From Jamaica to Bowling Green: Student-athlete Grant overcoming challenges in AmericaAuthor: Nathan Lowe | Filed under: Enterprise Story, Sports, Spring 2012, Student Contributor
A shortened version of this BG Reports story was published in the BG News, BGSU’s student newspaper, on May 15.
BY NATE LOWE
Anthony Grant walks slowly down a deserted sidewalk that borders a tree-enveloped cemetery with gently rolling hills.
Nearly 3,000 miles away from home, he’s on a college campus and in a rural town that he had never heard of in his native land of Jamaica.
He misses his family back home. He hasn’t seen them since December. He rarely talks to them on the phone. He doubts if he will be able to visit them in the summer.
But he must keep walking. There’s no time to dwell on the past or wish for better weather. He’s got an 8 a.m. class to catch—and his first game with a new team to prepare for on Saturday.
Grant, 22, is adjusting to life in the United States and at Bowling Green State University, where he plays forward on the men’s soccer team. He’s not alone in his endeavors. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, international student athletes will account for an estimated 10 percent of all players in Division I men’s soccer next fall.
Like so many others, his transition to the United States has not come without pitfalls.
“It’s really difficult being away from my family,” says Grant, overly conscious of his accented English. “I feel isolated here. I miss my friends. I miss my past.”
Grant grew up in a crime-riddled neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica, the nation’s capital and largest city. Located on the southeastern coast of the tropical island, Kingston is nestled in the Blue Mountains, a growing region crowded with nearly 1 million inhabitants.
“It’s rough,” said Grant, his face refusing to crack a smile. “There’s a lot of poverty. People are struggling there.”
It was in Kingston, on a sun-dried soccer field, where Bowling Green soccer coach Eric Nichols first met Grant in November 2010.
Making his first recruiting trip abroad, Nichols said he remembers arriving in Kingston and checking into a local hotel, a place where he and his traveling party were confined for most of the trip. They were advised to not leave because of unrest in the city.
“I’ve been to Jamaica before—to tourist areas,” said Nichols, now in his fourth season as coach at BGSU. “What I saw in Kingston was completely different than what I’d seen before.
“There are families living in one-room houses,” he said. “The kids eat, sleep and do homework in the kitchen. Just to know that those kids want a chance, it kind of tugs at your heart.”
Nichols said he and a few other coaches would leave the hotel only at designated times to travel through town and scout local prospects.
At that time, Grant was playing club soccer at the University of the West Indies, an academic institution located a few miles outside of Kingston, dreaming of playing college soccer in the United States.
Competing at a collegiate showcase tournament in Kingston, Grant wanted desperately to catch the eyes of talent-hungry college scouts.
He raced up and down the local fields, most of them covered with more dirt than grass. He hustled to every loose ball. He overpowered much weaker players.
Nichols took notice.
“I knew there were a lot of kids who could play, but I wasn’t sure which ones I was sold on—except Anthony,” he said. “I loved the way he played, and I could see it translating to Division I. He was strong, he was fast, and he worked hard.”
Nichols wanted Grant. And Grant wanted to attend BGSU—until he was told he couldn’t.
Due to NCAA eligibility clearinghouse standards, which require athletes to demonstrate that they took 14 core courses in high school and achieved a certain score on the ACT or SAT, Grant would soon learn that he would have to sit out of athletic competition for a year if he enrolled at BGSU for the fall 2011 semester.
As a fallback, he enrolled at McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill., where he was cleared to play by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a college athletics governing body separate from the NCAA that does not require its athletes to sit out a year.
Nichols, back at his office in Bowling Green, could only scratch his head in disbelief after hearing the news.
“When I got that phone call from him and he told me he was going to McKendree,” Nichols said, “I figured that was the last we would hear of Anthony. And it was too bad because I really enjoyed getting to know him during the recruiting process. It was disappointing because I had spent so much time recruiting him.”
Grant went on to play for the Bearcats last fall, and he dominated the competition. He led McKendree to a 17-1 record, the best in program history, with his school-record 23 goals and nine game-winning scores.
Grant wanted more. He wanted a chance to prove his abilities at a higher level. He wasn’t happy there. So, after dedicating himself academically and becoming eligible to compete in NCAA athletics, Grant reached out to Nichols, the man he had gotten to know so well a year earlier.
“I didn’t like the area where McKendree was located,” Grant said. “It was way too rural for me. Plus, the level of soccer just wasn’t high enough. I needed a change.”
Late last fall, Grant sent Nichols an email asking if there was a chance he could transfer to BGSU. Nichols quickly responded, but knew McKendree coach Donny Sheehan controlled Grant’s fate. He’d have to give Grant written permission to attend BGSU and become eligible to play next season—something he was reluctant to do.
