Day three was the best day, in my opinion, by far. Again, I just hope words can do it justice. Enjoy!
The infant tradition of an early morning accompanied by Leiva coffee was not broken, even if we are were lacking that same spring in our step from the first day. Forgive us, but we were feeling our legs a little after that infamous Rhino Run! A couple of cups of coffee, followed by some pancakes, syrup, and bacon; we were set (Yes, we were as surprised as you guys to see what was on the menu, big Cam was in his element!).
Our duties for the day started off with a wee bit of labor. We had been assigned to assist the academy in the transportation of a performance stage to the academy’s grounds for a concert they had arranged for the community the following day by a relatively famous Guatemalan Christian band. We traveled down to the school, where the stage was being stored, then proceeded to load it, and then unload it back at the academy grounds. Looking back now, it wasn’t the easiest of loads, especially considering how sore we all were. But, our continual back and forth banter never let us down, and we continued through with smiles on our faces. We wouldn’t know it then, but helping with the facilitation of the facility was extremely rewarding once we’d see all the smiles on the communities faces come Tuesday night!
Our next item of the agenda was to drive down to Magdalena, the neighboring town, to visit long-time friend of the Johnson’s & Leiva’s, Señor Cesar. We reached the Magdalena soccer stadium where we would park the vehicles, and then proceeded to walk through one of the most enchanting forests I’d ever seen. Around five minutes’ walk into our venture to Cesar’s home, Brock discloses that we may be running a little behind schedule, and in order to make it on time we may have to break into a little jog. Yep, jog! It wasn’t quite the recovery day we were expecting… heavy lifting, followed by cross country, knowing we had a practice session planned later that afternoon with the varsity team. Preseason all over again. Madness!
But, again, the spirit and banter between the group continued to spur us on and we met Señor Cesar’s house after a short ten minutes. From our conversations with Brock and Mynor, we knew Señor Cesar was a special man within the community. However, he holds a particularly special place among the academy and those involved in the academy.
For the past twelve years Señor Cesar has suffered from an extremely degenerative & rare condition known as Ankylosing Spondylitis, where the person’s vertebra and joints would slowly begin to fuse together. It began slow, and Cesar persevered through. He continued to work in order to provide for his family. However, one day it was too much, and he had to stop. His condition was progressively getting worse and worse, day by day. Starting in his lower back, it gradually crept higher and higher up his spinal cord. Today Cesar cannot move, but for slight tilting and turning of his head and slow, but general, control of his arms. It was nothing like I’d seen before.
But, don’t let this description fool you! Señor Cesar is a mountain of a man – a presence that I’d never seen and felt before. His personality was infectious, his passion for life – unparalleled, his smile – the biggest and brightest I’d ever witness, even more so after Waldy spontaneously gifted him with his Barça baseball cap!
Señor Cesar doesn’t see his condition as a detriment, nor does he blame or vent. Not at all. Señor Cesar celebrates. He celebrates his love for life. He celebrates his love for Christ. It is his belief that Christ has enabled him, through this condition, to spread love, happiness, and the word of God. Señor Cesar personifies gratitude. His passion, positivity, and love for life was overwhelming for many of us. Our own priorities, characteristics, and behaviors were forcibly placed into perspective and reflected upon. This man sitting in front of us was disabled but was able to look beyond that and value his purpose and life.
During the hour or so that we were fortunate enough to sit with Señor Cesar, we spoke, we sang, we celebrated life, we celebrated Christ. There was something special in that warm, stuffy room in the foothills of Magdalena that day.
For me, as a man finding my feet spiritually, and with no distinct faith, this was a close to a higher power I’d ever felt. It was something extremely powerful. It is indescribable. Whatever this was, it was special.
Commencing our time with Cesar, Brock’s daughter, Brooke, who had known Cesar since she was a young girl, broke out her guitar and surprised Cesar with a song. Brooke’s voice sent chills through us all. The lyrics were so moving. It was incredible. Tears were flowing, the majority from Milena and I, but in our defense I think they were happy tears!
