When the clock on the scoreboard hit zero, Hamza Mohamed was jubilant. His highschool football group had simply superior to the state quarterfinals for the primary time in 30 years. His family and friends rushed the sector. His older brother, Kaafi Adeys, kissed him on the cheek, wrapped an arm round his neck and embraced him. Hamza might see the enjoyment of Kaafi’s eyes. This made all of it value it. The two-a-days in the summertime warmth. Then tackling drills within the chilly temperatures. Everybody congratulated him, lined as much as take photographs for their Instagram tales, proud that one of their very own had succeeded. The often stoic and measured 17-year-old might not management his feelings on that early November night time. Tears streamed down his face.
The senior linebacker is probably the most gifted Somali-American football participant within the historical past of Willmar, Minnesota, a small rural city outdoors of Minneapolis. And for most of his profession as a Cardinal at Willmar Senior Excessive Faculty, Hamza has been the one Somali-American on the group, persistently, as most Somalis play sports activities acquainted to them comparable to soccer or cross-country. Now on this city with a rising Somali inhabitants, Hamza is a position mannequin for first-generation high-schoolers like him who don’t need to play soccer or run anymore. They cease him within the hallways and after video games to let him know they’re proud of him and to say they’re impressed by him. They need to play football like Hamza, their all-American hero.
“It’s great to accomplish this. I’ve been waiting for it my whole career,” stated Hamza, who’s additionally a level guard on the basketball workforce. “I’m just going to enjoy it for this moment.”
One individual lacking on the recreation was Hamza’s mom — the one individual he most needed to make proud. Khadija Mohamed Jirow was the place she was most days: taking care of her retail store, promoting clothes, footwear, trinkets and extra. She works there 12 hours a day, six days a week to offer for her household. Even when she wasn’t working, Hamza’s mother wouldn’t be at his recreation. She believes football is just too violent and even tried to influence Hamza to give up. He, of course, refused.
“I didn’t plan on [my children] being athletes,” Jirow stated, with Hamza as her interpreter. “Basketball, football, soccer: They’re all the same. They are distractions from learning. Sports were their decision.”
Family and friends, together with Hamza’s brother, Kaafi Adeys (second from left), have confirmed up persistently all through the season to help Hamza. Coach Jon Konold stated he had by no means seen that many Somalis at a Willmar football recreation in his 10 years of teaching on the faculty.
For years, Hamza watched his brother, Kaafi, who’s 9 years older, thrive as an athlete. Born in Somalia, Adeys was a star cross-country runner for Willmar Excessive Faculty and helped the workforce win back-to-back state titles in 2006 and 2007. He’s now an English-Somali interpreter.
“It made me want to be better at what I wanted to do,” Hamza stated. “He always had the 100 percent mentality. You can’t settle for average. He definitely motivated me.”
Jirow had one other reservation about sports activities, one which ran a lot deeper for her. She needed a “better life” for her youngsters in the USA — and sports activities didn’t characterize that for her. In 1998, Jirow, Adeys and her oldest daughter, Maqsuud Adeys, fled the war-torn nation of Somalia for a Kenyan refugee camp. Her husband, Ali Jirow, had come to America seven years earlier, and the household reunited that yr after they acquired asylum in america. Jirow and Ali Jirow ultimately had three extra youngsters, together with Hamza in 2001, however have since divorced.
“The biggest problem [in Somalia] was the violence,” Jirow stated. “You didn’t know if you were going to live or die. I had family members who were killed during the civil war.”
Over 20 years, the struggle displaced as much as 1.5 million individuals.
Somali-American Muslims worship in the course of the fourth prayer of the day, The Maghrib prayer, on the city mosque. Most Somalis are Sunni Muslim. It’s compulsory for Muslims to wish 5 occasions a day at particular occasions that rely upon the situation of the solar.
The higher Minneapolis space has roughly 80,000 individuals of Somali heritage. Most stay in Minnesota’s fifth congressional district, which elected Ilhan Omar — the primary Somali-American Muslim lady in Congress — with greater than 78 % of the vote in November. Omar additionally got here to this nation as a refugee from Kenya. Over the previous 20 years, about 2,000 Somalis have discovered asylum in Willmar, inhabitants 19,628, making up about 10 % of the full inhabitants. Most moved to the quiet Midwestern city to seek out a decent-paying job on the Jennie-O processing plant, the second largest turkey distributor within the nation.
The firm employs near 7,000 individuals and about one-third are of Somali descent. Many have been refugees, together with Anis Iman, a 30-year-old venture supervisor who ran cross-country with Hamza’s brother, Kaafi. Iman’s father was murdered in Somalia by warlords trying to seize his farm in 1990. Iman was solely four years previous and doesn’t keep in mind his father. He additionally doesn’t keep in mind when his mom fled together with his 5 siblings and him for a refugee camp in Kenya. The household traveled about 1,000 miles within the equatorial warmth of northeast Africa and moved principally by foot underneath the menace of malaria, starvation and violence. They reached the Kenyan refugee camp, however not earlier than his sisters, an toddler and a 2-year-old, died of hunger.
“A lot of people ask me how I got to where I am today,” stated Iman, the daddy of three. “That [experience as a child] has prepared me for this. I think anything can be overcome. There is nothing that can fluster me.”
Iman’s household gained asylum in Willmar after 12 years of dwelling on one meal a day within the refugee camp. When Iman enrolled in Willmar Excessive Faculty, he didn’t have a formal schooling. He discovered English inside a yr, graduated from highschool and commenced managing 60 staff at Jennie-O by the point he was 22 years previous.
