The Designated Player: The Extraordinary Journey of Machael David

Not for the first or last time in his life, Machael David was approaching a fork in the road. Seventeen years old and carrying a UK passport bearing someone else’s picture, the young Nigerian found himself confronted by two lines in the JFK Airport immigration hall. Tired and hungry (he hadn’t known the food on the trans-Atlantic flight was free), and speaking only rudimentary English, the young man now faced a moment of uncertainty as to which line to join and, looking for a sign, slowed to a halt. Irritated by the sudden blockage, a family group pushed impatiently past him and headed for the shorter “U.S. Citizens” line. David smiled and followed them gratefully, thinking: “This must be where the black people go … ”

Seven years later, I’m standing with Machael David beside a soccer field in Florida, and he’s telling me, “I’m glad that I was caught. It enabled me to go through everything that has happened since.” The route from a harsh fluorescent-lit interview room at JFK to speaking with reporters at the MLS Combine has not been a straightforward one, but then neither was the path that brought him to America in the first place. For David, it has become the norm for the lucky breaks in his life to first appear as crushing disappointments.

It’s perhaps why he’s so upbeat and positive when we talk, despite what has been a disappointing Combine for him on the field. When we first speak, he’s just come off the field after his final trial game, playing in his favored holding midfield role, after he had been positioned in an unfamiliar right-back role for his previous games. His performance has been tidy (David’s favorite player is Claude Makelele, that most reliable of cogs in flashy teams’ engine rooms), but despite his constant talking and organizing, and vividly colored boots, it possibly hasn’t been as eye-catching as it needs to be for a game played in audition mode. At every turn, David chose the neat pass, the simple interception, the teammate in space. For all his wider spiritual belief, founded in personal experience and his Christian faith, that the right opportunities in life will reveal themselves, part of me finds myself wishing that just for today he’d been more selfish in forcing the issue and grabbing the coaches’ attentions on the field.

It’s a thought that comes up again a few days later on SuperDraft day. At one point, David would have been what Travis Clark, a staff writer for youth and college soccer site Top Drawer Soccer, calls “a borderline first round talent” for the SuperDraft. But injuries in his later college years have pushed him down the rankings a little, and a young man described in his MLS scouting report as a “very good soccer player” who “reads the game very well,” has had such remarks qualified by doubts about his fitness and his mentality. After his performance at the Combine, he gets only scattered mentions in the mock drafts and blog posts that are the currency of draft week. And now, as the draft unfolds, and first Andrew Farrell, then 18 other players, are selected with the first 19 picks, there’s hard confirmation that David will not be going in the first round.

Watching in Santa Barbara, Brian Escalera, a UC Santa Barbara booster and active member of the university’s Living Scholar mentorship program, is feeling uneasy as the draft progresses. Machael David, one of the athletes he mentors, is watching the draft beside him, quietly refusing any offers of food or something to drink, as a steady drip of rejection arrives every three minutes onscreen. Earlier that week, Escalera had traveled to Florida to accompany David to the Combine, where there’d been polite interest from a few teams, but not a great deal of buzz. Now Escalera was wondering how the young man might react if he were not picked in the second round.

David came into Escalera’s life during the former’s sophomore year at college and swiftly became part of what Escalera calls an extended family, that includes his wife, Jan, children, and a growing number of university athletes that he mentors and who know him as “Poppa B.” Escalera doesn’t play favorites, but calls Machael “an extraordinary young man,” praising his maturity, generosity, and strength. He’s one of only a few people who knows David’s story well enough to know how far he’s come, only to now be potentially told by MLS front offices that he will be coming no further. The draft continues — pick 23 … pick 24 … no Machael David.

Machael David was born in Nigeria. The early death of his father left his mother unable to care for him properly, and a young Machael ended up living a peripatetic existence between street life and an abusive uncle he feared. So when an “agent” showed up at a soccer game in his neighborhood and praised his talent, David and nine others jumped at his promise to make them professionals in Italy — signing a blank sheet of paper with their names typed on them. Having tied the boys to an exploitative contract and taken their passports, the agent ended up abandoning the the group in Milan just as the FIFA rules on foreign players tightened (a 2004 rule change affected international eligibility, which had a knock-on effect on youth policy and how players demonstrate a link to the country they’re playing in), and where, as highly visible illegal immigrants, the young teenagers lived precariously, selling pirated CDs in return for lodgings in so-called “Senegalese hotels,” and dodging immigration officials.

