A World, Frozen, Half A Planet Away
Oct. 15, 2009
By Kevin Scheitrum
If he hadn't gotten that call that day in December, Two-Boys Gumede said, he's not sure where he'd be.
Still in South Africa, he guesses. Probably still playing soccer. Maybe. Maybe not.
If he were playing, it sure as hell wouldn't be playing it in America. Most likely Durban, South Africa, his home city. Maybe Johannesburg, if he caught a break. If he weren't, well - he trails off here - he'd be doing something much worse.
"That's one the hardest thing about being in Africa," Gumede, now a senior on the UAB soccer team and a M.A.C. Hermann Award nominee, said. "Either you're playing soccer or you're getting into bad habits, like drugs or just being with the wrong people."
For the seven months before his phone rang just before Christmas in 2007, Gumede had been stranded in South Africa, his home country but no longer his home, ever since he came to America on exchange in 2001. What had started as a month long trip to see his family for the first time in six years became a crisis that lasted half a year and kept him in Africa during UAB's entire 2007 season. A crisis that occurred through what seems now to be - at best - governmental morass, and at worst, pure bureaucratic malice.
He'd gotten to Durban in May. He was supposed to go back to America in June. July at the latest. But when he applied at the U.S. Consulate to renew his student visa, he was denied, on the grounds of not having "close enough ties to his home country" - a governmental term vague enough to cover everything and mean exactly nothing.
He was told to wait and try again. He did, three more times - paying the application fee each time - to be told the same thing: that, because of his six years away (and despite the abundant proof, from the deed to his mother's house to his birth certificate, along with transcripts and scholarship documents from UAB), he couldn't be trusted to return home.
"There was nothing to pin [the rejection] particularly on," Lavonne Fingerson, Gumede's host mother, said. "It was just a personal opinion at the time. [The State Dept. worker] denied him. He didn't even interview him. And the two people after that evidently didn't want to override that decision because he was the boss."
"I was very frustrated with our government," UAB head coach Mike Getman said. "It didn't make sense. Here's this kid who's so dedicated to his education and so clearly fits what our country's supposed to be about, providing opportunity for people who want to work hard and be good citizens."
In those six years since he'd come to America - the last two of which were spent as a full scholarship athlete on the UAB men's soccer team - he'd turned himself into one of the United States' best college soccer players and had grown from a person who, admittedly, cared only about soccer into someone who was now within two years becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college.
But in December of 2007, Gumede was, in his estimation, "90 percent" of the way to signing a pro contract with a South African club and, in effect, signing his way out of the NCAA. A goal that sprouted from American benevolence (in the time before Homeland Security) came one shove away from suffocating under American bureaucracy.
"I was getting so much pressure from the managers," he said. "I kept telling them `give me a week. It was the hardest thing. I was so tempted. I always wanted to play pro."
Meanwhile, nearly 9,000 miles and seven time zones away, a tiny hurricane of people were at work doing whatever they could to convince the American government abroad that Gumede was, in fact, a scholarship athlete in the United States. And through half a year of unsleeping struggle, the team - led by Getman and Fingerson - proved that hope and reason can conquer sloth and indifference, and that with enough support from an interested few, a life so far out of one man's control can be steered back on course.
"When nothing happened, I just felt like the world was against me," Gumede said. "Everything was just hard. I got so depressed. I didn't care about anything. But having people who cared about me enough to tell me everything was alright, it helped a lot. If coach didn't call me and check on me, and if my host mom didn't call me every day to check on me, I know for a fact I wouldn't be here."
Cut forward to August of this year, when Gumede was named a M.A.C. Hermann Award Nominee, given annually to the nation's top player. He's now a legitimate MLS prospect. And in May, most importantly, he'll walk across the stage at graduation, a product both of his own will and the willingness of busy people to place this person at the very center of their world.
The first time Thiandi Gumede held her boy, in April of 1985, she was disappointed. She'd already had one son and felt - knew - that this one would be a girl.
Her sigh became her son.