“Working hard. That’s the No. 1 thing,” Iman stated. “If people see you working hard and you’re putting 100 percent effort into your job, people are going to give you opportunities. People are going to welcome you.”
“Spending all those times and days together: summer camps, weightlifting, just in the season. They were more than friends,” Hamza Mohamed (middle) says of his teammates. “They’re like family. So I just told them that I appreciate them. They accepted me.”
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Whereas Hamza didn’t endure the identical hardships as Iman, he has discovered that working arduous has made a distinction for him, too, particularly on the football area. Willmar head coach Jon Konold observed Hamza’s work ethic instantly.
“We have three linebacker spots and there were six guys [competing for the positions] — they’re all varsity-type kids. So he was a little unsure of his role. He had to work at it,” Konold stated. “He’s a different person from Week 1 to now. You can hear him at practice just being vocal with the guys, making sure they’re communicating their calls, making sure guys are lined up in the right spot, asking questions to the [defensive] coach.”
At 5-foot-9 and 175 kilos, Hamza is notably smaller than most of his teammates, however he’s relentless in his on-field assault, utilizing his arms to shed blocks and deciphering offenses on the fly to get himself in place for one-on-one tackles. He’s usually a calm child who will get alongside together with his teammates and coaches, however he has an edge that works to his benefit.
“He has this fire about him. He probably seems very laid-back,” Konold stated. “It doesn’t seem like a lot bothers him, but he snaps. He has an aggressive streak to him that is needed in football.”
And Hamza has by no means been afraid to fend for himself — on or off the football subject. He stated when he was in center faculty, he would get into fights with youngsters who ridiculed him as a result of he was black or Somali.
“Sometimes I don’t feel accepted just because Willmar is a small-town place with a lot of country kids,” Hamza stated. “I don’t want to call them racists, but sometimes that’s how I feel. I was a kid and the people growing up with me were kids, but I faced a lot of racism. I’ve been called a n—–. ‘Go back to your own country.’ Those types of slurs I heard a lot growing up.”
Nevertheless, Hamza and different Somali-Americans interviewed for this story, together with Willmar graduate Hamdi Kosar, usually agree the city is a protected haven for Somalis, they usually really feel accepted by most individuals round them.
“I was surprised at how everyone ate [lunch in the cafeteria] together at Willmar High School,” stated Kosar, who had moved from a close by city. “Yes, sometimes we have hard times. There are people who hate you for no reason, but the majority want to live with each other, respect each other and learn from each other.”
The Somali group has labored arduous for that acceptance. They’ve reworked vacant storefronts downtown into bustling companies, promoting every thing from colourful Islamic-style clothes imported from Dubai to cuts of wild camel meat. There are 4 Somali eating places and 10 retail shops, which is sort of astonishing contemplating Willmar’s downtown consists of solely about three or 4 full blocks.
“They’re opening their own businesses. They’re taking risks, and I think people respect that,” Konold stated. “[People in Willmar] respect that if you’re willing to put your neck on the line because it’s yours, whether you fail or you’re successful.”
“Football is my main priority right now, but basketball is my favorite sport,” says Hamza, who helps coach youth basketball camps at Willmar Excessive Faculty. “That’s the first sport I played, shooting hoops with my friends at a nearby park.”
A week after their historic victory in early November, Hamza and his Cardinals went on to beat Johnson Senior Excessive Faculty and Hermantown Excessive Faculty within the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, by a mixed rating of 106-20. On the day after Thanksgiving, Willmar Excessive Faculty performed in its first state championship recreation since 1973 underneath the lights of U.S. Financial institution Stadium, residence of the Minnesota Vikings.
However Willmar’s story wasn’t going to have its Hollywood ending. The workforce misplaced 44-18 to St. Paul Academy/Minnehaha Academy/Blake, a co-op football program, and ended the season 11-2.
Hamza recorded seven tackles within the recreation, nevertheless it wasn’t sufficient. The season and fairly probably Hamza’s football profession are over. He doesn’t have the dimensions and velocity to be a scholarship Division I athlete. If he have been to play, it might more than likely be for a junior school, however Hamza would slightly attend the College of Minnesota Twin Cities and give attention to teachers, probably engineering. His mom would really like that, too.
Hamza and his teammates cried after the defeat. Not solely as a result of they misplaced, but in addition as a result of they might by no means play with one another once more. Hamza discovered one thing he by no means anticipated to seek out in football: a second household. One of these he considers household is linebacker and good good friend Matt Bengtson.
“He’s a white dude, and he basically told me that he was colorblind and no matter what the color of our skin was, I was always going to be his blood and his family,” Hamza stated. “I think that’s what I’m going to remember most in 10 to 20 years from now. Not just how good they were as players, but how good they were as people.”
Hamza (proper) and his mom, Khadija Mohamed Jirow (left), typically comply with disagree. “I want my child to be a doctor,” Jirow stated by way of Hamza as a translator. “But I also want him to do what he feels.” Hamza has tried to elucidate to her that he needs to turn out to be a technical engineer.
Greater than 40 of Hamza’s relations from round Minnesota confirmed as much as the sport. Hamza, recent off the loss, teared up on the sight of his cheering part.
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“They were more like tears of joy,” Hamza stated. “Just seeing the family appreciating what I did and coming out and showing me love.”
Even Hamza’s mother was there. She might inform he’d been crying, and immediately, tears welled up in her eyes. She did what any loving mom would do. She comforted him.
Jirow didn’t flee from the one residence she knew so Hamza might play football, however for the primary time, she noticed her son for the completed, hardworking athlete he was — and she or he was proud of him.