Thursday, February 15, 2018 6:49 AM
The Blue Devils soccer team catching a ride home after winning against Westbrook in 2016, left to right: Ibrahim Mohamed, Joseph Kalilwa, Benn Musese, Ridwan Ali, Alinoor Deqow, Amy Bass, Maulid Abdow and Muktar Ali. Missing players: Alex Rivet, Ryan Bosse, Dalton Wing and Ryan Pomerleau. (Photo by Mike McGraw)
One hot afternoon at the beginning of soccer practice in Lewiston, Coach Mike McGraw looked at his team.
The white kids were sitting in the shade up on the bleachers waiting for his sign to start. The Somali kids were sitting 15 to 20 yards away in the shade next to the storage shack.
McGraw walked into the middle of the grass between the two groups. In a gravelly coach voice straight out of central casting, he called his team onto the field.
McGraw had coached the Blue Devils, the Lewiston high school team, for decades. He had had good athletes, but the state championship had always eluded them.
When the African immigrants, mostly Somalis, started coming to this one-color, one-culture town in 2001, McGraw remembers thinking, “This is going to get interesting.”
“These kids? Soccer was their sport,” said McGraw. “They knew how to play. They had skills.”
Half a dozen years later, he had the kids in front of him that could make the Blue Devils into a championship team.
“We were going to get good. I knew it. It’s their game, so I knew we were going to get good.”
But good wasn’t enough. They had to be good together. That wasn’t going to happen unless McGraw could pull the players together with one goal: winning the state championship.
“The kids were cordial. Polite. But I knew we had to do something different,” he said.
McGraw knew a team forms when what happens on the field starts spilling over into social settings and the kids start hanging out, going to the movies, doing pick-up games. Not all the time, but mixing it up some, getting to know each other’s families and knitting it together into a community.
That hadn’t happened.
Lewiston, the blue-collar city with its shuttered brick textile mills, had been mostly poor and mostly white in 2001 when Somali refugees and other immigrants started moving in.
The first came from Portland, where rents were skyrocketing, and then from Atlanta and other refugee cities as word spread that Lewiston was safer, had affordable rents, and was a place where African ethnic tensions didn’t dominate the immigrant community.
Still, the rough-and-tumble town of 36,000 was having a hard adjustment to the 7,000 African immigrants that had moved in within a decade. Tensions were high in Lewiston. Racial slurs were common. The mayor, insensitive to his new residents, took an anti-immigrant stance.
McGraw had to adjust, too.
He was used to coaching straightforward soccer designed to get the ball down the field and into the net. The immigrant kids elevated the game from checkers to chess; they had extraordinary footwork, speed and highly skilled specialized throws. They breathed soccer. They had played barefoot in the Kenyan refugee camps. They watched soccer and imitated their favorite moves in chewed-up city parks. On teams, they shared shoes and shin guards when they couldn’t afford their own. McGraw had white Lewiston kids who loved and lived the game the same way. All were components in what, he knew, could be one of the finest teams ever.
“I told them to come over and sit on the sloped hill between the bleachers and the shed,” said McGraw. “Then I picked different players and I had them move, trade places. I mixed them in. I call it ‘sprinkling them in.’”
“‘You see this? This is how you have to play. Together.’ That’s what I told them,” said McGraw. “The reason I did it, I knew it was the only way we could win, and being selfish, as I am, I wanted to win.”
In “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together,” due to be published February 27 by Hachette Books, author Amy Bass tells the story of how the Lewiston community and its newly arrived African immigrants came together as the underdog team of black and white players on the soccer field to win the state championship in 2015.
The book comes out just as the national debate over immigration takes center stage in Washington.
Bass, who graduated from Bates College in Lewiston in the early 1990s, is now a history professor in New York. “One Goal” is her fourth book.
“My first book on the 2002 Mexico City Olympics and civil rights became a standard for looking at sports through a political lens,” said Bass. “I realized sports was an arena to talk about citizenship, identity politics and the world and noone was doing it. It was there for the reaping.”
“It also opened it up to accusations of me ruining the sport by complicating it,” she said.
The Lewiston Blue Devils soccer team came to her attention as a result of a Facebook post by a friend about the come-from-behind team with a fresh infusion of immigrant talent. Bass wrote an article about them. A book deal soon followed.
When Bass first went up to Lewiston, she went with a research agenda. She had also done her homework. After reading all the press clippings, she had outlined all the recent games the Blue Devils had played, who they had played against, and what happened.
“I not only got to know soccer, I got to know Lewiston soccer, so when they talked about what happened at a specific game, I knew it.”
In Lewiston, Bass sat down with Blue Devils high-scoring player Abdirahman Shariff Hassan, or Abdi H, for a two-hour formal interview in the lobby of a Lewiston chain hotel.
Born in a Kenyan refugee camp after his family fled Somalia during the civil war, Abdi H. spent his early childhood walking five miles daily with his mother to get water, playing soccer with the camp kids and avoiding the police while his father tried to sell goods in the market. Abdi H. was obsessed. When he wasn’t playing, he was watching his favorite British team, Manchester United, then going out to try the moves.
When Abdi H. and his family landed in Lewiston by way of Kentucky, it almost felt like home. In spite of the cold, in spite of everything, Lewiston’s Somali community was established. Best of all, there were kids on the street playing soccer.