We soon said our goodbyes to Señor Cesar, and took a couple of photographs with the man that we all will never forget. I can only hope to carry the smallest ounce of Señor Cesar’s spirit in me each day. Undoubtedly, he is one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met!
We had a short, but bumpy, ride back to the academy for lunch. Maybe the best lunch thus far… rice and beans! But seriously, we loved it. Waldy and Q even let us in on a little secret, chopped banana mixed in with your rice and beans. I took a little convincing myself, but after seeing Bladimir’s face after trying it, I couldn’t resist. A Cuban/El Salvadorian/Puerto Rican custom I’m not too sure – the two of them may have just made it up in Orlando – either way, it was tasty!
On the agenda for the afternoon was what we’d all been excited for… soccer practice! We drove down to Magdalena once more to practice on the stadium field with the Varsity team. We had spent a decent amount of time with the lads we were to be coaching and playing with, and we knew their excitement levels were off the charts.
We’d decided to run a typical practice, as if we were in the US, a few of us didn’t know what level to expect from the Rhino’s. But, by the end of the session, we were blown away. Their skills were somewhat unorthodox, to us anyway, but their coachability and ability to take on information was great. Their desire – Wow! Well, once again words aren’t enough. Their desire is nothing I’d ever witnessed before, it was inspiring.
Joining in with the session was amazing. Since playing my final game with JU in mid-November, I’d only laced up my boots a handful of times, each time being fruitless. However, that day, that session, something was different. That love for the game was back, the love that had been vacant in me for a long, long time.
To finish up we’d played La Cancha! A full size pitch 11 v 11, Gringo’s (+ Mynor) vs. Los Rhinos. It was unreal. I think us gringo’s thought we may be on cruise control, but we quickly found out we were in for a game. High press, tough tackles, and an unmeasurable amount of energy from the Rhino’s caused us to have to step up our effort a couple more gears.
After a grueling 45-minute game, the Gringo’s took it 0-1, with an astute finish from Hayden Cruise. Away from home, in the mountains and altitude; a good result for our egos, not so much our knee’s or lungs!
It was an afternoon of fun, but we weren’t their just to scrimmage, we were there to coach. So, a post-match debrief was essential. Coach Mau, Waldy, and Q leading most of the tactical and technical talk, with Hayden, Cam, and I supplementing with our thoughts. Though, there may have been an odd occasion of translation difficulties between myself and Mynor, as he couldn’t understand my British accent!
We all agreed that we were blown away by the individual quality, the desire, and energy; but, we also agreed on the lack of cohesiveness between teammates, composure – both in and out of possession. The Rhino’s took the information onboard, we also challenged a few of them to speak their minds, and to ask questions. It was clear, the social courage and leadership skills needed within soccer was absent. We knew this was already the case outside the four white lines, but within them it was absent too. Our hope was that by building that social courage to deliver and accept information on the field, it would then transfer to off field scenario’s.
We persevered with our message. From what I’d seen these boys had potential and quality that superseded their age-group counterparts in developed countries. It was the ‘other things’ that made the difference, however. To be comfortable around one another, to be able to tell their teammate a piece of information or instruction was foreign to them. It was foreign in their society. So, naturally, it was foreign on the field too. Our coaches stressed that to get to the next level it was a hurdle they must overcome, and overcome together.
For the evening we had decided to venture down into the nearby and historic city of Antigua for dinner. Accompanied by the six Rhino’s from the house we went to the only American gringo restaurant in town. We’d decided to partner up with a Rhino and pay for their meal; a gesture of gratitude for their friendship during the trip. Allan and I were paired. Moving through the menu, I saw Allan’s eyes light up when he got to the pizza section. After asking if he would like a pizza, he modestly turned the page to the less extravagant selections. I insisted, he said “no”, I insisted, he said “okay”, and went for the small “meat supreme”, I replied “no, no, no… Grande!”, and with that I placed his order for a large meat supreme. He couldn’t believe it. He was laughing at me like I was mad, he said he’d never finish it… five minutes after it was placed in front of him, the pizza was gone! An impressive feat from Señor Marroquin!
To be continued…