Change Beyond the Soccer FIeld

Emmanuel Oladeinbo

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Shooting for the stars is much easier with a rocket ship to carry those dreams, but for University of the Pacific soccer player Emmanuel Toluwalase Oladeinbo, it was a few wadded-up sheets of notebook paper and a giant imagination.

The phrase “humble beginnings” only scratches the surface when describing the journey from Lagos, Nigeria, to the United States for Oladeinbo, who goes by the nickname “OT.”

“We didn’t have soccer balls. So, we would use our notebooks to make round paper balls and then wrap them up with more paper. We’d then make little goals around our friends, and that’s how we’d play soccer,” said Oladeinbo.

“The only issue we kept running into was the balls rolling into a watery spot. If that happened, it was like, ‘Oh no, we have to sacrifice another book.’ The more I fell in love with the sport, the more I was willing to sacrifice. Instead of buying lunch, I’d be saving more money to buy the next new ball, so my friends and I could play.”

Soccer wasn’t just a sport Oladeinbo and his friends played for fun. It also served as entertainment for the entire community.

Electricity was considered a luxury in Oladeinbo’s city to the point where it was rationed to houses for only three hours per day. So, the citizens would go many hours without the same everyday luxuries that are sometimes taken for granted in the United States. What did the people of Lagos do for fun without electricity?

They went outside, conversed with neighbors and watched the kids play soccer.

“For those three hours that we did have electricity, that’s when the whole city is in the house, and everyone is trying to catch up on their shows,” said Oladeinbo.

“But for the rest of the evening, after work, everyone is outside. There’s many soccer games on the street. If you have a house with a balcony, you could just look down and see the kids playing and elderly ones talking over them. It was pretty much communal living where I grew up, and soccer was just something that we did as kids.”

A chance encounter

There were never any aspirations for Oladeinbo to play college soccer in the U.S., mostly because that opportunity never seemed like it would be in the cards. However, his mother did encourage him to seek to further his education as a backup plan for soccer.

That eventually led to a chance meeting with a University of Dayton assistant soccer coach that changed everything.

Oladeinbo was training with a boys’ soccer club on a Monday morning in 2019. He was taking off his shoes when he looked over his right-hand side and saw a ‘white guy’ sitting down, waiting on a soccer showcase to start.

“You don’t see a lot of white people or Caucasians where I’m from. You want to take pictures when they show up with the police escorts and stuff because it isn’t a common occurrence,” said Oladeinbo. 

“This man was just sitting by himself waiting for the showcase. You know, Americans, you guys come early to everything. Luckily for me, I saw an empty seat right next to him.”

“I snuck in to sit down close to him and introduced myself. I was like, ‘Hey, my mom wants me to play soccer and go to school at the same time. I don’t understand it, but if you know anybody or have a contact or something, please let me know. This is my number.’ We exchanged WhatsApp contact information. I just remember getting home and being so excited. I never told anybody about that encounter.”

Oladeinbo often refers to that moment as his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Security was incredibly tight that day, and if not for that empty seat, he might have never been able to sit down and actually have a conversation with the coach.

Not long after the contact exchange, Oladeinbo sent the coach a message that included a video of himself playing soccer.

“When he saw my video, he responded immediately. He liked it and asked if I could send another one. I think that’s where the relationship started. It was a chance meeting that led to where I’m at today,” said Oladeinbo.

There’s many soccer games on the street. If you have a house with a balcony, you could just look down and see the kids playing and elderly ones talking over them. It was pretty much communal living where I grew up, and soccer was just something that we did as kids.

Journey to the west coast

Since that meeting, the college journey in the States has taken Oladeinbo from the University of Dayton to Chicago State and now, finally, University of the Pacific.

It has been a rocky road filled with plenty of changes and adjustments for a student-athlete that has grown accustomed to overcoming challenges in life.

If life has taught him anything, it’s that a person’s mindset is the key to making the best out of a given situation.

“I’ve always believed that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. Sure, it’s been really tough, and there have been a lot of battles, but I’ve held on to that principle through all of it. Moving places once is one thing, but moving places twice is something else entirely,” Oladeinbo said.

“Especially when you’re moving from the East Coast to the West Coast, there’s a lot of cultural shock that hit me coming from Nigeria. I’m learning so many new things and growing as a person. It’s exciting but also scary at the same time.”

Achieving the quest for peace

Conquering those fears has led to new heights for Oladeinbo, who was selected as one of eight students for the Pacific Model United Nations Team.

The group traveled to Paris in March for a chance to represent the University on both a domestic and international stage by taking part in a competition that simulates the work of the United Nations.

Each team is given a country, and they are expected to write papers and perform speeches in an effort to represent their assigned country. It’s a world stage where they attempt to solve real-world issues while tackling political policies and perspectives.

Oladeinbo was taking the experience as a chance to see Paris for the first time and begin working towards his true lifelong goal of helping bring peace to as many people as possible.

“Earning this opportunity to travel to Paris for spring break was incredible, and I’m so happy I got to be a part of this program,” said Oladeinbo.

“It was cool to be in the same room with thousands of other students from various schools all over the world who have the same passion of bringing peaceful resolutions to world issues. I experienced debates and committee sessions where real-world pressing issues were discussed with the aim of reaching a peaceful resolution through the United Nations model. I also got a chance to practice my public speaking and strengthened my networking skills at the social events the conference organizers had planned.”

“I still want to be a professional soccer player one day. That dream never died. But after soccer, I know I’m going to move on with my quest for peace, global empathy and cultural understanding. This goes really deep with me. What would a world look like where everybody approaches each other from an empathetic standpoint instead of a judgmental one?”

It’s a profound question the entire world would benefit from being answered someday. And to think, the same Nigerian kid with big dreams and goals, kicking around a wadded-up ball of paper through the streets of Lagos, could be the one to help find that answer.

“I believe I’m not just a soccer player. I believe there’s more to me, and I’ve been called to do more,” Oladeinbo said.

“Every opportunity I have, I like to express that by working with the next generation of kids and instilling in them some of the values I learned from soccer and life in general. Together, we can surely make a difference. If we move as one, we can change the world.”