Bass then interviewed Coach McGraw and realized that she had to drop her research agenda and come to Lewiston and hang out to really get to know the players and the community.
When Bass first contacted McGraw, he didn’t know what to think, but it only took one conversation to see she would be great to have around.
Bass asked McGraw if she could tag along with the team.
He said yes.
“Amy is a bull dog for detail,” said McGraw, who said she never stopped asking questions.
“It didn’t take long before my kids accepted her. They ate it up, really. It had nothing to do with the game. She really liked those kids. That’s how she got into their heads. It’s a great thing. She’d be laughing with them one minute and then talking seriously.”
McGraw said it wasn’t just the kids. Bass got to know their families and the immigrant community and the white players that grew up in Lewiston.
When Abdi H. and player Mohamed “Moe” Khalid went to Kent prep school in Connecticut for a year, they stayed in touch with Bass.
“They would ask her to give them feedback on a paper before they turned it in, or ask for recommendations,” said McGraw. “They knew she cared about them. That is extremely important to them, that respect and love.”
Unlike his much quieter best friend Abdi H., Moe was outspoken to Bass about his early years in the Kenyan camps: the robberies, his missing father, his mother begging for food, and one of his friends digging through human feces in the attempt to find something to eat. Naturally competitive and easily provoked, Moe channelled his high energy into soccer, which he loved.
The soccer team became a second family for all the players, including Blue Devil Austin Wing, a Lewiston boy whose soccer-playing dad had grown up in the tenements on Lisbon Street where many of the Somalis now lived. Wing played other sports, but he breathed soccer.
Wing, like Abdi H., had made up his mind that 2015 was going to be the winning year when they were listening to McGraw on the bus ride home from their heartbreaking game against Cheverus, the game that took the 2014 state championship out of Lewiston’s grasp.
Lewiston had to take it on the chin. That’s just what they had to do as they kept getting stronger. The term “Dirty Lew” was an insult hurled at Lewiston players long before the Somalis and other immigrant kids started playing for McGraw. It was one of the many insults McGraw taught the team to ignore.
Channel what you feel into the game, into the win, McGraw told them, but not into being physical against the other team. Keep focused and keep it clean, McGraw warned. Because he had seen refs calling against the Blue Devils just for cheering too loud from the bench.
Lewiston wasn’t going to get any slack. That wasn’t how it worked.
They would come back, McGraw told them, through persistence, practice, strategy and skill.
They had all the elements.
They would win.
Bass captures the details of individual lives and the drama about the “snake bitten” team in an underdog town where racism is one current and strong community ties are another and soccer is the passion that unites longtime Lewiston residents with new residents with a different-colored skin, different food, a different language, and a different religion.
The only way Bass could capture it was to be right there with them, driving the players to games, sometimes in the huddle on the field with them. There was a point when Bass was in the locker room while McGraw gave a pre-game bench talk.
Bass, who rarely reflected on her role in the story, thought “Whoa, how did this happen? Here I am in the boys locker room with a camera.”
“That’s something women sports reporters have fought for and often failed to be able to do,” she said.
The players didn’t even notice. Neither did McGraw. They had gotten used to her. She was part of the team.
Bass sat on the soccer field sidelines talking to the mothers of players who would run past and say to their mothers in Somali, “That’s Amy, Mom. Talk to her.”
“It was just being present and hanging out and being there with them, so when I was at the library and one of them messaged me that they were at his dad’s store, I could be there in 10 seconds,” she said.
Sometimes that wasn’t fast enough.
“They got frustrated with me because I didn’t use Snapchat,” she said. “They’re teenage boys.”
Bass wrote the book fast, with the reporting and manuscript done in about a year. She was impatient when “One Goal” was in production for almost another year.
On election night of 2016, one of the boys on the team texted her, “I’m scared.”
“And then the travel ban went into effect, and my first thought was ‘Is everyone in-country?’” said Bass.
As the debate on the Dream Act and immigration ramped up, and Bass heard about the impact it was having on people she knew in Lewiston and had come to care about, she called up her publisher to urge them to get the book out.
“‘Can’t we rush this?’ I asked them. It was so hard to wait.”
“Caring about people in this political climate and seeing it through other people’s eyes — it sounds cliche, but that is what I hope the book does.
On the field, McGraw doesn’t have to physically mix the kids up as he did on that pivotal day over a decade ago.
He does have to remind them, though.
“Kids have the attention span of a flashbulb,” said McGraw. “To get them to focus, I’d say, ‘We just won five games in a row. Why? Because you trust each other.’ I’d tell them, ‘Adults should be looking at you and at this: working together.’”
And does it spill over into Lewiston’s larger community?
“It’s kinda fragile,” McGraw said, after a pause. “There is a lot of bias out in the community. I don’t know why.”
“Time will tell if it spills over. It may, when they come back into the community as leaders,” he said. “Those kids, a lot of them, are in college or just getting out of college or graduate school. Five or six of them could have gone to school anywhere in the country, anywhere, and they chose to stay here close to their families and went to Central Maine.”
“Those skills will be there if they need them and if they draw on them, it could make the community a better place.”
Two state championships in 2015 and 2017, but the real win was getting these kids from different clans and countries to unite under one goal?
“Yeah,” said McGraw. “That’s the real win.”