Socks and rags for the interior, flame-melted plastic bags as the round shell. That was Haji Abdikadir’s first soccer ball. This was in Kenya, where Abdikadir, a Somali Bantu, was living in a refugee camp as a very young boy. Best he can remember, kicking and dribbling the handmade balls came shortly after he mastered walking. More than a decade later and 8,500 miles removed from Kenya, Abdikadir, now a student at Collegiate, was recently named USA Today’s All-USA Player of the Year, awarded to the nation’s best high school soccer player.
His stats from last season astound. He scored 40 goals, shattering Collegiate’s previous single-season record of 25. (Collegiate’s team broke the Kentucky single-season goal-scoring record with 163 goals. Previous record: 143.) But what really tickles coach Chad Wozniak about Abdikadir has nothing to do with skill. Abdikadir takes public transit to school, and he’s always the first to offer his seat to an elderly person. He shrugged when he was named the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, but once he learned the award came with $1,000 that he could donate to a nonprofit, his marvelous, wide grin opened up. “Beaming ear to ear,” Wozniak says. Abdikadir donated the money to an organization that aids Somali Bantu refugees in Louisville.
When he was eight, Abdikadir moved to the United States with an older sister (who is his legal guardian) and older brother, spending a few months in Florida before moving to west Louisville, where an uncle lived. There, he found other refugees always up for a game of soccer. Sometimes they’d play on an empty parking lot, or on a fenced-in dirt field with gravelly sand they nicknamed “Sandy Stadium.” “We walked around the neighborhood with no shoes and played with no shoes,” Abdikadir says. “It kind of teaches you how to touch the ball properly. If you hit the ball wrong or pass the ball wrong, you hurt your feet because you have nothing protecting it. So you have to learn proper technique.”
Abdikadir will graduate from Collegiate in the winter. The 18-year-old will then enroll at the University of Louisville, where he will play soccer. While many colleges recruited him, he says Louisville feels like home. If dreams come true, Abdikadir will someday play for the famed Manchester United in England. While some athletes might burn out as the years accumulate, Abdikadir can’t imagine it. Soccer is sanctuary. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on with your life,” he says. “The worst thing in life could happen to you, but once you get on the field, it’s a different world. You don’t see anything but soccer. That’s how I feel when I play. It’s stress-free, fun. Even when I’m 60 years old, I want to be playing soccer.”