The odds were stacked against Akean Shackleford from the beginning.
He was born in a tiny town called Queen Street, but spent his childhood in Savanna-la-Mar, a beach town in Jamaica's Westmoreland Parish, one of the poorest on the island. One-third of the families there lived in poverty in 1998, a relative improvement on the 50 percent six years prior.
Shackleford didn't have the luxury of being born in a hospital, perhaps an omen of a challenging childhood to come. He did not meet his father until his 16th birthday, and despite a few encounters since, there's no regular communication or relationship between the two. His mother, Alisa Johnson, raised Akean and his older sister, Ashara, alone, jumping between jobs to make ends meet.
Now, in Amherst, NY, closing a summer chapter with National Premier Soccer League club FC Buffalo where he took team honors for Best Offensive Player and earned the Supporters Choice Award, Akean Shackleford looks back at his improbable, soccer-driven journey that could have spiraled downward at any moment.
Spending most of his adult life 2,000 miles from family has a way of sharpening Shackleford's perspective on life, but that doesn't mean reflecting on hardship doesn't tug at his emotions.
"Sometimes I smile, sometimes I cry, sometimes [my past] gives me motivation," he says in his thick Jamaican accent.
To say he was born with nothing wouldn't be fair, Akean Shackleford will be quick to explain. He's outspoken about his Christian faith, and his mother, with whom he chats with multiple times a day, is his hero.
"I will never shy away from the fact that I will tell her I love her wherever she is, at the end of the day, every day. I will say this, and it's not a joke - every day I watch loads of superhero movies, and every one I've seen so far has always been about men, sometimes super dad, and I think they should create a movie about super mom, because my mom has been great so far," says Shackleford, who - given the existing options - chooses "Spiderman" as his favorite superhero film.
If it meant keeping her small family afloat, Alisa Johnson would do it. During Akean's childhood, she held jobs as a mechanic, a nurse, a counselor for kids at the police station, a bartender and a census taker, often working seven days each week.
His mother's versatility wowed Shackleford. He calls her ability to tackle any job "unbelievable," especially since there's barely any overlap in the skills required for those jobs. Maybe it's her superpower.
"It's not really easy for a woman to grow a man," Shackleford posits, "and my mom and my sister have done a pretty good job of that so far."
Still, given his natural athletic gifts, he wonders what doors would have opened if he'd had a stable, two-parent family with two incomes. Shackleford oscillates regularly between what-ifs and gratitude.
"I keep picturing in my head, 'What if my dad was around to put the same amount of effort into it as my mom, and one plus one came together to make two, where would I be at this moment?'
"When I look at the other side, if it wasn't for my mom fighting for me to get this far, I wouldn't be where I am right now. But sometimes I think about my dad [being] out of the picture - sometimes it's a blessing, sometimes it's a lesson," he says.
"That's one long period of time I'll never forget - sometimes I feel grateful for what happened, and sometimes I think if he was still around I wouldn't be where I am right now, I'd probably be somewhere else."
THE PATH BEFORE BUFFALO
Soccer has been central to Shackleford's life since he can remember.
In his "From the Team Room" entry upon arriving at FC Buffalo, the Jamaican striker recalls playing from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. as a kid, soon excelling at Grange Hill High School, earning an invite to the U-17 Jamaica National Team camp and then finishing strong after transferring to Jamaica College, a prep high school where he teamed with Junior Flemmings (now at New York Red Bulls II) to win the school's first-ever Schoolboy Super Cup in 2014.
Although Shackleford's suspect grades scared away many of his college suitors in America, one coach's patience eventually led to a new home for the promising-if-unproven forward.
Jon Fridal, then an assistant at Alderson-Broaddus in West Virginia, had pinpointed Shackleford in his international scouting as a potential recruit to the NCAA Division II school. When Fridal took the head coaching job at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa in May 2016, he was quick to bring in Shackleford on a partial scholarship, knowing the import's grades would be less of an impediment.
Shackleford wasted little time in carving up the junior college ranks, potting 22 goals in his first season and becoming the first player in Indian Hills history to be selected as a JUCO All-American. The production and prestigious honor attracted the attention of coaches around the country, including one in Western New York.
Local college coach Bill Boyle, who's heading into his second year at the helm of Niagara University's men's team, reached out to FC Buffalo owner and manager Nicholas Mendola, encouraging the Wolves to take a chance on a player with whom he'd been impressed.
WELCOME TO BUFFALO
Shackleford was one of FC Buffalo's final signings heading into the summer, which made securing his International Transfer Certificate (ITC) from the soccer federation in Jamaica a challenge. Because of the delay in paperwork, Shackleford was not eligible to play immediately.
"Not having the opportunity to play in the first game - and actually to sit in the stands and watch that game - that was when I knew once I got my opportunity I'd have to make the most of it," recalls Shackleford.
To make matters worse, FC Buffalo dropped the match, 1-0, and lost first-choice forward Kendell McFayden to a serious wrist injury, which would sideline the speedy veteran for nearly two months. While the news was a serious blow to the Wolves' as a team, Shackleford's path to significant playing time was suddenly clear.
His introduction to the National Premier Soccer League level came the following match, an away tilt against the Erie Commodores. FC Buffalo's rivals usually boast a solid defense, and Shackleford learned quickly that scything through University of Akron back Shane Wiedt and rugged Guillermo Lazcano would be much more difficult than tormenting his JUCO foes.
