The Day I Quit Football

Since childhood, my dream was to play professional football. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, I would spend most of my weekend afternoons watching the premier league, and the likes of Didier Drogba and Thierry Henry on television — they were my idols and I would do anything to play like them. But in truth, most days my dream to reach such heights as a footballer felt like just that; a dream, a far cry from too far away. Nevertheless, I chased my dream persistently, diligently and sometimes even ignorantly.

At age 23, I have played in places like Uganda, Sweden, Kenya and all over the United States. I’ve played with players from all over the world and all different walks of life, at the amateur, semi-professional and professional levels of the game. I’ve spent the last four years in the United states playing semi-professionally and at the NCAA Division 1 and NAIA levels.

Most recently I played with the University of Rio Grande in Ohio winning a NAIA National Championship at the end of 2015. I spent the summer of 2016 in Florida playing in the USL Premier Development League (PDL) — the US third Division — where I was selected to the 2016 All-Southern conference team (an award given to the best players in the region).

Unfortunately, once the PDL season had ended in Florida, my career suddenly became stagnant. I had no college team to return to because I had graduated in May of that year. So, I moved to Kansas City, Missouri where I sought any pro team that would have me. From August to November, despite my persistent efforts, I had nothing in the way of professional opportunities and it felt like everything and everyone around me was telling me to stop playing.

But I couldn’t, I knew what that would mean; football is a sport with a brief window of professional opportunities and quitting would mean that I would live the rest of my life asking ‘what if?’. ‘What if I had played a little longer?’, ‘what if I had kept trying?’… I could not live with a shadow of regret looming over me. I knew I had to keep chasing the dream. So, I played anywhere and everywhere I could; pick-up games, men’s leagues, indoor, etc. (I know Kansas City Soccer like the back of my hand). To some, including my aunt and uncle who I stayed with at the time, I must have looked delusional or even crazy, but to me, I know I would rather be estranged for a moment than harbor regret for a lifetime.

I was playing up to five times a week and working out four times a week at the gym. In truth, I hated almost every minute of it, though I knew it was what I had to do. At the end of November, I finally got a breakthrough; I had two trials (tryouts). One with Swope Park Rangers (Sporting KC’s reserve team) in the USL pro and the other with a recruitment agency I will not name.

I told myself that these two trials were my last shot at playing professional football. I prepared diligently and I had nothing to lose — perhaps that is why I played extremely well. In fact, on the final day of the second trial, I was approached by the head coach of a team in the Veikkausliiga (Finnish First division). He commended my performance and invited me to preseason with his team in Finland. It was like one of those ‘picture-book’ type moments that you can’t explain and never seem real. I had made it.

Two months later, as I was preparing to leave to Finland, the agent assigned to me delivered the news that the club could not take me. The coach contacted me personally to say he had tried all that he could but the higher management of the club could not take another international player.

I felt a barrage of emotions when I got the news; heartbreak, anger, and sadness were the bulk of them… but in truth, after some long introspection — for some reason — I felt happy and relieved. My true goal was to prove to myself that I could play at the professional level and now that I had, football didn’t have the same place in my heart anymore. I took several days to be by myself and asked some difficult questions. For, seemingly, the first time in my life I searched for the reasons why I played football, why I loved it, and why I thought I couldn’t live without it. It’s funny how one can be so focused on their dreams that they forget the reason that they’re chasing them.

I realized I was no longer playing football because I enjoyed it, in fact, most days I had to divorce my feelings and push myself to train. Admittedly, sometimes I was partially fueled by all the people who doubted that could make it at the professional level and I had to prove them wrong. I wasn’t even playing for some extrinsic reward like money, and playing in places like Finland doesn’t grant you the type fame as playing for Real Madrid, so it wasn’t that either.

Instead, I found that I was playing for something higher than myself.

I was playing for my family and my friends who believed in me because I knew the hand they played in making my dream a reality and I couldn’t let them down. I was playing for the children I played with in Kenya, Kids that were better than me but were never given the opportunities that I was.

I played for my future children as well; because I couldn’t fathom telling them to chase their dreams when I hadn’t chased mine. I want them to realize their dreams knowing that their father realized his. I wanted to inspire people, I wanted them to look up to me. That is why I played football.

My talent was always a gift, a stewardship; a way to give back to the world. I truly believe that I have used it to the best of my ability for its truest purpose. I have reached the precipice of my dream and it is time to close this chapter in my book of life.

Many have said I should keep playing, in fact, I think most people will not understand my decision to stop. But any athlete knows how much you sacrifice for the game you love. I left my family in Nairobi at 15 years old, I lost friendships and killed relationships… it’s not like I was just going into the backyard and playing for a few minutes. But honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing. Football has taught me everything. It has taught me how to navigate the world and molded me into the person I am today. More than anything, Football taught me that any dream is attainable for those who are willing to try.

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