A team means forever
I celebrated a birthday a few days ago. It felt good. That weekend, I went out to dinner with friends who are like family – cocktails, wine, steaks – the whole nine yards. On the actual day, I woke to a tsunami of texts and messages on social media, had lunch with two dear friends, and celebrated again that evening with takeout, cake, and drinks, surrounded by my family and even more friends.
It was lovely. But something was missing. Zak, to be specific, was missing.
Zak and his brother Karim are key characters in my book One Goal, which uses soccer as a window into the remarkable transformation of a small Maine city with the arrival of thousands of African refugees, most of whom are Somali. Zak was a defender on the 2015 Lewiston High School boys’ soccer team, the Blue Devils, which nabbed the city’s first state championship and brought the community together, at least for the 90 minutes of that game, when most everyone in the stands was, in the words of ardent fans, bleeding blue.
Witty and quick, Zak lit up a room, often speaking for his far more reserved brother as well as himself, and on the pitch, his skills were no less dazzling, a brilliant defender as well as the heart and soul of the team.
April 5th was Zak’s birthday as well as mine. Twins, he called us when he found out. He would have been 24 years old. His was the message I was missing this year.
On New Year’s Eve, Zak headed to Saudi Arabia on a family trip that would include landmarks from his childhood as well as a meaningful trip to Mecca with his mother. “My flight to Umrah literally takes off at 12am exactly,” he tweeted on December 31st. “Couldn’t ask for a better start of the new year.” In the days that followed, his Instagram filled with photos of his journey, including a stop at his elementary school. We messaged frequently, me pestering him with questions, the usual format of a relationship that began when I was writing the book, about where he was and what he was doing. He described the cranes that surrounded the holy city, with hotels in constant construction, and how emotional it was to see places where he used to hang out as a child. We joked that I should go with him on his next trip and help him write his memoir.
And then the posts stopped, the texts stopped. Zak had been hit by a car, Karim told us, and was in a coma. In the subsequent days, Zak’s broad network, a network held together by friendship, soccer, and spirituality, rallied, quickly raising over $100,000 to help bring him home for medical care. It did not surprise me. This was a group who understood the work of community – whatever anyone had, they gave, and it soon amounted to more than enough.
Except it wasn’t. Zak left us on January 27th, and was buried in Saudi soon after.
It is still hard to wrap our collective heads around the fact that Zak no longer walks the Earth. Many of his teammates have told me that he is still the first person who pops up on their phone when they open up their message apps, as he was often the one they wanted to tell about something. That’s what being on a team can do – bond athletes together for life, no matter where they eventually land. Zak had been living in Minnesota with his mom when he left for Saudi Arabia, but his ties to Lewiston, to friends and teachers, coaches and teammates, stayed strong.
I think of Zak every day, still picturing him in his cobalt blue uniform even though his high school days were far behind him. There was something about what should have been his 24th birthday that really gave me pause to remember the light that he was, as well as the mad crazy soccer skills he possessed in his head and with his feet. We still have his game – his championship team back in 2015 laid the foundation for many to come, a burgeoning dynasty, a deep bench that he helped build with those who miss him on the field and beyond.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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