The field was usually rough, strewn with stones that Ezana Kahsay and his friends picked up before playing.
Finding a patch of grass for their soccer games was ideal, but not necessary.
Ezana always found some way to play, regardless.
Two rocks make for a fine enough goal post. Plastic bags wadded together can suffice for a ball.
That’s how Ezana played growing up in Eritrea, a country on the east coast of Africa, before his family split up so that he, his mother and his sister could come to the United States, refugees seeking asylum.
Before he enrolled at Buffalo’s International Preparatory School, where he won the hearts of other students and teachers. Before he stepped on the turf at the field house at the University of Akron, the country’s premier school for soccer, where he wowed its coaches.
Like most children, Ezana’s focus was on far simpler things.
He just wanted to play soccer.
Some might say the game is in his blood. But for Ezana, who is now 19, it’s much more than that.
Soccer is the one connection he has to his father, a professional player in Eritrea who taught Ezana when he was just a small boy.
Ezana’s father gave up his soccer career when the military called him to duty. But he continued his informal coaching with his son during visits, the only time he was given to see his family.
“That’s the memory I have with my father,” Ezana said.
In his father’s absence, Ezana played with his friends, seeking out the patches of land with the least debris. Rocks and stones wear out sneakers, and there was little money to replace them.
“It wasn’t a real field,” he said. “We just made goals in the street.”
It was a good life, at least in the eyes of a young boy.
But as Ezana grew older, his mother worried that he too would be called away to military duty, like his father, brother and uncle. So, when Ezana was just 10 years old, she hired two men to help her escape with him and his younger sister to Ethiopia, risking their lives and leaving behind family.
Even there, amid the uncertainty of his family’s future, Ezana found solace in a familiar comfort.
Children at the camp formed teams to compete in casual soccer tournaments. Players on the winning team would receive a new pair of soccer shoes donated by UNICEF.
For five years, Ezana passed the time with soccer and school, until the day relief workers came and picked up him and his family.
Ezana always knew his family would be taken somewhere, but never expected it to be the United States.
“We didn’t believe it until we arrived on U.S. soil,” he said.
“The biggest achievement in my life was making it out of my country alive with my family,” Ezana later wrote in a letter for a college scholarship.
Flags line the walls of International Prep at the Grover Cleveland campus on 14th Street, a tapestry of sorts reflecting the diversity of students who have come through these hallways – students like Ezana, who enrolled here after his family arrived in Buffalo in 2009. He was a scrawny eighth-grader when guidance counselor Peter Merrick first saw him kicking a soccer ball around the hallway.
“I saw him just kicking the soccer ball around and said you should try out for the team,” Merrick said. “He said, ‘You have a team?’ ”
Ezana had already started playing casual pickup games around the city with other immigrants like him, teams united by their shared experience and love of soccer.
He became known around his school and community as a talented player, as well as dedicated and hard-working student.
“I would see him in the locker room lifting weights every day,” said Mike Masecchia, a coach at the school. “He was skinny then, but really dedicated to it. I found out afterwards he was the star of the soccer team.”
When Masecchia took over the team a year later, Ezana helped him take the reins, developing drills and guiding plays during competition. With Ezana on the team, International Prep won several titles.
“Ezana stepped up and took the whole team under his wing,” the coach said. “He had the qualities of a leader and understanding of soccer.”
“There wasn’t much more about the game I could teach him,” he added.
Going into his senior year, Ezana – also a top student with a 95 average – had not made any serious plans for college.
But when Coach Anthony Alessi, who took over the soccer team his senior year, asked where he wanted to go, Ezana said the University of Akron.
“Akron is a powerhouse,” Alessi said. “He picked the cream of the crop. Nobody thought it would happen.”
Still, Alessi started making phone calls.
Alessi worked every connection he could think of.
He called the university and tried to sway its coaches to come watch Ezana in action. The season came and went, but no one from Akron ever made it.
Alessi kept trying.
He found a recruitment camp where players could get one last chance to be seen by coaches from schools all over the country.
The only barrier to getting Ezana there was the cost: About $500 for the camp and hotel, plus additional money for transportation.
Alessi put out a call to staff, who gladly stepped up to donate. Even teachers who never had Ezana in class contributed.
With everything squared away, Alessi and Masecchia drove Ezana to Akron to join more than 200 high school athletes from all over the world vying for the coaches’ attention.
The facility was unlike anything Ezana had ever seen, at least in person. The lights, the perfect turf, the stands all a world away from the humble fields he learned to play on.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Really beautiful.”
The coaches divided athletes based on their ability. Ezana was one of 14 picked for an All Star team to play against university athletes from Akron.
They lost 5 to 1, but afterward one of the University of Akron coaches brought Ezana and one other player into his office.
He wanted the two to play for Akron.
The band played, cheerleaders cheered and students clapped Friday afternoon, as a presentation of Ezana’s time at International Prep flickered from the stage of the auditorium.
His mother and sister sat beside him for this ceremonial signing of his commitment letter to Akron.
Ezana approached the podium, slipped on a University of Akron shirt and took a deep breath. He smiled as he looked out over the crowd and thanked everyone who helped him.
“Being the big soccer fan that I am, I am going to be following you,” Superintendent Pamela C. Brown told him. “Maybe I’ll see you in the World Cup someday. I know the future holds so much for you.”
Ezana hopes that’s true, as he already has big plans for his future. He plans to study sports management and wants to become a professional soccer player. If he makes it big, he also wants to create a program to help refugee students like him. He doesn’t want other children to struggle as much as he did.
Dreams like those require dedication, Grover Cleveland High School graduate and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Steve Means told him.
“Tomorrow and every day from now, you’ve got to double and triple everyone else’s effort,” he said.
In Ezana’s case, that shouldn’t be a problem. He already has.