By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press
Nobody has taken the return of UCSB soccer to heart more than Waid Ibrahim, the Gaucho with a pacemaker in his chest.
He is 22, going on 23 next month, but he felt like a perfect 10-year-old again when he jogged onto the soccer pitch at Girsh Park for last week's first practice.
"When I came out here this morning, I looked around and went, 'Wow!'" Ibrahim said.
"At the end of last year, I really thought I was done," he continued. "And here I am, running around again."
Few thought Ibrahim would ever play soccer again after he collapsed last August during UCSB's exhibition match against Mexico's U20 National Team.
He returned four months later to score a golden goal in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, ripping a shot from the top of the box to beat Denver 1-0 in the fifth minute of the second overtime.
His teammates were calling it the best moment of their own soccer lives.
"Watching him score after having to deal with so much last year - of basically having a heart attack on the field, and then coming back to score the game-winning goal for us to move on in the NCAAs - that was very emotional for us as a team," said fellow senior Tim Pontius. "And there was not a better guy to score that goal for us than Waid.
"Everybody on the team loves him."
Ibrahim said his goodbyes after the Gauchos' heart-breaking, overtime defeat to Cal in the next round. Everyone thought it was for good.
But there he was again last Thursday, saying his hellos when they gathered for the start of practice. UCSB will play its first match on Saturday night when Westmont visits Harder Stadium for a 7 p.m. exhibition.
"I talked to the head coach and told him the best part of this program is being with the boys, and running around with them," said Ibrahim, a senior from Ghana. "Being one of the oldest players now, I can try to lead as much as I can. It's going to be my last time playing soccer."
Ibrahim came to UCSB from Dunn School and SBCC three years ago, showing immediate promise as an All-Big West Conference honorable mention forward. He scored five goals with two assists as a sophomore even though his heart condition limited his playing time.
But then last year's Mexico match threw a deathly scare into him.
"My heart rate got so high that it numbed me up," Ibrahim said. "For 30 seconds, I didn't know what was around me. My whole body was shutting down. That's what was really scary about it.
"I was so numb, and nobody knew what was happening, and all of a sudden I fell."
A defibrillator inside his chest shocked his heart back into rhythm, but the damage had been done to Ibrahim's psyche.
"I'd never been as excited about playing as I was last season, but what happened completely shut me down mentally," he said. "I was never able to come back from that."
At least, not until coach Tim Vom Steeg summoned him for the second overtime against Denver.
"After scoring that goal, and then going up and playing at Berkeley, I realized I have unfinished business with this team," Ibrahim said. "A lot of things have happened in my life in the last six months.
"I've gotten a lot of recognition on campus, and these boys really look up to me, so I need to look to myself and push them as much as I can this year."
Last year's team had enough talent to make the College Cup, he added, but not the togetherness.
"There were a lot of divisions on the team," he said. "We're really trying to change that, because I look at the new guys we have this year, and we have the chance to do something great. The depth that we have on this team is amazing.
"I feel if we can really put it together off the field, and be together and take care of each other off the field, everything else will come to us. As one of the olders, it's my responsibilty to make that happen."
Ibrahim's doctor has increased the rate of his pacemaker to make it easier for him to get onto the field and stay there.
"Hopefully, that will make a difference," he said. "It felt good today. Every day feels like a blessing."
Vom Steeg is happy to have him back even if he never scores again.
"We want him as part of our roster, part of our team," he said. "He brings so much to it. We left it open a little bit.
"He ran well today. It's how he feels. Ultimately, it's on him. But he's a player who can walk onto any field and change the game."
Ibrahim was born in a small village along Ghana's Volta River. His great quickness and skill with a soccer ball led to his enrollment at age 10 in the Right To Dream Academy in the capital city of Accra.
The Academy sent him to Dunn School in the Santa Ynez Valley - a move which wound up saving his life. A routine physical examination at the school detected that the right ventricle in his heart was malfunctioning. He had his first pacemaker sugery in August of 2005.
Ibrahim and his doctors have searched ever since for the right combination of stimuli - physical as well as electrical - to keep him on the field.
"I don't know how much I can play," he said. "I'm not going to set any target for myself, but really just enjoy myself and make the best out of the five months that I have left.
"I'm just hoping, praying, and doing the right things, and having good nutrition. I love this game a lot, and I love this program. I feel like I can still offer a lot."
He knows there are risks, but he's come to terms with that now.
"Maybe you shouldn't write this," Ibrahim said, "but as far as I'm concerned, if I die on the soccer field, it would still be a blessing that I was ever able to play on one."
Pro soccer had once been his dream, but he knows he must walk away from the sport when he graduates in December with a degree in communications.
"God has other plans for me," Ibrahim said. "But I know that I'm going to go out into the world and do a lot that I never would've been able to do if I hadn't played soccer.
"I'm really excited about the future. I realize I have a purpose in life."
The boy from the Volta River has come too far to think anything else.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: email@example.com
Ibrahim was honored by his peers with the Phil Womble Gaucho Heart award at this past year's SB Awards show. Catch his amazing video here.