Through all this instability, the common thread was soccer. “For every kid in poverty in my country, the only way out for them is soccer.” Stranded far from home with no prospects, soccer became the center of a limited social life for the young men. Each weekend, David and his fellow African immigrants would gather at a park near the Milano Cadorna rail station to play a pickup game and talk about grandiose future plans, which generally had a limited basis in reality. Though, as David notes, at least in this situation, definitive failure was deferred: “Getting out of Nigeria, you’d rather live in poverty in another country than go back home not making it. You’d die from the pressure of people there.” Still, at that stage in his life, the only end to this limbo looked to be eventual deportation. By the end of his time in Italy, seven of the group David had arrived with had been forcibly removed from the country.

Despite his narrowing horizons, David found a way out. As it happened, a reasonably common part of the illegal diaspora in Milan was a crude variety of speculative investor who would front prospective talents a passport and the cost of a plane ticket, in return for a share when the player made it. Hearing at one of the park soccer games about this talented young man who’d become vocally obsessed by the idea of America, one of these figures came forward during David’s third year in the city. Thus, armed with a one-way ticket, 50 Euros and that fake UK passport, 17-year-old Machael David flew into New York.

Perhaps the young man’s only advantage at that moment was the fact that he had no comprehension of how flimsy his pretext for entering the country was. His vivid array of red flags included joining the wrong nationality line at immigration, of course, but that was just for starters. There was the fake passport, the blank customs form, the lack of English, the lack of a return ticket, the lack of even a notional idea of an address for his stay in the U.S., and indeed his initial haltingly stated belief to the first officer he met, that he was “coming to live in America.” Now, any non-citizen who has flown into JFK with even legitimate paperwork knows what an intimidating snarl of a welcome it can represent. Yet as the clearly vulnerable young man broke down and wept, begging not to be sent back to Nigeria, he was actually reassured by another immigration officer that he was safe, would be treated fairly, and would now be going to a children’s group home in Queens, while his case was heard.

After three months at the home, during which time he learned English and converted to Christianity, and with his transition to adulthood (and adult detention) pending, David caught a break, as a host family in Tacoma, Washington, volunteered to take him in while a lawyer began working on his asylum case. And he kept playing soccer. Before long, David was a star starter for his new high school team and had been taken under the wing of his coach J.R. Chamber’s family. He was adapting academically and, working extra morning and evening sessions, managed to start and complete high school in two and a half years with a 3.8 GPA, before a chance encounter with a UC Santa Barbara assistant coach, Greg Wilson (who had come to see a teammate of David’s play), opened up a path to college. Other recruiters had come and gone quickly — attracted by the player’s talent but alarmed by his lack of U.S. academic history and likely NCAA eligibility difficulties. But UC Santa Barbara saw something in the young player, not the least his tenacity in getting this far in his life, and proactively pursued David.

In the meantime, a successful asylum claim had gotten him his green card, but even now at college, David’s route was not smooth — his crash course to get there had indeed left him short of NCAA eligibility, and he could not play in his first year. That, plus the injuries that curtailed his appearances the previous year, left his college playing record looking sparse, though he picked up several awards, including recognition from Top Drawer Soccer as an All-American rookie first-team selection. He was on peoples’ radar — Travis Clark recalls his impression of him at the time as “very good on the ball; he played ‘big’ in midfield.” He still likes the player, though he offers that with the caveat that “the knock on him is the injuries.”

Despite the injuries — none of which were career-threatening — David was making the most of his college experience, regularly posting highly in, and even winning, the UCSB’s Golden Eagle award for the athlete with the best GPA. After his own experiences, he hatched a plan to become an immigration lawyer, and became involved in community work under the guidance of Escalera and his family. David is deeply grateful for Escalera’s support, though years of looking after himself from too young an age have left him wary of anything that compromises his sense of individual self-reliance — though playing as a team member helps.

