something. Show me something.
Soldan scored twice.
"It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."
At last year's youth summer camp at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, Muhamed Hasic, the imam who ran the program, let the Bosnian kids work off steam by playing soccer behind the building. Focusing on the sheer pleasure of the game, says Hasic, gave the boys a respite from the difficulties enveloping their new lives in the United States.
"I try to lead them to be good in school, to go to college and to be away from things like drugs," Hasic says. "If you don't, you could end up on the streets or flipping hamburgers for the rest of your life at McDonald's and not be able to live on your own -- and forget about ever helping your parents or anybody else."
Hasic continues to counsel many Bosnian teenagers in the area, because, he says, they are beset with emotional and social problems unique to foreign-born war refugees, including dealing with the loss of family members and with the loss of just being a family. "So many of the parents here are working many more hours than they were used to back home, so they don't have the time to spend with their kids, who are left alone in front of the TV or on the streets," Hasic says. "They have to pay the bills by working 12 hours a day. It's something they can't control."
As for the Bosnian teenagers, Hasic says soccer may be therapeutic. "Soccer isn't so popular for American kids, but they are probably -- how can I say it? -- more innocent than kids from big cities," he says. "They focus on playing for the pleasure of it."
After the win against the SLUH junior varsity, Hammond didn't let up on the training. Every day it was the same -- weight lifting followed by running, followed by drills, followed by soccer.
The team was pulling together. They were passing more, learning to communicate out on the field, and Soldan's players were topping the leader charts of the Public High League: Elzir Kafedic, 16 goals and seven assists; Vedmir Vranjkovina, 15 goals and eight assists; Mersad Ganic, 12 goals and 12 assists. So far, Edin Coralic was the overall goalie leader with nine wins, three shutouts and no losses at all.
The school was starting to sit up and take notice.
But then Hammond's confidence was rattled. A few days before the district tournament, where Soldan would face killer schools like Rosary and Aquinas-Mercy, the coach found half his team in the school gym, messing around with a basketball instead of lifting weights downstairs as they were supposed to. His well-toned sense of self-control went pole-vaulting through the roof.
These kids were in no position to ignore his instructions. They were good and getting better, but they were a long way from being best.
Hammond barked at the players to get back down to the weight room.
Without thinking, the team's 17-year-old right forward, Armin Smajic, barked back.
Hammond's eyebrows arched toward the ceiling. Come again? He knew forwards like Smajic were traditionally arrogant. They were, after all, the ones who made most of the goals, and though you wanted them to be bold and aggressive, this kind of insubordination wouldn't stand.
"He told me to wait!" Hammond says. "The military part of me comes out sometimes, I guess, but I cannot tolerate disrespect. I mean, I didn't know half of what these kids knew about soccer, but there has to be a certain amount of leadership coming from the coaches.
"They're teenagers," Hammond says. "They're going to talk back and give you a hard time. They want to challenge you, and that's normal, but you have to put your foot down immediately.
"I told Smajic to stay right where he was. Period. He was off the team."
Hammond's decision wasn't based on anger as much as it was on the fact that Smajic talked back to him in front of the team. What these kids needed was a sense of loyalty to their team. As individuals they were bold and skilled, but as a team they were shy and wanting.
Smajic, for example, was a good right forward. There was no doubt in Hammond's mind that he could get a college scholarship simply on the basis of his ability to keep the ball between his own two feet. But he wouldn't pass the ball. Smajic ran from one end of the field to the other without so much as a glance at the teammates who could help him, so by the time he got to the goal post, he was too worn out to shoot well.
Even though the district tournament was a few days away and Hammond was still reading how-to-play-soccer books, he knew the basics of team playing. "It's the same way in life," Hammond says. "You can't go through life by yourself. I don't care how smart you are, somebody always helps you up along the way. Nobody makes it by themselves.
"If they really want to be something, really want to do something, they've got to work for it," he adds. "There's no way around it. There are no short cuts."
