Mufleh for CNN: 'What ifs' and other painful lessons

November 12th, 2010

November 12th, 2010

Human Factor: ‘What ifs’ and other painful lessons

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In the Human Factor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to a survivor who has overcome tremendous odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. Be inspired by their successes, as we have been.

There are moments when we think we are doing the right thing. Times when we are helping others and we truly believe it’s for the best. And there are those times that we’ve hurt more than we’ve helped.

I met Amos five years ago. It was a typical meeting in the parking lot of one of the many apartment complexes in Clarkston, Georgia. He was new to the country, a 14-year-old from Liberia. He loved soccer, so my team, the Fugees, was a natural fit for him. For the most part, he was like the rest of the kids that I had. He was a refugee boy from Liberia, whose family was trying to figure out the United States. He had never had any type of formal schooling.

I didn’t think much of that day when I met him. There had been some hype amongst the team about his playing ability, but I had learned very early on that kids like to exaggerate and, besides, how good could he really be?

At his first practice I learned very quickly that the kids weren’t exaggerating; he was the most gifted athlete I had ever coached. It was magical to watch his transformation on the field. He was confident and calm, he could play with both feet, and he was completely fearless. He was selfless and a great team player and didn’t have the ego that should have gone with this kind of talent. In the year and a half that I coached him, the team lost only one game.

I am not sure of the precise moment when things started going wrong. There probably wasn’t just one, but a series of moments when my standards for Amos were not the same as they were for the rest of the team. If he showed up late to practice, it was OK, as long as he showed up. If he wanted fast food after practice, I would stop and buy it. If he needed a ride to practice, I would pick him up. I loved winning and having coaches compliment his playing ability, and I was proud to be his coach. None of my other kids were getting that kind of treatment.

Maybe part of it was because he was an incredible athlete, or because he was an orphan who had lost both his parents in the brutal civil war in Liberia. One of his brothers was a former child soldier; the other one was taking care of him. Gradually I started to treat him more and more like a victim, because of his traumatic experience and his tragic home situation. He played the victim and I treated him like one.

And I made excuses for him. For his lateness, and his entitlement. For his home situation and for the fact that he couldn’t read. I don’t know the exact moment that I realized that this was wrong, that I wasn’t helping because I wasn’t giving this boy anything that would allow him to succeed in life.

Maybe it was when he started expecting to be treated differently, or the 50th time I went to McDonalds, or when I arranged for a private tutor to work with him on his reading and he never showed up. Or when I had to drag him out of bed to make it to an Olympic Development Program tryout. Or the catalytic moment when Joshua, one of my 16-year-old players, made a mistake; he tried hard to fix it but then fell apart because he had disappointed me and regretfully said, “I’m sorry I’m not Amos.”

“No you are not.” To them, no one could live up to Amos in my eyes because he could do no wrong.

I eventually kicked Amos off the team. I gave him chance after chance to follow the rules and standards that I had set for the other kids, but it was too late; I had broken them too many times already. He dropped out of high school and is currently working at a meat processing plant and is an 18-year-old father of two children from two different women.

Some days I play the “What if?” game, wondering if he would have been one of the nine Fugees that have gone on to college, but I realize that I can’t go down that road. I am a better coach because of Amos. He taught me to treat all my players equally regardless of their athletic ability, to not make excuses for anyone regardless of the situation, and that we all make mistakes. I tell my players that we all learn from our mistakes. And my experience with Amos was a rude awakening for me. I have learned to treat all my players equally, both on and off the field. Not making excuses for them. Empowering, not enabling.

To Amos:

Thank you for all you taught me. I am sorry I didn’t learn it before I met you.

Coach