September 28, 2010

A heartfelt loss, and a heartfelt win

Sept. 28, 2010

David Opoku thought he'd found paradise when he arrived in Santa Barbara this summer from the west African Republic of Ghana.

"Oh my gosh, it's the best place I've been so far," UCSB's freshman soccer player gushed.

Everywhere in Santa Barbara, that is, except the beach. He won't go near it.

His dorm is so close to the ocean, he can hear the rhythmic surge of the waves on a quiet evening. But it haunts him more than beckons him.

"I lost my brother at the beach," Opoku said softly. "He drowned back in Africa."

David and his brother, Daniel, were inseparable playmates until that tragic day four years ago.

"He used to play soccer with me," Opoku said. "I was supposed to go to the beach with him that day, but I decided to stay home and play soccer. He was about 14 then.

"I really miss him a lot. So I don't swim at all. I don't go to the beach."

At the young age of 18, life is changing again in both frightening and wondrous ways for Opoku.

His goal after a corner kick broke a scoreless tie against seventh-ranked UCLA with just 15:56 minutes to go on Friday. The eventual 2-0 win was the third straight for the suddenly surging Gauchos, and Opoku has scored in each one.

He said he'd never even heard of tradition-steeped UCLA before arriving at UCSB this summer.

"The only school I knew around here in California was UCSB," he said. "Waid (Ibrahim) and (Michael) Tetteh are friends from back home, and they told me about this program.

"They said they thought this would be the best thing for me - that it was better than even going to play pro, because you get an education while playing soccer."

UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg jumped at the chance to get Opoku, a 6-foot-2 and 180-pound gazelle from Accra's prestigious Achimota High School.

"No. 1, he's just physically dominant, and he can be dominant," he said. "And secondly, he has just a great attitude. You go, 'Hey David, I need you to do this, and do that,' and it's always been, 'Yes sir,' and, 'Is that what you want?'

"He's always the first guy after practice to come up to me and say, 'So did you want me to do exactly this? Or go here? Or run there?' "

The consummate coach-pleaser was amazed to also be pleasing the 15,896 fans who squeezed into a Harder Stadium on Friday - the largest crowd to ever watch an NCAA match at a college venue.

"Oh my gosh, it was unbelievable," Opoku said. "The crowd was waiting for a goal, and they had the patience enough to wait, and I gave it to them.

"The school treats me like a star, and soccer is the main thing here. It makes it fun for us and gives us a lot of motivation to play soccer over here."

The transition hasn't been an easy one, in spite of his soccer credentials. It wore heavily on Opoku that he hadn't scored through UCSB's first four matches - two losses and two ties.

"I thought to myself, 'I'm here for one purpose, and that is to play soccer and make a name for myself,' " he said. "But I didn't think I was doing that well."

Opoku did not play at all during the Gauchos' 2-2 tie with Davidson, but he responded the next week by winning Big West Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors by scoring a goal during each of the Gauchos' two Lobo Classic victories in Albuquerque, N.M.

He won the award again after his game-winning goal against the Bruins.

"It came as a challenge," he said. "The coaches started challenging me to show the fans what I have.

"It requires a lot of training, a lot of things. I'm putting in the good work."

Vom Steeg had been warned by his brother, Andy, that Opoku's game would face an adjustment period in the United States.

"Andy has spent time in Ghana and he told me, 'You know, Tim, I've gone out and played in Ghana with these guys, and they just play the game - it's a pickup basketball game,' " Vom Steeg said. "There's really no coaching or anything, they just go out and play.

"The ball goes to their feet, they pass the ball, they may dribble, but there's no, 'Go here, go there, do this, check in here.' So he has not been coached. We've only started to see what he can do, and so it's a pretty exciting process."

UCSB has three other Ghanians on its roster: Ibrahim, Tetteh and freshman Fifi Baiden. But the other three all got culturally acclimated to the U.S. by first attending Dunn School in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley.

"Big David is a little different, too," Vom Steeg said. "The others came from a poorer background, poorer neighborhoods, and David is a little more affluent. He went to a top private school.

"There is a cultural thing, even within them. But it's funny, because all the guys have really gotten after him, going, 'Hey, David - here's what we need you to do ... C'mon, David.' And they cheer him on.

"He's the big guy up front, and you can hear every time he gets the ball, the guys over here start to yell and cheer. It's great. And he's getting adjusted."

The homesickness does linger. He keeps his Bible close, and he sings African songs before every game.

"It's been kind of tough settling down," Opoku conceded. "It's the beginning of a very young career. I'm only 18, and I miss home.

"I get to call my parents every day. I talk to them every day. It's been very tough. But my peers and my teammates, they always make me feel at home. We have great players."

And they've become his new brothers, especially those facing their own life-altering issues. Ibrahim, a junior forward with a heart defect, has missed UCSB's last four matches after getting zapped by his pacemaker during the Creighton match.

Ibrahim has always been the paternal presence among the African Gauchos.

"Oh gosh, he's really been struggling with it," Opoku said. "He's been crying a lot about it because he wants to get out on the pitch and show the fans what he has.

"But I think now, he's come to realize some things. He still gets to go to school. He still has a better life."

And nobody knows better than David Opoku how quickly it can be taken away.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com