Smajic, faced with accepting the consequences of his behavior or watching his team move forward in the season without him, waited two days. Then he apologized to the coach. "I was really only mad for that one day," he says now, trying to deflect any perceived weakness in his action.
Hammond let him back on the team.
Except for the very first scrimmage against SLUH junior varsity, the Soldan Tigers had won every game they played. They entered the district tournament in late October with a total score of 72-7 and ranked third in their district, behind Aquinas-Mercy and Rosary. The team felt unbeatable.
In the first district game, against the sixth-ranked Crossroads Career Academy, the team played as a team and Soldan won 10-0. That night, to celebrate the victory, the team piled into the bus, pulled into a Schnucks parking lot and ate spaghetti made by Coach Miller's wife.
The next night, just before Soldan was scheduled to play second-ranked Rosary, Coach Hammond realized at the last minute that the team needed athletic tape and, instead of giving them his usual pregame pep talk, ran to the nearest Kmart. Later he would regret it.
"I always tell them I expect them to win," Hammond says. "I tell them they are probably some of the best soccer players in the district, and I know that for a fact. But I also tell them being the best soccer players doesn't guarantee that they'll win. I tell them they've got to play as a team, and if they don't, they'll lose.
"But I didn't tell them that night. It was the only time. I didn't give the speech before that game."
In addition, several of the players were down with the flu, so the bench, shallow to begin with, was now nonexistent. Edin Coralic was nervous, because 11 members of the team went onto the field knowing they would have to play the entire game. With no breaks.
For the first half, the players made do. No goals were scored by either side. In fact, there were only 15 minutes to go when Hammond, up in the tower, watched Rosary score the first goal of the game. He knew his boys were tired, could see they were losing focus, and Hammond felt an unexpected wave of helplessness threaten his reserve.
Down on the field, Coralic watched his team members fall into old habits. They weren't passing. They weren't communicating. On the energy of the panic, the street playing they grew up on kicked in. If they didn't score soon, it would be all over. Coralic understood the boys were scared and reverting to their pre-Hammond soccer-playing.
In the tower, Hammond's feeling of helplessness intensified as he watched his team deteriorate. Come on, guys, show me something. They got sloppy. They were so intent on scoring, everything he'd taught them -- the discipline, the cohesiveness, the planning -- seemed like worn-out textbook fodder.
Then Hammond saw Adnan Jahic start to move forward. No, no, no, he thought. As the sweeper, Jahic was supposed to stay back, was supposed to protect the goalie. How many times had he warned the 17-year old not to leave his area? All it would take was one good kick from the other team and for one of their players to run forward. Then it would be a one-on-one with Coralic, who was already worn out from playing the entire game.
For Jahic, there was no alternative. Time was running out. Because Rosary already had one point on them, no amount of defense would make any difference now. They had to attack, street-soccer-style, all of them together, and score.
Had they been playing together longer, Hammond knew, another teammate would have stepped back and taken Jahic's place. But six weeks wasn't enough time to kill what was instinct in these players. Rosary scored again, as Hammond predicted.
But as the coach looked down on the field and watched the tournament slip away, his feeling of helplessness gave way to a new realization.
"I realized they weren't quitting," Hammond says. "As a team they didn't quit, even to the end. Even when they were losing, they were trying to win. When the sweeper went forward, he was trying to win. They weren't passing, because they wanted to win."
And that was what he wanted them to learn. Life, like big games, wouldn't be won without a tough fight. They could never give up or they'd be left behind. These kids were young and undisciplined, sometimes arrogant and disrespectful, but as the 11 war-scarred men with whom he'd spent the past six weeks attacked the ball, he saw something much more important than the ability to pass well. He saw that they would survive. They'd come a long, long way from telling him to wait, and even though they weren't playing with the finesse of professionals yet, they never once gave up.
