It's pretty tough to do justice to the story of Abraham Donzo, but it was a honour to have been able to take a stab at it a month ago. Sportswriters are not supposed to cheerlead, but having been let in on what he's gone through and how he and his Canadian parents Phil and Sue Roberts have made it work, well, I defy you not to cheer for him.
Oct. 8, 2009
Not just in it for kicks
Soccer prodigy hopes long journey leads to pro deal
Abraham Donzo is as tough to label as he is to mark on the pitch.
That's a way to relate how far and fast the footy prodigy has come since arriving in Ottawa in 2005 from a refugee camp in Liberia. The label doesn't stick. It's there, but the only mention of pain that comes up while talking to Donzo relates to rehabbing his right knee after he tore an ACL in May 2008.
He's a well-adjusted 16-year-old Colonel By student, supported by loving parents, educators Sue and Phil Roberts. The hook is he is jetting across the Atlantic next Wednesday for a fourth trial with Everton FC of the English Premier League.
"My journey started kind of sad, but now it's going in a good way," says Donzo, who starred with the Ontario provincial team this summer, scoring all of its goals in 5-of-6 games at nationals.
"When I was leaving my family in Liberia I was sad, but they wanted me to come here, to have a chance at a future, so I was happy they did that."
The ACL injury meant Donzo was not 100% match-fit the last time he was at Everton. Getting into an EPL team's academy is as vital for a 16-year-old footballer as the NHL draft is for a teen hockey player. Ottawa Fury president John Pugh notes, "this is the probably the time" that Everton will decide whether to add Donzo to its academy. He'll likely find out in January.
"I know this is my last chance with Everton," the 5-foot-11, 160-lb. striker says. "I feel good, skill-wise. The only thing I am worried about is the physical play. They're big guys and they're tough."
REALITY SHOW WINNER
You know about Donzo winning a reality show, Soccer Dreams, and catching Everton's eye. A bigger part of the backstory is the Roberts family. Donzo came to Canada with a male relative, Sekou Donzo. He eventually moved in with the Robertses, who are his legal guardians.
"They're always there for me," he says. "I was shy at first, but I get treated like a brother and I treat them (siblings Michelle, Amy and Meagan) like a sister."
His dad, who is the Ottawa Gee-Gees' special teams co-ordinator, might never forget the rush his spouse and daughters threw at him about adding Abraham to the brood.
"It just kind of fell into place," Phil Roberts says. "His uncle was working all the time and Abe is still in contact with him. Children's Aid approached us about him. They said to us, 'We've never done this, but he's doing well here in school, we don't want to have to switch.'
"When my daughters and wife cornered me about it, I went, 'Uh -oh, I'm not a young guy.' I was 49 years old at the time, we have three daughters, I'm coaching football all the time, coaching basketball at the high school. But within two weeks, I knew it was a good fit."
Roberts' contacts in the helmeted, hand-using version of football paid off when Donzo injured his knee. One of his former players, Western Mustangs assistant coach Mickey Donovan, helped connect them with Dr. Kevin Willits in London, Ont., for treatment. Willits also coaches at Western.
Of course, no one could rehab the knee for Donzo.
"He was ready to go after 4 1/2 months," Roberts says. "I'm a football guy, and I was just amazed. He was waking up at 6 a.m., icing it six times a day ... I know university, pro guys who couldn't do what he did."
What happens at Everton is not necessarily make-or-break. There are a lot of football teams.
When you go in there for a two-week trial, you've got to be better than what they've had in the academy," explains Steve Hill, Donzo's coach with the Ottawa Fury. "You can't be as good as, because they have people who have been there since the age of eight, nine, 10 years old, whom they've worked with 3-4 years. It's a bit cutthroat."
That's the kicker. The hard part is still ahead for Donzo, after leaving family, after the culture shock, after blowing out a knee. Is it in him?
"I'm not the kind of person who gives up," he says.