Part I of a series – adapted from an upcoming Akronist documentary
— When the North High School boys’ soccer team travels to surrounding rural communities, Coach Michael Kane has to spell the players’ names phonetically so the stadium announcers can pronounce them.
And at this point, the opposing team’s coaches and announcers will typically make fun of the names, many of them English derivations of those given in their birth countries of Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand and other Eastern Asian locations. Then Coach Kane humors them for a moment and agrees that their names indeed sound peculiar, before sharing some of the horrific stories of what these young men endured in refugee camps.
It’s not his goal to induce guilt for those making light of the names, but rather to help create compassion and understanding and to educate these communities, including our own Akron residents. And he genuinely cares for these kids, who he admits brighten his day.
Kane, who serves as a father figure for these young men, is an ambassador of sorts, helping these rural residents better understand what life is like for a refugee in Northeast Ohio. “To me, it’s not 100 percent about soccer,” says Kane, who also owns Kane Sign Company, with his wife, in North Hill. “It’s about assisting them to acclimate to their life here in the United States, to begin to become comfortable where they’re standing; to become comfortable in the halls of North High School.”
Before he began coaching this team, Kane admits that he knew very little to nothing about people from Nepal, Thailand and Bhutan. But he quickly put himself in their shoes. “I imagine myself being dropped in Nepal, or Thailand or Burma and how awkward would I feel? I tell folks they lived in a grass shack with a dirt floor,” and now they’re living in an industrialized urban environment. “It’s an incredibly different environment than where they came from. High school itself is awkward enough, let alone being dropped into an environment that’s absolutely foreign to you.”
Before Kane took the reins for the North High School soccer team, their record was 0 and 14. He’s since helped these young men realize their raw talent, as many of them had their first interaction with soccer in their respective refugee camps. The team recently ended its season with a record of 7 wins, 6 losses and 3 ties and the North team is now a regional contender each season, engaged in healthy rivalries with surrounding communities with much more abundant resources.
Along with serving as coach and mentor to this team, Kane helps raise money and pull in donations for equipment. He drives them to University of Akron soccer games. He provides life lessons to help with their self esteem and with these young men’s acclimation to the United States.
And because many of the players’ parents do not drive, Kane and his assistant coach are often the only cheering section for these players — because North Hill doesn’t have a space for soccer games, their home games are played at the Copley soccer complex.
Before joining the soccer program nearly 10 years ago, Kane says he thought these players were all from the same country. “I was naive to a lot of things going on around the world, and I recognized I wasn’t the guy to change the world, so I decided I was going to focus on my two-block radius around my home and the business, and I decided to focus on what I could do for my community as an individual.
“Over the last two to three years, these folks have become my neighbors and I’ve seen them walking about and opening stores and restaurants and they are becoming very quickly a part of our community.”
The players are effusive when asked about Kane. “Coach Kane is a great person, not just for soccer, but he gives us advice for life,” says Meg Dhimal, a senior, and one of the standout players of this year’s team. “He says we should focus on our education, not just soccer. Because not all of us are going to be famous soccer players. There’s like 23 people on the team. It’s important to have a backup plan.”
Adds Dhimal: “He inspires us to do good, too. He helps us outside of the sport. He buys shoes for people. He goes to community members and asks for help for us.”
And as far as the team not having a place for games here in Akron, Kane speculates what would happen if North Hill did have a soccer stadium. “If we had a field on North Hill and we had a home game, we would have a crowd that you would not believe,” he says. “It would become a community event for them.”
Not a great technical coach
Kane admittedly is not very much of a technical coach, but where he lacks in soccer knowledge he more than makes up for in mentoring, helping these players navigate what is otherwise a bewildering situation, some of them going from living in grass huts and tiny tents in refugee camps to being thrust into an American city whose culture is completely foreign.
“It was apparent pretty early on that he didn’t know anything about soccer,” says Alex Quay, Kane’s assistant coach this past season who was brought into the lineup for his technical soccer knowledge. “It was also apparent that he’s a very caring person. He cares a lot about the North Hill community and also about the kids and their families more than I’ve ever seen any soccer coach care about players.”
Like Kane, Quay’s experience with the team has been nothing short of eye-opening. “I was mesmerized with North’s inability to quit trying; that was the moment I fell in love with North soccer.”
There’s a misconception about our city’s refugees, says Quay. “If you meet them, they’re pretty open, social people. The happiness you see in these people is just astounding to me. Some of them have experienced or witnessed heinous acts in their life. To see any of them standing upright and proudly is just astounding to me. Some of it might extend from the fact that they have a new lease on life. They didn’t have a lot of hope for what lay before them.”
Although the players come from similar backgrounds, their lives here have taken considerably different trajectories.
Like Dhimal, whose family owns Dhimal’s Market on Cuyahoga Falls Avenue. Dhimal attends early college classes at the University of Akron and is aspiring to attend medical school and become a surgeon. He lives in a suburban home in Cuyahoga Falls, with a large supportive family network.
Boo Le, a junior at North High School, has a more precarious home life. His father is on disability and his mother works until 11 p.m., so a family meal is rare. In addition, neither of his parents speak English, making life in Akron even more challenging than for his peers.
“These kids don’t have soccer shoes, we have to get them donated,” says Quay. “They don’t have socks and sometimes they show up in jeans, and it’s 90 degrees outside.”
Despite their differences, these young men are bound by their love of soccer, which connects them to their birthplaces and cultures. Dhimal, who received his U.S. citizenship this fall, says that soccer is in his blood. “Even if I don’t have practice, I take my ball and practice; I have to touch a soccer ball every day. Even when it’s winter, I go in my basement and I play soccer. If I don’t play soccer, I feel like my day’s not complete, I feel like something’s missing. It’s like sleeping – I have to do it.”
He remembers playing soccer in the refugee camp as a small child. In fact, children from the seven neighboring refugee camps would play one another in regular tournaments, he adds.
Quay describes Dhimal as one of his favorite players. “He can run for days. He’s the tiniest player we have, but he can run through a brick wall.”
Le, who was born in Thailand and came to the United States when he was 8, also remembers playing soccer in the refugee camp. Coach Kane is “like a dad to us,” he says. “He’s a wise man. He knows what he’s doing. He’s trying to help us with our future, not just soccer. He helps us to do good things in life.” Le says Kane encourages them to be students first and athletes second.
Kane says Le “has a great passion for soccer. He does have a drive to play in college. Far-reaching, he does envision himself on a professional soccer team.”
Adds Quay: “(Boo Le’s) always been a small ball of energy, a very talented player, smaller in size and speed. A lot of players look up to him.”
Kane says it doesn’t matter how stressful his day is at the sign shop; when he shows up to soccer practice, it’s all behind him. “Within an hour I arrive at the field and see these young men with their incredible smiles and their energy bounding all over the field, and my day is quickly forgotten to see the joy they are experiencing.”