The Tigers lost, 2-0, but they lost together, and Hammond knew they knew why. After the game there were no lectures, no interrogations, no pep talks, no I-told-you-so's.
"Losing that game was enough," Hammond says.
The players pour into Coach Hammond's classroom kicking soccer balls and Bosnian one-liners back and forth across the room. The language sounds crisp, clean and complicated, and for someone who doesn't understand the words, sitting there feels like being caught in a verbal game of keep-away.
As book bags drop to the floor, each player, conscious of the reporter's presence, dramatically salutes the coach.
"Oh, man," Hammond says from behind his desk, "cut it out."
It's been a week since the team lost to Rosary, but instead of slinking to their chairs in embarrassed defeat, the players lean into each other and maneuver loudly for attention.
"Remember, I am the best player on this team."
"No, I am the best player on this team."
"No, you're not -- I am."
Each salute and pronouncement comes with a grin and sheepish glance at the coach. Hammond isn't smiling, though. He flips through his own homework for his calculus class that night.
Mahdi Botan, the Somali, sits off to the side wearing a Cardinals T-shirt and an expressionless face. He watches quietly as the coach, from behind his desk, orders the team to act like adults. When they finally wedge their endless arms and legs into the compact school desks, talk of the loss to Rosary revolves around the expected: Players were sick; the field was wet; the bench wasn't nearly deep enough.
Soon though, they have to forage for the right words to express a deeper understanding, and they search for each other's eyes.
"I felt bad that night. I felt real bad," says 16-year-old Alen Niksic, the team's right halfback. "We used to think the coach was running us too much, but he really did teach us. It's all about teamwork; he told us that from the beginning, you know, that you can't do it all by yourself. It's got to be all of us."
Adnan Jahic breaks in. "If we had played as a team against Rosary like we did against Crossroads, we would have won."
All of the players nod.
"I really thought we would win," says Mirza Bijedic as he looks to the teammates on his left and right. "We learned a lot, though. We learned that we weren't unbeatable."
"And this year, we just met in September," says Vedmir. "All of the other teams were playing in the summer." He shrugs. "But it's a public school, so nobody cares."
Coach Hammond looks up sharply from his calculus book.
"But they will."
In the coming weeks, Hammond will try and organize a soccer club so the team can play together during the off-season. He and Coach Miller will also continue counseling and pursuing college scholarships for the older boys.
Though all of the team members say they'd like to go back to their home countries, all seem resigned to the fact that they probably never will. So Edin Coralic plans to attend Lindenwood University and become an architect, and Mahdi Botan wants to study computer engineering. Vedmir Vranjkovina says he doesn't know what he wants to do yet, but Mirza Bijedic is sure: "I want to go to West Point," he says jutting his chin seriously into the air. "I want to become a military officer."
In the meantime, Hammond plans to finish his own schooling for his teaching certificate and to make sure his team stays emotionally and physically in shape.
"I was pretty hard on the kids, because I wanted them to learn something," Hammond says. "They had to learn that they couldn't just go out there and play randomly, out of control; there had to be a point. Even if we had to take someone off the team for a small amount of time to teach them a lesson, it's better than having them play and not learn anything."
The coach's next challenge now is getting the players to sell candy bars to raise money for the soccer club. If they can raise enough money, they won't have to scrounge next year for tape and shoes and jerseys, but the players, verging on adulthood now, complain bitterly about the process.
The coach understands that it's hard to be 17 and have to sell chocolate bars in the school hallways, but hey, that's life, and sometimes life is tough.
When Hammond tells the team it's time to get back to their normal classes, the complaint can be heard all the way down the hallway. "Pleeease let us stay. Pleeease, pleeease, pleeease.""I'm doing great in class, Coach. I don't need to go back."
"I have no homework, Coach. Pleeease let us stay."
Hammond, still unsmiling, issues his second and final "Time to go." As they slink out the door single-file, Mahdi Botan looks back into the room.
"We know how to play soccer, you know."
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