"She always wanted to have a daughter," Two-Boys Gumede - one of five brothers (and no girls) born to his mother - said. "She thought she was gonna have a daughter, and then she had me and she was like `now I have two boys', and she gave me the name."
It was a name that soon spread across the town, connected to the knowing feet and the wizard's vision on the pitch or the street, whatever place Two-Boys and his friends could find to play.
"Growing up, I did nothing but play soccer my whole life," he said. "Me and my brothers, that's all we did - play soccer in the street."
His father had left Thiandi when Two-Boys was only two, leaving her to run the family. Soccer, Two-Boys knew, was a ticket out of town and to another life. More, having one less boy in the house to worry about would ease the burden on his mom.
"She supported five brothers, and my grandma, uncle and grandpa," he said. "She didn't work but she found a way to have food and room for all of us. My mom was my biggest role model in the world.
"My mom was my dad and my mom at the same time," Gumede said.
By the time Two-Boys was 12, Thiandi had started to get used to his being out of the house. He'd played on traveling teams for years - membership that Thiandi had always paid for. But at 12, he moved from Durban to Johannesburg, the country's capital and its soccer epicenter, to train at the elite School for Excellence soccer academy.
In 1999, two years later, he was on a plane to America, carrying his cleats and a two-week visa that'd allow him to play with his club - a team that included current DC United midfielder Tiyiselani Shipalane - in a tournament in Lexington, Kentucky.
So impressed were the Americans who saw him play that a family out of Lexington offered to take him in so he could play soccer and get a stateside education. All it took was the approval of his mother back home, who, though she hated to see her son away, approved the exchange.
"They did everything for us," Gumede said. "We didn't know any better, we didn't know for a student visa we had to go back here and renew it. We were told everything was fine so we didn't worry about anything until it was too late."
"He got his visitor visa changed to student status, which I'm not sure if you can still do or not but was perfectly legal at the time," Fingerson said.
Student visas generally last as long as the person is a full-time student, criteria that Gumede fit during his first six years in the U.S. But somewhere in the process, something must have been filed wrong, or at least hastily. And so began the process of Two-Boys Gumede's life being pulled between the people who cared for him enough to give him a future and the ones charged with putting a stamp on it.
But, in 2001, asked if he wanted to stay in America -"by far one of the best countries in the world," he said - and told that all he had to do was get approval from his mom, Gumede stayed. And he did exactly what he'd always done: play soccer. Well. Better than everybody else on the field or on the street or wherever the happened to be playing.
"Coming to America was just another way for her not to worry about me," he said. "I would write her letters, send her pictures," he said. "I'd call her, but it was the hardest thing."
He wouldn't see his mother again for six years.
The first time Lavonne Fingerson of Louisville, Ky. laid eyes on the boy standing at her front door, she wasn't sure what to make of him.
Her husband, Brian, had done the convincing. And she needed it. A lot of it. The Fingersons had hosted two exchange students in the past, both from Norway, but only for a few weeks. Just long enough for the kids to skim off some culture before shipping back to Scandinavia.
Now, an African boy who looked not just a little out of place in overwhelmingly white Louisville was standing on her doorstep - a boy who'd been sent to them because "things didn't work out" with his host family, the ones that had first invited him to stay in the States - asking to join their family.
A mutual friend had passed Gumede over to the Fingersons as a sort of last-ditch effort. Either they took him or he was headed back to Africa a failed experiment.
"We came upon the situation by chance," Fingerson said. "It seemed to be the right thing to do to further this young man's education."
"It was [Brian] that was quite insistent on it," she said. "I was more hesitant, like, `I'm not sure I want to do this.' He was like, `Why not?' Now, he's my third son."
Things didn't work much better in the Fingerson household early-on, Lavonne said. The cultural differences were "tremendous" between a family originally from North Dakota, now positioned in Kentucky, and a boy who spent the first nine years of his life in the shadow of Apartheid.
"It was probably not an easy thing for either Two-Boys or us for quite some time," Fingerson said. "It was a struggle in school and culturally. Coming from a black township to a pretty much predominantly white urban lifestyle was difficult for Two-Boys. There's no way getting around it."
