Oscar Donahue knows something about overcoming adversity.
The Colombian immigrant was born into a poor family and had an abusive father, later went into foster care and, in 2010, was adopted by a Pendleton family. He came to the United States knowing little English, and jumped immediately into middle school classes. Within a year he was on the merit roll. He finished his junior year of high school just shy of a 90 grade-point average.
So when he learned he would not be able to play on Starpoint High School’s varsity soccer team because of his age – 19 years old – he wasn’t about to lose his senior season without a fight.
The only reason Donahue – who turned 19 before the July 1 cutoff date – aged out was because his adoptive mother, looking out for his best academic interest, placed him in the seventh grade when he arrived as a 14-year-old in 2010.
It was one of the first times anyone had looked out for his best interests.
Oscar grew up in an environment he compares to “hell.” His family was poor. He didn’t start attending school until he was 8 years old. His father was physically and verbally abusive.
“I was abused,” Donahue said. “I was hit. I was cussed at and I was told I was nobody in this world.”
After years of abuse, Oscar’s biological mother decided that she had had enough, and formulated an escape plan. In the middle of the night, she took Oscar’s sister, Sylvia, who was then 5 years old, and fled. She left Oscar in charge of getting his then 3-year-old brother Christian out of the house. The two groups met up and at a foster-care facility, where Oscar and his siblings were forced to say goodbye to his biological mother.
“That was one of my saddest days,” Oscar said. “We get to this foster care institution and then our mom has to give us away to some random family that I’ve never seen before. I don’t know anything about them. Then, ‘Bye, I’ll never see you again,’”
Oscar and his siblings spent six years in foster care. In November 2010, after a three-week trial visit, the three were adopted by Clare and Paul Donahue of Pendleton.
As a 14-year-old, Oscar was old enough to be placed in eighth grade. However, because of how late he started school in Colombia, Oscar had only gotten to sixth grade. Additionally, he was jumping into a new school in the middle of the year as someone who spoke almost no English. To make his transition easier, Clare Donahue opted to place him in seventh grade at Starpoint Middle School.
Oscar initially struggled to adjust to school. However, he was determined to take full advantage of the opportunity he was given.
“He is a super hard worker,” Clare said. “He would spend hours doing homework. He was just determined.”
Things began to change for Oscar when he entered eighth grade. Although he was still relatively new to the English language, his grades improved. He started to make friends. In fall, he played on the JV soccer team.
Although Colombia is known for its soccer, Oscar was never presented an opportunity to play the sport in his home country. However, he had watched the game and knew it very well. Soccer gave Oscar the chance to express himself in a way he wasn’t yet able to verbally.
“I didn’t fully know the language but I felt comfortable then,” Oscar said. “I was doing something I knew from my country.”
Oscar played another year of JV, then moved up to varsity in the 10th grade. He played on soccer teams each summer and worked tirelessly to improve.
“When we first started, he was always like. ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do this,’” former Starpoint boys’ soccer coach Scott Bindermann said. “As time went on, he kept asking, ‘What can I do to improve?’ He did those things. So over the course of four years, I saw him improve every year.”
Oscar’s age was always going to be an issue. New York State rules stipulate that students who turn 19 before July 1 of their senior year are ineligible for athletic competition. Oscar turned 19 on June 6.
Given the choice of ending his young soccer career or appealing, Oscar chose the latter. Clare hired the law firm HoganWillig to handle the appeal. The lawyers drew up a 28-page document, pleading Oscar’s case, and sent it to the state Department of Education. Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia will make the final decision on the appeal.
The rule is meant to ensure that younger players aren’t harmed by older, more developed athletes. Oscar stands at 5-foot-8 and weighs about 170 pounds. His attorney argued that he was held back for reasons that were beyond his control.
Those defending Oscar believe he wouldn’t have any sort of unfair physical advantage over his opponents.
“I think he should be able to play,” Bindermann said. “Oscar’s not ridiculously large. He’s smaller than a lot of the guys he’ll be playing against. He won’t have an unfair advantage because of his age.”
The Donahues expect a decision on the appeal this month. In the meantime, Oscar is running, working out with his father and brother and practicing on the net in his backyard.
He also is reflecting on what has been an eventful life. He has gone from a living hell to a fulfilling life. He has good friends and a loving family. He gets good grades and plans to attend college and major in international studies after graduation.
He just hopes he can keep playing the sport he’s grown to love.
“I’ve gone through so much and definitely been lifted up,” Oscar said. “God has definitely watched out for me all these years. I have to say that during all those years, I didn’t think he was there. God is great and he’s pushed me through these years. I never realized. But now I look back and he’s always been there.
“I’m proud to say I’ve overcome a lot in my life. I just really hope and pray that I can play.