Ghana's No. 1

Leaving family and country behind to chase soccer dreams

Published on: 23 December 2014

He’s standing in the room, trying to take it all in and hold back the tears. But he can’t. He’s never seen anything like this before.

New carpet. New shoes. New jerseys. There’s even a new name tag.

It reads “Saad Acheampong, Kumasi, Ghana.” And it’s in the locker room of the High Point University (HPU) men’s soccer team.

Before the 19-year-old embarked on the 5,300-mile transatlantic journey with hopes of playing collegiate soccer and receiving an education, he used cleats that were dropped off via a donation bag from other countries. Most of them had been worn by at least five others before him.

Rows of 8-by-8 huts line the streets of Sokoban, the suburb of Kumasi where Acheampong, his three brothers and mother lived. The walls and roofs are made from tin sheets planted on a red, soft clay foundation.

So his family could have clean drinking water, Acheampong would wake up at 4 a.m. and walk half a mile to the watering station to beat the rush of people who would come later in the day.

Prior to leaving for High Point, N.C., he had never traveled outside of Ghana. So as the plane left the tin roofs, clay floor and old cleats behind, a heavy mission descended on Acheampong.

For his family, country and future Ghanaian players, he must excel as an HPU soccer player. If he succeeds, he will serve as an HPU ambassador to other aspiring Ghanaians both on the field and in the classroom. Not to mention there’s potential for building a bridge to aspiring Ghanaian students with HPU.

While his time at school is rewarding, Acheampong realizes that playing poorly might make HPU concentrate its recruiting efforts elsewhere, not to mention jeopardize the future he envisions for his family.

This future where his mother and brothers have a home, not one with tin walls and clay floors; a life where his mother can buy food, not just sell it as a street vendor; a home where his brothers can have their own rooms.

“You’re not just winning or losing games on the soccer field,” says assistant head coach E.J. O’Keeffe. “You’re also hopefully setting someone up to win at life.”

Two days before the Big South Conference quarterfinal game against University of North Carolina at Asheville, it was 57 degrees during practice. But the thermometer didn’t account for the setting sun as it hid behind the newly constructed Witcher Athletic Center, casting a deceivingly cooler temperature and a three-story shadow over the field.

With the shadow came an unfamiliar feeling for Acheampong: coldness.

In November, Ghana averages a humid 72 degrees. But in North Carolina? A brisk 41 degrees.

Acheampong endures the new and unfamiliar autumn chill as best he can. And standing just a few feet away is one teammate who understands exactly how he feels.

Ebe Kudolo grew up about three hours south of Kumasi in the coastal city of Accra, the country’s capital and largest city. He grew up in conditions similar to those of Acheampong.

His mother didn’t make enough money selling fish to support Kudolo’s soccer ambitions. So instead, for the past few years, he lived with his club soccer team’s manager.

Despite not living with his mother, Kudolo carries the same weight as his teammate: He must succeed at soccer for the sake of his family.

Two of Kudolo’s older brothers saw their professional soccer dreams crumble after sustaining knee injuries. So when Kudolo was sent home after getting injured while playing in Spain, his mother began worrying for the future of the family.

Which is why she doesn’t cry when Kudolo calls home. There is sadness, but it doesn’t outweigh her excitement of the opportunities her son has been given. It is why she tells her son to not come back to Ghana until he succeeds, whether it be at soccer or in the classroom.

It’s same reason why Acheampong tells his teammates he can’t go out on a Friday night. His mom told him he isn’t there to have fun.

And it’s why two strangers from the same country became brothers in a foreign country. Especially considering that moving to the U.S. hasn’t been easy.

Luckily they have Marjorie Church, the director of international student services and English as a second language at HPU. She helped each player apply for a social security number and takes them grocery shopping.

Living together in an off-campus apartment, both players lean on each other as they adapt to the American lifestyle. But both still try to stay true to their deep Ghanaian roots by praying and reading Bible scripture at least twice a day for at least 20 minutes.

It reminds them to be grateful for the little they had back home and what they’ve received since coming to school.

“He created us and without Him we are nobody,” says Kudolo.

Soccer brought Kudolo and Acheampong to HPU. And they’ve each promised their families a better life — lives that don’t include fish markets, old shoes or waking up at 4 a.m. for clean water.

Kudolo hopes to fulfill that promise by playing as long as he can, hopefully at the professional level.

“I want to become a good footballer, but it depends on God. Only God knows,” says Kudolo.

And while both players understand the importance of their educations, it’s Acheampong who shows the immediate desire to put his degree to use. He doesn’t see soccer as his end game.

“I want to also be a businessman and own my own company,” says Acheampong.

With each touch of the ball they learn something new — they become smarter, better players. Each touch brings them closer to being successful, to being reunited with their families.

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