JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (Nov. 9, 2011) – As Itode Fubara (Ogbema, Nigeria) watched four bandits rob him and everybody else inside a bus at gunpoint on its way to the U.S. Embassy, he felt helpless. Four people had stolen everything he had worked so hard for and ran away with it into the African jungle.
Nearly a year has passed since the sophomore midfielder scored the goal that won ETSU its first Atlantic Sun Tournament Championship. A simple redirect off a free kick sent in the box which Fubara planted in the back of the net and into the memories of the 1,162 fans in attendance at Summers-Taylor Stadium.
It was a great moment in the Buccaneers’ short history, but what nobody in attendance knew was just how difficult and unlikely that simple shot really was. A goal which meant so much to so many signified even more to the Nigerian native, because it came after many improbable obstacles.
Growing up as one of 12 children near Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Fubara took a liking to the sport of soccer at a young age. As with most youthful athletes, Fubara dreamed of becoming the best at the sport he loved, but unlike most of his friends and fellow competitors, he valued his education as well.
“Most people just want to play professionally; they don’t want to go to school,” Fubara said. “I guess I thought differently. I needed a backup in case something happened while I was playing and I couldn’t play anymore. My big aim was to go to school with the hope that afterwards I could continue playing.”
The influence to do so came from his family. Fubara’s mother, Blessing, worked as an educator in the family’s hometown. Growing up, Fubara had the luxury of knowing the importance of education while his peers focused their efforts on the unlikely chance of being talented and fortunate enough to play at the professional level.
When he came of age, Fubara moved out of his parents’ house to live with one of his older brothers. Then a teen, Fubara felt he had relied on his parents for too much for too long and willingly moved out upon his brother’s request.
“My brother wanted me to move in with him so he could take care of me,” Fubara said. “I didn’t want to be a bother to my parents anymore, since they had provided everything for me my entire life, so I moved in with my brother.
“In Nigeria it’s thought of as a responsibility. As an elder brother you have to take care of your siblings. Almost all of my elder brothers gave me money every month as I was the youngest. They gave me the opportunity to be able to continue playing without working full time. They gave me everything I needed.”
Well cared for, Fubara was given the opportunity to play soccer and began to develop his skills. Building talent and quite the playing reputation at home, he went on to be named MVP of the Abua – Odual Chairman’s Cup in Rivers State Nigeria in 2006. He then became the leading goal scorer, netting seven goals, in the Abua – Odual Seven Aside Tournament in 2007 before being named the MVP of the Abua – Odual Seven Aside Tournament again in 2008.
An opportunity to showcase his skills came in December of 2008, when Clemson University – a program known for recruiting in Africa, particularly Nigeria – attended a tournament Fubara was supposed to play in.
“The coaching staff had gone over to Nigeria and spent quite a bit of time over there to find a player which they thought could help them get back to Clemson’s dominant years,” said ETSU head coach Scott Calabrese, a former assistant at Clemson. “It was tough to find a player who had an academic background, the maturity and the football ability all in one package. They found a lot that were great players, but not diligent in terms of their studies.”
Not even aware of the opportunity which was about to present itself, Fubara prepared for the tournament just as he would any other; however, he ran into a problem. When he showed up to compete, he was told he had not been registered to play and was ineligible.
“I didn’t want to just go home,” commented Fubara. “So I went to the other field to kick around with people I saw playing. I didn’t plan to go over there because I was supposed to be playing in the tournament.”
The pick-up game happened to be scouted by the Clemson staff, which watched Fubara net two goals in a matter of 10 minutes and immediately brought him over for a talk. After talking with Fubara a few more times, the staff left but returned a month later to scout more talent, and reevaluate Fubara.
Liking what they saw, and with Fubara longing for the opportunity to come to America to play and fulfill his dream of pursuing an education, he agreed to play for Clemson starting in the fall of 2009.
However, a coaching change brought Fubara’s hopes to a standstill.
“Clemson had a coaching change in that interim period, where [Fubara] was then told he was no longer going to be able to go to Clemson,” Calabrese said. “It was a bad situation in a lot of ways because he had done all this work; taking the SAT, getting all the transcripts, getting everything sent over, and it isn’t cheap to send stuff DHL.
“He put a lot into it and then, all of the sudden, the plug was pulled.”
With bringing in Fubara no longer an option, the Clemson staff contacted Tyler Junior College, located in Tyler, Texas, touting the Nigerian’s skill and character to the coaching staff. Before long, Tyler contacted Fubara and plans were arranged for him to now join the Tyler squad come August.
Then a second obstacle struck, as Fubara was not able to attain a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria because of missing documentation. The situation caused Fubara’s trip to be delayed, costing him a spot on the Tyler team and preventing him from reaching the United States.
“That is when we found out about him,” Calabrese said. “We wanted to give him an opportunity to pursue his education and play soccer at ETSU. There were lots of difficulties because visas are very difficult to come by and traveling across the country to get your visa is difficult. He had quite a few bumps in the road in terms of getting everything situated.”
The bump felt more like hitting a brick wall at 50 miles per hour. Planning to arrive at ETSU in January of 2010, Fubara headed for the U.S. Embassy in mid December. Wanting to save some money, he decided to take the bus from his home near Port Harcourt all the way to the Embassy in Abuja.
En route to Abuja, and hours from home, the bus abruptly stopped.
“There were four robbers, with guns” Fubara said. “We saw two of them ahead and the driver stopped and planned to go back, but then we saw two more guys coming from behind. There is no way you can move. If you move they are going to shoot. Eight people were on the bus and they robbed everyone.
“They took the bags, everything, and ran into the bush. The cops didn’t see it happen. They drove by and I stopped them and told them that people just robbed everybody on the bus and that they had stolen my bag and ran into the bushes.”
In Fubara’s stolen bag were his documents; the documents he needed to bring to the Embassy in order to get his visa so he could join Calabrese and the Bucs at ETSU. Without the documents, Fubara’s trip would again be halted, and he would have to go on without knowing if another opportunity would ever surface.
Minutes later the police came out, but with very little. One of the few items in their possession was Fubara’s bag full of the documents he needed to receive his visa.
“I lost my phone and everything else I had with me,” he said. “I was just happy they got my bag. If they hadn’t gotten back my bag I would not have been able to go to the Embassy and I would have had to redo the documents. I don’t know if I would have been able to come here anymore.”
Bag in hand, Fubara headed back on a different bus for home. He decided not to risk traveling any further toward the Embassy, and instead took his flight. When he finally arrived at the Embassy, he received his visa in a matter of minutes. A document which eluded him so many times was finally in his grasp.
Fubara landed in the U.S. in January and was finally attending ETSU as a member of the men’s soccer team. In his first season, he went on to be selected First Team All-Conference, was named A-Sun Freshman of the Year, earned All-Tournament honors, and was named A-Sun Tournament MVP after putting in a simple goal which, after all he had been through to get here, never seemed more complicated.
For more information on ETSU men’s soccer please visit ETSUBucs.com and click on the men’s soccer links.