But they refused to give in. All of them. And over time, they all got around it. Gumede went to school with the Fingersons' sons, Jacob and Peter, at a small independent school in Louisville and played on the top-tier Kentucky soccer club, Javanon - a team he led to a state title in 2003.
The Fingersons pushed education. Gumede, who had for the better part of 20 years abided education as an evil on the way to playing soccer, eventually caved.
"I was so focused on soccer that nothing mattered until I came to the States," he said. "Once I came here I realized that I was so closed-minded about soccer, and realized that it's not gonna last for a long time - just a short time. I had to have a plan B. I started putting more focus on education, because soccer's something in me - I was born with it. Education's something I'll have to work hard at."
"Even getting through high school was awesome," Lavonne said. "Being accepted into college, making it through the first year - every milestone has been awesome."
The first time Mike Getman saw Two-Boys Gumede play, he had no idea what he'd just seen.
Getman was in the middle of his recruiting rounds, watching the Disney Showcase in Florida, and he had an hour or so to fill before the next game he was scheduled to watch. So, the soccer lifer - Getman graduated from Indiana in 1982 - just watched some more soccer.
He settled on a younger age group, leaned back on the bleachers and nearly fell off.
"This young kid is flying around the field; he was amazingly skillful," Getman said. "I was like `wow, that's a great soccer player.' But he was two-to-three years away, and I wasn't watching to recruit. I was so impressed by him, I found out who he was and wrote his name in the book to remember for the future."
Two years later, the Blazer coaching staff was going through a recruiting meeting, when one of the coaches asked Getman about that kid he was "talking so much about after the Disney Showcase? Whatever happened to him?"
They started recruiting him his senior year.
"That's when we really figured out that this kid isn't just a great soccer player," Getman said. "He's dedicated to his education. The more we saw, the more we knew he was gonna be a perfect fit in soccer and philosophy and behavior."
Gumede stuck immediately. He was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team in 2005, and followed that up with a second-team nod in 2006, helping to lead the Blazers to the NCAA Tournament.
Then, with Gumede gone in 2007, UAB tanked, finishing the year 7-11-1.
"We suffered when he wasn't there," Getman said. "But at the end of the day, wins and losses come and go, and there'll be a next season. It was about this kid giving up so much. He left his family when he was 14 years old, and went to another country because his education was that important to him. How many American kids would leave for six years?"
The first time Two-Boys Gumede was told he couldn't re-enter the United States, he called his coach.
"He called me and said, `I've been denied. What am I supposed to do?'" Getman said. "We called and tried to find out the information and essentially they said he doesn't show enough ties to his home country. Then we went through the process of finding out what that actually means."
Two months before, Getman, Fingerson and Gumede had sat and talked about the possibility of Two-Boys' first trip back to Africa since 2001. Finally, there was enough money saved up to send him back to Durban. But, the coach and mother said, they'd heard stories about the visa process going badly.
"We sat and discussed it and said after six years, you just need to see your family," Getman said. "I don't know many people that could go six years without seeing their mom and brothers. We just said `yeah, this is a risk for person reasons you gotta take.'"
Now, the possibility of complications had become the warped reality of a full-scholarship American college athlete being told he couldn't return for his junior season after visiting his family.
"What it came down to is they didn't believe that a university would pay for him to go to school, coming from South Africa," Getman said. "It didn't matter what he said. It didn't matter what I said. The person there didn't believe his story - he said he wasn't being honest, and therefore was denying him a visa."
Gumede was first told to just wait a few weeks, "until [he] could show more ties to his family."
He went in a second time a few weeks later, this time with all the documentation that Getman and Fingerson could provide to show he was a UAB student and all the proof his mother could give him that he was, indeed, South Africa.
"I just wanted to finish school," he said. "I wanted to play for UAB and I thought all those dreams were going down the drain."
For the next five-plus months, Getman couldn't - rather, refused - to sleep. To bridge the time zone gap, he'd have to make calls to the Consulate at 4 a.m. Maybe 2 a.m. if he wanted an early start. Then he'd have to coach. And every day, he'd call Gumede.