I hear these details of David’s life at a further sitdown interview at the Combine. He speaks with quick urgency, motoring through his story as if impelled to cover each detail. It’s as much testimony as it is biographical background. At each apparent setback in the narrative, he talks about destiny intervening — seeing his detention at JFK, and even his abandonment in Milan at 14, as fortuitous in what they allowed to follow. When we talk about the SuperDraft, he’s hopeful, but insists he’s not looking for money or glory as a soccer player: “I’m looking for an assignment.” I think again of Makelele.

As I listen to David’s story, I’m moved by the big details, but I’m also ambivalent about the urgency of it all — speaking to Escalera, who calls me back more than once as I’m writing the story, quietly but definitely protective of David, it’s clear he shares the young player’s idea that this is a story about much more than soccer. I tend to agree, but if it’s to have wider resonance, David needs a team.

As we get deeper into the second round of the SuperDraft, nobody’s mentioning Machael David when each picking team’s name comes up. Of the players on David’s combine team, the Generation Adidas pair of Kekutah Manneh and Eriq Zavaleta had gone early in the top 10, while the midfielder Carlos Alvarez had gone second overall. As the draft proceeds, other names he’d played alongside come off the board, and teams who’d shown an interest in him conclude their business for the day.

With only 10 picks remaining, there’s still a little hope that a day marked by significant trade activity might yet bring David back into contention. There’s been a call for a timeout as Real Salt Lake trade places with Philadelphia. For a technically gifted defensive midfielder like Machael David, RSL might be an ideal team — a disciplined, well-established system for a player like that to learn in, with an ideal role model in Kyle Beckerman. They also have a coach, in Jason Kreis, who’s prepared to throw youngsters in early and who knows firsthand that all sorts of factors can push a player down the draft order. Kreis himself was drafted 43rd overall in the 5th round of the inaugural MLS draft before becoming the first player to score 100 MLS goals.

The timeout concludes, and the pick is announced … forward Devon Sandoval. The remaining picks pass in a blur, until the Galaxy use the last pick of the day to take another of David’s teammates at the Combine, left back Greg Cochrane. And that’s that. In Santa Barbara, Escalera now steels himself to deal with a crushed David, but is surprised that the young man, while disappointed, is the first to look ahead:

“It’s OK. We’re going to get through this,” he says. “This’ll be fine on Tuesday [the Supplemental Draft]. I’ll have another opportunity. Tuesday will be our day.”

“You think you’re mentoring these young men,” Escalera says. “But they’re mentoring you. … For him to be so disappointed watching the first two rounds and then turn [around] like that — this is the resilience of this young man.”

When I call David after the draft is over, he’s equally calm: “Honestly speaking, when I look at the players who were picked, I’m really happy for them that they’re going to have a future, but I am disappointed because when I look at players who can play holding midfielder, I didn’t think there was anyone left who was a natural in that position. If this was even two years ago, I would not be speaking to you now, because of the disappointment. But I’ve grown a lot, and I’m trying not to panic. I believe in myself. For me, it doesn’t matter if I’m the first or the last pick, I just need the chance to step on the field.”

That next chance is the Supplemental Draft, a few days after the SuperDraft. David is couch-surfing at a friend’s until he gets word of how that goes. “I told them, ‘I’m just waiting till Tuesday and hopefully I can leave you guys alone.’” He’s reluctant to lean further on Escalera, who’s promised to continue to support him and feels that if no team comes in for him, his story may come full circle: “I spoke to my mom by phone today, and she’s been praying and fasting for three days … and that’s what hits me the most — she depends on me … At the moment, I feel a little bit like when I was back in Africa: that I have nowhere to go.” He trails off for a moment, then seems to remember himself: “I just need a chance.”

With the 44th pick of the MLS Supplemental Draft, Machael David was drafted by the Colorado Rapids and will travel to meet up with the team at preseason camp in the hopes of earning a contract.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.

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