For Sesay, just another big decision

Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006

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Former Quince Orchard forward Israel Sesay has had to make many moves in his young life. Last month, he took a positive step, leaving Montgomery County for the U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team residency program in Bradenton, Fla.

Life is a medley of many emotions: love, fear, desire, grief, elation, guilt.

Happiness, sadness.

At one point or another, practically every human being on the planet experiences these sentiments. But very few are forced to feel all of them so profoundly by the tender age of 16. And very few have to deal with them as frequently as the 16-year-old nomad with the golden feet and a broken heart.

Life has been hard for Israel Sesay, and the newest chapter of his complicated life story finds him traveling all over the world with the U-17 Men’s National Soccer Team. He recently joined the U.S. Soccer Residency Program at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Just a month ago, the fleet forward with uncanny ball skills made another tough decision in his already tough life — leaving the surrogate parents that gave him a family when he needed it most, so he could play the highest level of soccer, the game that’s been his only constant since he’s been born.

‘‘It was so difficult, I don’t know if I can even say how much,” Sesay said. ‘‘I miss them a lot. Every day I think about going back home.”

The ‘‘home” Sesay misses is his adopted one, the house of Seneca Valley boys soccer coach Festus George and his wife, Sarah Motley. It’s the place he’d spent the last two years of his life.

Born in the small African nation of Sierra Leone, Sesay followed his father to the United States at the age of 10. When he arrived in the Washington, D.C. area, Sesay was introduced to George and his Potomac Soccer Association team. When his father moved to Boston two years ago, the high-school freshman chose to stay behind, moving in with George and Motley in Gaithersburg.

The family helped Sesay through the death of his mother, who had remained in Africa, and the transition to high school. Even though by jurisdiction, he was slated to attend Quince Orchard, not Seneca Valley, George — a former professional player — worked diligently with Sesay.

‘‘I did a lot of technique work with him right away,” George said. ‘‘I saw the talent.”

When he began playing for Quince Orchard as a sophomore, his success was immediate. Sesay quickly became the Cougars’ go-to offensive weapon, notching six goals and four assists in his debut season, including two of the three scored in Quince Orchard’s short playoff run.

‘‘Izzy’s first step is ridiculous,” Cougars coach Jim McEvoy said. ‘‘And when he got the ball, he would go at you. For a skinny kid, he was so very strong on the ball. All my guys said, ‘He throws elbows, he hurts.’ Just the total package.”

McEvoy planned on using the scoring sensation in an even greater playmaking role this year, until the U-17 National team came calling. Sesay had planned all along to play for Quince Orchard; when the international squad offered him a place in Bradenton, he went back-and-forth in his decision-making.

On one hand, it was as tremendous an opportunity as he was ever going to have. Already having played on the U-15 national team, this was a chance to play against the world’s top competition year-round, instead of for a couple weeks. On the other, he’d be leaving the family and friends he’d gained in the last couple years.

In the end, soccer prevailed.

‘‘He was with me through the first week of tryouts,” said McEvoy, who calls Sesay frequently and watches his international games live on with his other Cougar players. ‘‘It was tough because he settled here and had a lot of friends on the team. Two hours before his first game against Mexico, he called me from the locker room and told me how nervous he was. ... He’s a little homesick being that far away, but he’s doing really well.”

While leaving Quince Orchard was hard, the most painful part of the decision was saying goodbye to George and Motley. It was hard for his surrogate parents, too, but the family supported Sesay’s decision. That didn’t make the farewell any easier.

‘‘When he was leaving, I was shaking,” George said. ‘‘He was crying, I was crying. And now we’ll only see him during major holidays. This Thanksgiving and also around Christmas.”

George added that Sesay’s departure had an even greater impact on his wife.

‘‘It was very hard for her,” he said. ‘‘He was very close to my wife. He doesn’t really talk that much, but you cannot believe, he has the strongest relationship with my wife. He talks to her about everything instead of me.”

Fortunately, the transition has not been all bad for Sesay. He already knew many of his teammates in Florida from previous stints with the national team. Mornings are filled with workouts and practices, and afternoons with classes at the Edison Academic Center.

Then there are the actual games. Sesay began his U-17 international career three weeks ago at the Nike National Team Friendlies, a four-day, three-match event in Portland, Ore. that pitted the United States against Portugal, Mexico and Brazil. A week after the Nike tournament, he scored his first two goals for the squad in three-minute span during a Sept. 15 match against Guatemala.

‘‘It’s a very different style of play,” Sesay said. ‘‘Really intense, not like high school or club soccer. Everyone’s faster, and you’re always playing against one of the best players in the world. But I’ve gotten used to it.”

Getting used to not only the soccer, but the lack of family and constant travel, presents a constant dichotomy for Sesay, mixing the pride he has for fulfilling his dream with the resentment he has for leaving home. The change has been drastic, and typically, it’s not the only one he’ll have in the near future.

Though he is just a junior in high school, he already is in the process of deciding whether he’ll turn professional after his stint in residency or attend a university. He is open to either option, although he hopes to soon play professionally. If he goes to college, the University of Maryland is his number one preference. Maybe because it would be so close to home.

‘‘If I have any chance to go pro, I’ll think about it,” he said. ‘‘With this program, you have a chance, but college or pro, I’m ready for whatever comes my way.”