“He took it hard,” Grant said, referring to Sheehan when he learned of his best player’s request to transfer. “It’s not easy losing a talented player, but I think he knew when he gave me permission to leave that it was for the betterment of me.”
Nichols said Grant’s persistence on transferring is indicative of his dedication and willingness to succeed.
“It takes a special person like Anthony to be willing to jump through all of those hoops,” Nichols said. “I was committed to following through because I believed in him so much. As a person, as a student and as a soccer player, he fit our mold.”
Grant pauses and leans on a second-floor railing in Olscamp Hall. It’s the first week of April, and he’s almost finished with his first semester of classes at BGSU.
“I’ve always wanted to play pro soccer,” says Grant, undeniably exhausted after a hard week of practice. “I want to do it as a profession. I am not going to give up on my dream until God tells me I can’t, or I get too old.”
Nichols, who played soccer at Ohio State and professionally for five seasons, said Grant has the skill set to accomplish his primary goal.
“He’s got the physical abilities. More important than that, he’s got the drive,” Nichols said. “The way you get respect from your teammates is to come in and work hard. That’s what he does.
“He’s a good goal scorer, which is something that’s hard to come by,” Nichols added. “He’s got a natural knack for scoring.”
Teammate Rodcliff Hall, also a native of Jamaica, said Grant caught everyone’s attention at spring practice. The newcomer scored two of Bowling Green’s three goals in a 3-1 spring-game win over Dayton on April 15.
“Anthony is an attacker,” Hall said. “He can run the field and score with ease.”
Sitting slouched on a couch in the student union, Grant talks about his past and dreams about the future. He is wearing black sweatpants with green stripes lining each leg—a signifier of his Jamaican roots.
He speaks of his days as a child growing up on the small Caribbean island and dreaming about playing professional soccer.
“I’m in love with the game,” he says. “It has given me so much.”
As a young child, Grant would wander away from his mother, a seamstress who spent her days sewing dresses inside the family’s inner-city home.
He would dart outside and stand behind a metal fence that surrounds his house, a small concrete structure located in the heart of one of Kingston’s poorest neighborhoods, a community where drug use runs rampant and multiple families share housing to make ends meet.
On the other side of the solid metal fence—a barrier like so many others that Grant has overcome—men much older than the young child kicked around a soccer ball in the trash-filled streets. They ran. They yelled. They laughed.
Unable to see them, the wide-eyed youngster listened in awe.
Then, Grant would venture back inside his home. He didn’t own a soccer ball. His mother refused to buy him one. She worried about his safety. She worried that her young son, not even 6 years old, would run away in search of soccer-loving friends. Most likely, she worried that the city’s evils would find her son.
“I was a boy,” Grant says, still slouched in the visibly worn chair. “You’ve got to remember those guys in the street were men. We lived in the ghetto—the slums. My mom was just looking out for me.”
Time and time again, unaware of the dangers that engulfed his neighborhood, Grant slipped out of his concrete house, away from the watchful eyes of his mother. He didn’t venture far though—always stopping at the rusty zinc fence, sometimes for hours, to listen to the developments on the other side.
“I would pray that they would kick the ball my way,” Grant says with a smile. “I would listen for when they were getting close. All I wanted to do was kick that ball.”
Every once in a while the ball would bounce his way, up and over the barricade, and he’d boot it back to the men, some who peeked over the fence and befriended the young soccer enthusiast.
“They were cool to me,” he says. “After a while, they would hear me yelling through the fence and send the ball my way.”
His mother, however, remained adamant that her son not leave the yard. Frustrated, Grant returned inside and kicked plastic bottles and aluminum cans. He blasted them barefoot into his bedroom wall, not worried about sharp pains in his tingling toes—toes that to this day remind him of his childhood each time he laces up a pair of cleats.
On his sixth birthday, Grant received a pleasant surprise. His mother finally gave in; she bought her only son his first soccer ball.
“It wasn’t about money,” he says. “My mom feared I would run off if I had my own ball.”
Bowling Green State University’s athletic teams have an international flair.
During the 2011-12 academic year, 21 foreign players suited up for the university’s 17 athletic teams, a number that is expected to grow nationwide as coaches face enormous pressures from athletic directors to win games, said Nels Popp, an Illinois State University professor whose research interests include international student-athletes.
“If recruiting international athletes gives a coach a better chance to win,” Popp said, “well, that’s what they’re paid to do.”
From 2000 to 2010, the number of international student athletes participating in intercollegiate athletics in the U.S. more than doubled, according to the NCAA.