"He kept telling me everything would be fine, that he'd do everything he could to get me back," Gumede said. "I cannot thank my coach enough. He gave me and my mom all the support we needed. ...I felt there was no hope."
"If it's not for coach Getman I'm not sure I could've made it through," Fingerson, who still tears up when she thinks about 2007, said. "He kept things hopefully. He kept assuring us that one way or another we were gonna get this kid back. I could call coach anytime, night or day. If I had a conversation with Two-Boys that was tearing my heart out, I'd call coach Getman."
After the first two rejections, Fingerson flew to South Africa. She'd never been outside the country. But she thought that if she could talk to the Counsel General, she could fly back to the States with Gumede in time for the 2007 season. They were denied again.
She flew home alone.
"We love him like our son," she said. "It just broke my heart to leave him in South Africa and not know if he'd ever get back. ... It was probably the most difficult time in my life, to think he'd not get back after we'd come so far. Seeing his opportunity slipping away and what a difference that was going to make in his life. Hearing how desperate he was..."
Gumede started training again. And as the rejections started piling up, he started thinking about life in South Africa. He had a number of professional team suitors, both at home and in Johannesburg. Most of them had known him a while. Almost all of them knew his family.
The toughest one to turn down, he said, came from a coach that was his teacher and coach since preschool.
"He'd come to my house and be like `Two-Boys, I've known you for a while. You're in South Africa. Nothing's working out. This is a chance to sign a contract.'" Gumede said.
"I was almost 90 percent signed," he continued. "But it wasn't 100 percent because I have so much faith in coach."
All the while, Getman kept calling. He tried everything he could think of - academic records, pictures of Gumede's family, Congressmen writing letters of appeal - but was still faced with the Kafkaesque answer to what seemed to be a simple question.
"I don't know how you can deal with what seems like such a ridiculous answer to your question," Getman said. "The question was: `Can I come back to the U.S. and finish my education?' And they kept saying no because you don't have ties to your country. Why would he have flown home and taken that risk if he doesn't have ties to his country?"
But he never stopped. And finally, one day in December, he won. The staffing at the consulate changed, and Getman at last got some traction. He spoke to a new agent, who asked that Gumede come in right away.
"Somebody came in and said `I see no reason why he's being denied,'" Fingerson said.
Gumede rushed into the Consulate. And in late December, 2007, Two-Boys Gumede was cleared to come back to America.
"Until we got the stamp we couldn't get our hopes up," Getman said. "But when he called me after getting stamp we were both jumping up and down. ...This is how government should work, letting the right people into our country."
"He's more than a coach to me," Gumede, the boy who grew up with only a mom and didn't speak to his father until he was 23, said of Getman. "He's also like a father to me. He called me every day in Africa to check up and say he'll get me back. He kept his word."
The second time Two-Boys Gumede touched down on American soil seemed less real than the first.
"It was the most amazing thing I've ever gone through," he said. "I didn't want to believe I was actually back in the States. I didn't want to believe anything."
Now, Gumede helps to run a UAB team that's just a few votes away from cracking the NSCAA Top-25 poll. He started the year a little slowly, stat-wise, but he's picked up speed lately, scoring UAB's only goal in the Blazers' upset of then-No. 13 Kentucky on Oct. 4. But his singularly calming influence on the team has never left, Getman said.
"He's one of the best players in the United States right now," he said.
But if soccer's the reason Gumede came here, school is the reason he fought so hard to get back. He left his mother in 2001 as a kid who just wanted to play soccer. He left his mother again in 2007 as a man who wanted to make the family proud. As someone who wanted to make a difference.
"It will be the best feeling," Gumede said about graduation. "May, I can just picture it right now."
He'll walk the stage as a philosophy major with a concentration in international studies. His ultimate goal? To work in an embassy.
"I want to help kids with talent, to help kids who want to do something to make their lives better," he said. "I want to be involved with athletes. But everything has to be the right way."
"I'm not sure if there's a big puzzle in the sky that figures all these things out, and somehow they fit together in the end," Getman said. "But if you talk to him, it almost fits perfectly."