Eto’O, whose official name is Gilbert Boli Kemda-Kemtsop, is back in Fort Totten for the summer. He graduated a couple weeks ago from Trinity-Pawling, an elite boarding school in Pawling, N.Y. That’s a long way from Roosevelt Senior High School, where Eto’O says he was barely surviving only a year ago, and a longer way from Cameroon, where he was born and lived in poverty before moving here in 2007.
Soccer, and some good people who took an interest in Eto’O, got him out of D.C. He’ll be leaving again in August, this time for Guilford College in North Carolina, where he won a scholarship.
“I look at what people have done for me here,” Eto’O says, “and it is big. Very big.”
The big things started being done after a soccer game two seasons ago between Roosevelt and School Without Walls. The SWW coaches, Dan Driscoll and Roy Kelly, were overseeing warm-ups when they noticed a player on the other side. “I saw a kid juggling a soccer ball and jogging all the way around the track without the ball ever touching the ground and without ever having to adjust himself,” Driscoll recalls. “And I thought, ‘Wow, if anybody’s got the kind of discipline it takes to do that…’”
They asked around and learned the ball-juggling wiz goes by Eto’O. The name had been given him here by fellow soccer players. It’s also the handle of the captain of the current Cameroonian World Cup team.
Driscoll and Kelly had been friends since their teenage years in D.C. playing on the same travel teams for the giant DC Stoddert Soccer organization. They were both products of local private schools. (Driscoll went to Georgetown Day School, Kelly to Sidwell Friends.) They reconnected to coach SWW together after being told that the school would drop the game if no coach could be found.
Surveying the city’s public-school league, Driscoll and Kelly, now both 27, concluded that D.C. was squandering large chunks of soccer talent—most of it belonging to kids from immigrant families. So that season they founded City FC, a club that competes through Stoddert but aims to use the game as a gateway to various mentoring services.
“Forming a soccer club was the original idea,” says Kelly. “But as we got to know some of the kids, we saw that a lot of them didn’t have academic aspirations as far as higher education, didn’t have guidance from home or even the guidance counselors at schools.”
That was certainly the case with Eto’O.
“I spoke French, only French, when I got here in 2007,” he says. “They didn’t speak any French at Roosevelt….There was fighting between students and teachers. I really tried to learn, but it was very hard for me. I won’t lie about it: It was not a good experience.”
After the SWW/Roosevelt game, Driscoll and Kelly approached Eto’O and recruited him for City FC. Then Driscoll and Rena Pacheco-Theard, a City FC volunteer and tutor, began forcing him to work harder on his English than on his soccer. Eto’O’s family was just getting settled in America and lacked the resources and connections necessary to prepare him for any school beyond Roosevelt. So at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, what was to be Eto’O’s last year of high school, Driscoll tried to find Eto’O’s guidance counselor.
But, he says, nobody at Roosevelt even knew Eto’O’s situation.
“When I said I wanted to come down, [a Roosevelt administrator] told me not to even come to the school, because I might get killed,” Driscoll says. “I knew the situation at DCPS schools, knew it was tough. But I couldn’t believe that somebody from a school would tell me that about their own school….We wanted him to be at a place that knew he was there. At Roosevelt, nobody knew. We wanted a place that appreciated his gifts.”
Driscoll began looking for a private school to send Eto’O to after Roosevelt. The search led to Trinity-Pawling, but getting him admitted as a postgraduate student wasn’t easy.
“Just getting a transcript from the D.C. public schools was a nightmare,” says Slade Mead, a counselor at TP who was among those who shepherded Eto’O through the admissions process. “A lot of his transcripts they sent us [from Roosevelt] were from Cameroon, and unless you are really well versed in their system, we didn’t know what it really meant.”
“Dan kept calling and talking to us about Eto’O,” adds Tucker Barnaby, the school’s soccer coach. “And one day he called and we said, ‘Let’s go for it. Send him up here!’”
Current DCPS guidance rules, which were enacted in 1992, require that each high school principal see that all students get “counseled” by school staff each September, but only with respect to keeping on track for “upcoming promotions or graduations.” College preparation, in other words, isn’t necessarily part of the discussion. (Michelle Rhee’s spokesperson, Jennifer Calloway, says via e-mail that beginning next school year, the guidance “process will include regular discussions about students’ postsecondary interests.”)
After arriving at TP in the fall of 2009, Eto’O thrived in soccer, becoming the school’s only player named to last season’s all-star team for the Founder’s League, the confederation TP shares with New England blue-blood magnets Choate, Loomis-Chafee, and Hotchkiss.
But soccer success was just a small part of his impact on the school, and vice versa.
“Everybody here fell in love with Eto’O,” says Mead. “That sparkle in his eyes, that grin…How a kid from Cameroon with his background came from a D.C. school that was telling him the best he could ever do was maybe end up in the military, and ended up in a lily-white boarding school in upstate New York, well, it’s all surreal.”
TP students are encouraged to participate in athletics every season. So when soccer ended, Eto’O took up wrestling. There is no wrestling in Cameroon or D.C. public schools. He wrestled at 189 pounds, or about 20 pounds over his natural weight, because other slots on the team had already been taken.
He lost only two matches all year, both to the same opponent, from Taft School in Watertown, Conn., and by a point each time. In their third encounter, for the New England prep-school championships, Eto’O won 13-2.
“Wrestling isn’t easy to learn,” says Mead. “But you’d teach him a move in practice, and he’d say, ‘Great!’ and go work on that move over and over, and by the end of practice he was beating people up with his new move.”
Eto’O proved an equally quick study away from athletics. A music teacher suggested Eto’O, who had been swapping lessons in Cameroonian dance with classmates in exchange for guitar lessons, take up the violin. He stunned everybody by playing passably almost immediately.
Guilford offered Eto’O a scholarship based on his one year at TP and his essays, not sports: As an NCAA Division III school, it doesn’t give athletic scholarships. Over Memorial Day weekend, Driscoll got a van pool together to transport himself, Pacheco-Theard, and Eto’O’s family from D.C. up to Pawling to watch him get his diploma.
“Other than getting engaged, it was the happiest day of my life,” says Driscoll, who is now betrothed to Pacheco-Theard.
Eto’O feels equally blessed.
“What an experience. I didn’t want to go,” he says.
Eto’O went home with more than a diploma and memories. Before he left PT, the music teacher, a luthier in his spare time, gave his favorite student a violin to take to college.
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