Catrina Atanda

Summer Diaries #3: On Soccer and Ghana

I've had an extremely busy week, as my team was required to be camp counselors to almost 200 junior soccer players aged 13 to 18. During our minimal off time, I started to think about what I'd talk about in my next blog post. Being around young soccer players gave me some time to reminisce on how it all began for me as well.

In order to properly describe how soccer became a part of my life, I have to look back at the previous generations of Atandas. My dad’s side of the family is from Ghana, West Africa. Growing up, my grandparents, my dad, and his six siblings had it far from easy. Living in “The Village”, as my dad calls it, was stressful. Getting enough food on the table for the big family, going to school, exercising, and other extracurricular activities were hard to manage. My dad recalls playing soccer (or football as they call it) in the dirt with his classmates and the local neighborhood children to keep active.

Things started to change when my grandpa got accepted to school at Rutgers University. It was time for everyone to make their way over to America, but since the family was so big and a flight to America from Ghana is expensive, the nine of them came here in shifts. My grandpa came first in June 1971. Then my grandma came in December of that year. My dad and the second- and third-born children arrived in August 1973, and the rest arrived in 1974 and 1975. The youngest siblings were born in New Jersey.

The family lived in Jersey City and South Brunswick, which were both poor towns. Now that they had made it to America, it was imperative that the kids did well in school to receive the education necessary to obtain quality jobs. My dad and two of my uncles graduated from the University of Virginia and were members of the men’s soccer team there. All 3 of my aunts graduated from Rutgers and my other uncle graduated from Dartmouth. My grandparents passed the goal of having a better life down to my dad and his siblings.

Soccer played a massive role in our family, whether it was played, watched, or simply talked about, but it is education that has and always will be the number one priority in this family. The previous Atanda generations literally started from the bottom in one of the most difficult of difficult situations, but now they are here in America and living comfortably.

Family is something that I value dearly. I don’t think of them as just Grandma, Grandpa, Auntie, and Uncle. I think of them as the family members who worked incredibly hard to make a better life for themselves. The family members who helped pave the way for me; my brother, Corey; and our 17 cousins. The family members who proved that success is not an accident and that hard work can take a person out of poverty and into stability. My grandma passed away in 2001, and it is truly a shame that she isn't here today to see how hard we have all worked and what we have become.

I'm getting a bit emotional writing this because sometimes I don't realize all of the effort that went in to making me who I am, and in making this family to what it is the past 60-odd years. A few weeks ago when I went back home to New Jersey, my dad showed me and Corey four of the houses that he used to live in. The neighborhoods were run-down and dangerous. I could hardly imagine how challenging it must have been to grow up in a place like that. Seeing it and hearing the stories of what it was like make me appreciate my upbringing even more.

There is no way for me to truly understand the sacrifice and the constant drive that my grandparents, dad, aunts, and uncles had to take on, but I will forever be grateful for the effort and love them unconditionally for being the sole reason why this family is what it is today. Here I am, a newly 21-year-old young woman set to graduate college a semester early with the ambition to continue playing soccer beyond college. I am so fortunate to live the life I live, but I know that none of this would be possible without the generations before me. If I could be just half of the people and parents my family members are, that would be my greatest achievement.

Talk again next week!

— Catrina Atanda

PS. I hope one day to visit Ghana, experience the culture, see where my family grew up, and play soccer with the local children in the dirt, just like my family did. (Dad, I hope you're reading this!)

Editor's note: Catrina is a student athlete at Clemson University who is receiving college credit for her columns this summer. Check out the "summer diaries" tag for her posts. — Zoë Hayden

(Image credit: footysphere/Flickr)

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