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Akrem Muzemil’s high school here in D.C. didn’t have a soccer field for him to play on. But he went halfway around the world to build a field for others.
Muzemil moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia with his mother when he was 11 years old. He went back to Africa by himself last summer. He spent a month in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital where he was born, rehabbing St. Michael’s Gola, the soccer park where he’d learned to play the game as a little boy.
Months before making the trip, Muzemil, then just 17, founded a group called Goals for the World with Thomas Mehari, a classmate from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School near Howard University. They collected “a little over $1,000” which was spent on leveling the St. Michael’s field and installing benches, goals, and donated nets. There was enough money left over to subsidize a soccer tournament to celebrate the park’s rebirth.
“It was an amazing experience,” says Muzemil, who now lives in Columbia Heights. “The people were so appreciative.”
Muzemil has played soccer at a pretty high level with his D.C. club, City F.C. He was on City F.C.’s U-19 Rangers, a squad that recently won the Northeastern Regional “futsal” tournament—a miniaturized and speedier five-on-five version of the beautiful game. He’ll travel with the club to California this July to play for the U.S. National Futsal Championship.
His experience playing ball for Banneker in the public school league, DCIAA, hasn’t been quite so satisfying.
“There’s never been much support for soccer [at Banneker] that I could see,” Muzemil says. “There’s no practice field, no field of our own, but it’s more than that.”
In fact, when Banneker’s coach left after last season, Muzemil and his teammates had trouble getting the administration to say whether the vacancy would even be filled. So Muzemil and other rising seniors went to the Banneker brass with a request: If the administration wasn’t all in for soccer, then please just let the program die.
Under DCIAA rules, kids at schools that don’t field a team in a particular sport may play for other schools. If Banneker had obliged those asking for the death penalty for soccer, Muzemil and his teammates would have essentially been free agents, able to play for a school that showed the game some respect.
Alas, no dice.
“We just wanted the right to play with a school that cared about soccer,” Muzemil says. “But [Banneker administrators] said they wanted to keep the program, even if they didn’t have a field or enough players. They just named the athletic director as our coach, and he tried to take away my captaincy because we’d requested they kill the program. But there wasn’t any support, or any interest in having a competitive team.”
So Muzemil’s senior season at Banneker was as lousy as he had feared. The games were awful: He says Banneker notched just one win—against DCIAA soccer newcomer Ballou Senior High School—and were routinely crushed.
“Sometimes one of our goalies would come to the games, sometimes they wouldn’t,” Muzemil says. “Sometimes we played a man down, sometimes with only nine players. It was sad.”
The practices were even sadder.
“Since we don’t even have a soccer field at Banneker, we’d have to practice on a baseball field,” he says. “But when we’d practice there, we found that the Howard [University] girls’ softball team would share it sometimes. So, most of the time we had to practice indoors on a basketball court. And we never had enough kids, anyway. Maybe seven guys would show up. The girls team [at Banneker] was just as bad. Sometimes we practiced with the girls so we’d have enough people.”
Banneker’s athletics office did not respond to phone or email inquiries for this column.
Dan Driscoll, a founder of City F.C., knows all about the plight of the city’s public school athletes, particularly soccer players. Driscoll used to coach soccer for School Without Walls, a D.C. public high school in Foggy Bottom, where he constantly faced field-acquisition problems. Driscoll insists that there’s “enough green space” in the city to provide practice and game fields for every public school. It’s the desire to make that happen, he says, that’s lacking.
“I can think of a lot of house leagues that have better organization than DCPS,” says Driscoll. “If people want to make it work, they could. They don’t want to make it work. You ask why things are a mess [with DCPS athletics], is it because of reason A, B, C, or D? No, it’s E: All of the above. The only thing that’s consistent is the outcome: The kids of D.C. get screwed over and over and over.”
Driscoll and others at City F.C. had admired Muzemil since he started showing up at club practices and events four years ago. Everybody was floored by the heart he showed in rehabbing an Addis Ababa field.
“When Akrem started coming out to City F.C. practices, he didn’t have the right shoes. There was tape all over his old cleats,” says Driscoll. “He was a sincere, genuine kid, a kid you just want to help. But he never asked for anything, and was always afraid to be a burden to anybody. But he’s got the most important thing anybody can have—a force of will to want to see something through. To see this kid who didn’t even have cleats, whose own school doesn’t have a soccer field, go out and raise money and donate that money for a field halfway across the world, well, I wouldn’t do it. That was remarkable to watch.”
Rena Pacheco-Theard, a former academic coordinator for City F.C., is also among Muzemil’s fans. When City F.C. began offering tutoring sessions to club members years ago, she says, Muzemil was a sponge.
“Every time I showed up, Akrem was there,” she says. “I wasn’t offering free pizza or anything fun. It was just tutoring. That’s not the coolest thing, but Akrem would always be there, so appreciative.”
Driscoll and Pacheco-Theard were well aware of Banneker soccer’s sorry lot. They knew Muzemil deserved better, and they wanted him to know. They got a chance to show him earlier this spring, when Driscoll took a call from Trinity-Pawling School, a well-heeled boarding school in Pawling, N.Y.
A couple years ago, City F.C. had procured a scholarship at Trinity-Pawling (or T.P.) for a soccer player and all-world good kid from Roosevelt Senior High School named Gilbert Boli Kemda-Kemtsop, known on area pitches simply as Eto’o. Eto’o, whose academic and athletic gifts were ignored at Roosevelt, thrived on all counts during his year at T-P. “Everybody here fell in love with Eto’o,” one T-P administrator told me last year.
Eto’o’s influence on the Pawling community was, in fact, such that the boarding school’s administrators wanted to speak with Driscoll and Pacheco-Theard to see if they could think of any current DCPS students who might be as special. If so, they might be able to arrange a scholarship to their tony institution, whose athletic rivals include New England’s preppiest outposts: Choate, Loomis Chaffee, and Hotchkiss.
The teenager from Columbia Heights who trekked to Ethiopia just to fix up a soccer field immediately came to mind.
“I told T-P, ‘Well, there is this one kid…,” Driscoll says.
T-P’s admissions staff was similarly impressed. They offered Muzemil a free ride for a post-graduate year. Muzemil, who’s scheduled to receive his Banneker diploma in two weeks, put off decisions about college to accept T-P’s offer. He leaves in August.
Several weeks ago, Muzemil took Megabus to New York, then hopped a train to Pawling to visit the campus. He says he bonded with the T-P administrators, and the athletic facilities lived up to billing. He was particularly awed by the soccer field. “It didn’t look like a baseball field,” he says.
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.