Stories

Soccer Field of Dreams

The soccer ball sometimes looks like just another prop positioned at the fast feet of Mohammed Ahamed '10, yet it serves as a fundamental part of his deft-defying magic show. He can dribble it with the grace of Pele and bend it like Beckham — all within the context of the same electrifying sequence.

"He's really at a different level," says Nazareth men's soccer coach Danny Gilbertson, who knows Ahamed as well as anyone. "He's been very pro-active in individually pushing himself on a daily basis to be the best he can possibly be."

Magic aside, the game of European football, for all its elegance and purist beauty, can be a source of unparalleled frustration for many of the sport's greatest stars. An out-of-sync teammate, a misdirected touch or just plain old bad luck can ratchet up the level of dissatisfaction.

That's why for Ahamed, a senior midfielder on the Nazareth men's soccer team, patience has served as his most significant virtue and served as a soothing comfort to the many frustrations that have accompanied his brief yet interesting life.

Ahamed was playing soccer at Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan when Gilbertson, then an assistant coach at Hobart, first met him and recruited him to play in Geneva. Gilbertson, though, became the head coach at Nazareth in 2004 and he persuaded Ahamed to join him.

"We just clicked," Ahamed said. "He came and watched me play and I appreciated his effort."

Ahamed's tolerance has been battle-tested time and again in places far removed from the soccer pitch. His father, Ahamed Yakub, first came to the United States in the mid-90s and Ahamed followed a few years later, leaving behind his mother, Mariem and two sisters. He hasn't seen his mother in 10 years, but speaks to her regularly. He hopes to return to Ghana for a visit after he graduates with a bachelor's in business administration.

An All-American defender for the Golden Flyers and the Empire 8 Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2006, Ahamed (affectionately known as Mo around the Nazareth campus) helped the Golden Flyers to the finest season in the program's 30-year history in 2006. Nazareth finished with a 15-5-3 record and advanced to the national quarterfinals.

However, Ahamed's soccer world came crashing down the following summer. Playing on a Western New York all-star team, Ahamed initially suffered a sprained right knee during a game in Oneonta and he was told not to play for a couple of weeks. Later in the summer, he was playing in a pick-up game at Nazareth, stepped in a hole and re-injured his knee.

Unable to walk without assistance, Ahamed took a trip to the hospital where he was told that his injury was probably a bad sprain, "but I knew it was worse than that," he said.

Much worse in fact. In addition to tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Ahamed had what Assistant Athletic Trainer Mike Fahy described as "an osteochondral defect" or a hole in the cartilage that had worn through down to the bone. His 2007 soccer season was over before it ever began.

"It was devastating not to have him," Gilbertson said, "and it was frustrating for him to be withdrawn from the team. We tried to keep him involved and talked about the future and how much better he would be when he came back."

If he did come back at all. Dr. Lucien Rouse, Ahamed's orthopedic surgeon, was very blunt about his chances of making a full recovery, Fahy said. "He told him that there was a chance he wouldn't play soccer again."

After two surgeries and an intense rehab program, Ahamed, with a cumbersome brace surrounding his knee, was cleared to play again.

He was hardly back at full strength, but Gilbertson was pretty certain that having him back at 65-70 percent was better than most players at full strength. He wound up playing in 16 of the team's 17 games, including 12 as a starter, as the Golden Flyers finished with a 7-8-2 overall record.

"The toughest thing was the mental part," Ahamed said. "There were some days I had to call Mike and tell him I didn't want to come in (and rehab)."

A devout Muslim, Ahamed says he relied heavily on his religious faith to overcome the mental anguish and physical rigors of rehab. Gilbertson believes that Ahamed makes more personal sacrifices than a typical college student, including the 30-day observance of Ramadan, which usually falls within the middle of the soccer season. During that time, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and indulging in anything in excess or ill-natured each day from dawn until sunset.

"I have my own personal policy," Ahamed said. "I don't go out that much. I like to stay in my room, do my work and pray."

"When you look at how he carries himself and look at the response he gets from everyone on campus you know that this is an individual that everyone likes to be around," said Gilbertson. "It's hard to find fault in him."

In 2009, Ahamed was able to discard his knee brace and return to the fearless playing style that endeared him to teammates and opponents alike. He is set to graduate from Nazareth in December 2009 with degrees in business administration and accounting. He hopes to continue playing soccer with an ultimate dream of competing for the national team in Ghana. "Oh man, that would be something," he said.

"He has the ability to play at a high level," Gilbertson said. "He's unique. I don't think I'll have anyone like him again, but I can see us having a relationship for the rest of our lives based on what we've been through together."

Said Fahy: "I don't know, but he might be the most talented men's soccer player we've had (at Nazareth). But he might be a better person than a soccer player."

Mohammed Ahamed

After two surgeries and an intense rehab program, Ahamed, with a cumbersome brace surrounding his knee, was cleared to play again.

Mohammed Ahamed

"When you look at how he (Ahamed) carries himself…you know that this is an individual that everyone likes to be around," said Coach Gilbertson.