Hall, who arrived in America from Jamaica more than three years ago and enrolled at a community college in northern Ohio before transferring to BGSU, said he believes this trend will continue to rise as more foreign teenagers look for ways to use their athletic skills to escape poverty and pursue higher education.
“There is no opportunity to play soccer and get a college education in Jamaica,” Hall said. “You can do it in high school, but not in college.”
In most other countries, the opportunity to play college athletics while earning an education is virtually nonexistent. Most athletes must decide whether they want to pursue higher education or play their sport professionally.
Hall, Grant’s teammate, said many young athletes abroad who at the time don’t have the abilities to play professionally view college sports as a way to escape poverty, receive higher education and improve their athletic skills. They salivate over the opportunity to eat three free meals a day and stay in state-of-the-art dormitories with air conditioning, cable television and running water.
As a result, Popp said the number of international student-athletes at U.S. institutions has risen steadily for the past 20 years, with the largest influx coming in recent years.
“For programs that may not be in ideal locations or have good athletic reputations,” Popp said, “this is a way to get talented players that they may not be able to recruit otherwise.”
Popp said the majority of international student-athletes want to come to America more than anything else. To a prospective athlete, Popp said, it usually doesn’t matter whether an institution is a national powerhouse or athletic weakling, located in a big city or a remote town in Wyoming.
“A lot of these athletes just want to come to the United States,” Popp said. “They want to see the U.S. and it doesn’t really matter if it is New York City or Pullman, Wash.”
Although elite college programs are now beginning to recruit foreign athletes more frequently, Popp said lesser athletic powers still have a stranglehold on the market because many foreign athletes are eager to leave behind their native lands for greater opportunities in the U.S—even if that means choosing Bowling Green or Toledo over perennial athletic powers.
“International recruiting has proven to be an equalizer for some of the smaller schools and institutions that are not in ideal locations,” Popp said.
When athletes arrive at academic institutions in the U.S., they face an enormous amount of challenges, Nichols said.
In addition to the usual challenge of moving away from family and becoming independent, foreign players deal with more anxiety in their lives than domestic student-athletes do.
“College is different for everyone—even if you’re from right here in Ohio,” said Nichols, who has coached 11 international players during his past three seasons at BGSU. “Every year I see kids who are struggling with change in their life; it’s the first time they’re not living with their parents, and now they have a large class load and training load. There’s a lot thrown at them. When you get a kid from another country, there’s a lot more.”
In order to meet many of these new challenges and adapt to a new culture, foreign student-athletes must be mentally tough and willing to work hard, Nichols said.
And no one has worked harder at assimilating to American culture than Grant. Nichols said he expects Grant to be an instrumental part of his team next fall.
So far, Nichols said Grant has upheld his end of the bargain by working hard in the classroom and on the practice field, despite facing many pitfalls.
“There are a lot of challenges for him here,” Nichols said. “He has no money. He can’t even work. If he does work, it has to be done on campus because of his visa. There are a lot of challenges that he faces here that others don’t, but he’s dreaming big—he wants to get a degree, be a professional—and he knows that’s going to take a lot of work. He doesn’t shy away from it. He doesn’t whine, he doesn’t complain, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He just puts his head down and goes.”
Three weeks have passed since Grant, still clinging precariously to his dreams of one day playing professional soccer and relocating his family from the slums of Kingston, disclosed his past secrets in that spacious fourth-floor student union lounge.
Now he has one last secret to reveal. This one has been bothering him for quite some time. It’s driving him crazy—literally.
His intro to environmental studies class has just dismissed, and soccer is the last thing on his mind.
“I’m hungry,” he says before taking a step backward.
He lowers his voice.
“But I’m afraid to eat the food here,” he whispers. “I don’t know what to eat.”
He’s dealing with a skin rash, an ailment that doctors say is triggered by an allergic reaction to particular foods—foods they have yet to identify.
Grant says he feasted on a steady diet of chicken, rice, beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables in Jamaica. He says the foods he ate were not genetically modified and the milk he drank was pure, unlike the food and drink he indulges in here in America.
“We don’t eat fungi back home,” he says with a laugh.
His laughter comes to an abrupt halt as he changes subjects.
When he departed for the U.S., Grant knew he would face pitfalls. As he continues his process of cultural assimilation, he will likely face many more. How he deals with them will determine his success on the soccer field.
“You must work hard to reach your dream,” Grant says before he exits. “Nothing ever comes easy. I knew there were going to be many challenges to overcome when I came here, but it was a risk I was willing to take.”
This story was reported based on interviews with Anthony Grant, Eric Nichols, Rodcliff Hall, Nels Popp and Marco Ilao. Grant said his mother has no phone or Internet connection, so I was unable to contact her for this story.