"Everything was just much faster," remarked Shackleford, who was subbed off following a nondescript 67 minutes in an eventual scoreless draw.
PATIENCE BEARS FRUIT
It would have been silly to write off Shackleford after one appearance under tough circumstances, so the Wolves' coaching staff kept trusting the striker even as his finishing boots limited him to a single goal in his first six appearances, a total of 339 minutes.
That goal, where Shackleford pounced on a poor back pass before rounding the Syracuse goalkeeper, was a relief for the striker and a window into his personality. After seeing the ball tickle the back of the net, Shackleford jogged toward The Situation Room, FC Buffalo's supporters, and took off his jersey to reveal a white T-shirt with "100% Jesus" written in big lettering.
"Ever since I was younger, I've been through the struggles, and Jesus pushed me through, with faith," Shackleford said following that match. "I definitely won't turn my back on him, and I'll always go with Jesus."
Perhaps miraculously, an ankle knock suffered before the away trip to Rochester coincided with the Jamaican's turn in production. A terrific first touch away from pressure in the Lancers' box allowed him to rip home from a tight angle, bringing FC Buffalo within striking distance in the eventual 2-1 loss.
Even though the injury has limited Shackleford's minutes, everything he touches has seemed to find the back of the net: Two dramatic second-half goals in a 3-3 road draw with Dayton, a home marker at the near post against Erie, then a close finish to start the comeback to beat Fort Pitt. All told, the Jamaican has scored five goals in his last 179 minutes on the pitch.
"Honestly, I think it's growth, realizing what's at stake, realizing what you need to do to improve as a player and realizing your roots, what you've been doing the last couple years," explains Shackleford about his offensive eruption, which has him tied for the conference lead in goals.
Shackleford's outgoing nature, exuberance and colorful personality have endeared him to fans and teammates alike. While quirks - like his preference to try a bicycle kick nearly every time the ball is in the air - leave some scratching their heads, his unpredictability is part of his charm.
"When he's on, he's on," FC Buffalo head coach Frank Butcher said of Shackleford. "If he's feeling good and feeling ready to work, it's hard to stop him. It's nice to watch. Every once in a while it might be something a little crazy, but you deal with that crazy because he's getting the results."
The oft-smiling Shackleford fostered a positive relationship on and off the field with his attack partners Julien Dragomir and Isaiah Barrett. The latter spoke highly of his teammate following the Jamaican's goal-scoring effort at home against Erie.
"It's a joy knowing my partner on the field is working as hard for me as I am for him, and vice versa," said Barrett, referring to Shackleford. "It's a beautiful team atmosphere, team chemistry, but I am ecstatic for Akean."
During his time in Buffalo, Shackleford has reconnected with two Jamaican footballers who've found a home in Buffalo: Asani Samuels, a Savanna-La-Mar native who played professionally with the Rochester Rhinos of the United Soccer League, and Melvin Blair, a current Canisius College midfielder who was a rival of Shackleford's in high school.
The culture shock in Buffalo hasn't been too hard on Shackleford, who admits to being "really freaked out" by all the corn fields in Iowa. He's a little spooked by the fact he hasn't met his neighbors where he's staying, across the street from Sweet Home High School, but like his approach to life, Shackleford will "improvise, adapt and overcome."
"Everything has been so wonderful, but I never thought I'd be in Buffalo, I never thought I'd be in Iowa, but eventually I got there and stuck around and did what I was supposed to do," Shackleford reflects.
When he's back at Indian Hills, what will the high-scoring Wolves forward remember about his summer in Buffalo?
"I will definitely miss - and this is not a bollocks - I will truly miss the fans," he says. "When I'm in Iowa, we do get fans, but the fans are not ours - they're for the women's team. To come here in Buffalo to know some of the fans, it's beautiful."
As you'd expect, Akean Shackleford has his sights set high: he wants to play NCAA Division I soccer after he finishes his sophomore year at Indian Hills, then aims to vault to Major League Soccer or a professional squad in Europe.
At least one major Division I coach has visited All-High to watch Shackleford this year, FC Buffalo management confirms, with the possibility of more at the Wolves' home finale against AFC Cleveland (7 p.m. July 14, $8).
While time isn't exactly on his side - he'll be 22 years old by the time he's done with his associates degree in Iowa - the progress Shackleford has made in the last 18 months suggests his climb could accelerate soon after.
Shackleford's lofty goals represent more than personal ambition - a soccer career is his chance to give back. While he didn't reveal his plan specifically during our interview, he hopes to help his mother and sister move out of Jamaica.
"Sometimes when I tell people about [the plan for my mother and sister], they think I'm insane, but ... I don't want them to be in a position where they have to think about certain things every day for the rest of their lives. I want them to be happy and comfortable, not where they don't have to get up to do something every morning, but happy and comfortable knowing their brother or son did something for them. 'He's been by my side for 21 years and has never let me down.'"
As someone who's already stiff-armed familiarity and feverishly pursued his athletic dreams, Shackleford knows why he's on this path.
"As soon as I [follow through on the plan], I want it to be something where my mom can say that raising me wasn't a mistake," he continues. "A single mother, already with one kid, she had loads of options where she could either give me up for adoption or have a miscarriage, if you know what I mean," Shackleford said. "She took the opportunity to bring me to this earth and I'll do whatever I can to make her happy."
Given what he's overcome, don't bet against Akean Shackleford.
"If I'm the building, my mom is the foundation. If I'm the tree, she's the root. Every step I've taken, she's always been there with me." - Akean Shackleford