Trailblazer targets US playgrounds

In the big book of the US national team, Eddie Hawkins represents a footnote. However, in a country that has a complicated history with the game, not to mention with race and class, the now 49-year-old is a prime example of how love for the sport can burn bright even through dark times.

The first US-born African-American player to appear for the Stars and Stripes, Hawkins won just the one cap, in 1984, and was one of many domestic talents of his era who fell through the cracks. Having grown up in a soccer hotbed north of New York City, Hawkins played in the respected Cosmopolitan League, and he was drafted into the star-studded NASL as a 17-year-old by the Washington Diplomats. He turned down the chance to line-up next to Johan Cruyff and Co, choosing university instead, but Hawkins excelled as a collegiate player and was a regular in the national team camps of the time.

Shortly after his lone appearance in USA colours, the famed NASL fell apart and Hawkins chose work as a computer programmer. A long-time coach, he has become a full-time nurturer of the youth game in Chicago, and is a passionate advocate for the pool of talent that lies just under America’s surface.

“There is incredible promise for those who can use soccer to pull them above poverty,” he told FIFA.com recently. "These players come to the training pitch with a dream every day, and a fire that burns in their belly. That dream inspires them, as well as their team-mates, to do extraordinary things in order to rise above the socio-political and socio-economic limitations that are often a shadow." This father of three is particularly proud that his oldest, a daughter, will be playing Division I college soccer next year.

FIFA.com: What was your early life like? How did you get into soccer in a time when the sport struggled in the US?
Eddie Hawkins: I was the youngest of 12 children in a pretty poor family, in a mostly white area of New York. Soccer was essentially all I had to do and was my way out of where we grew up. It was my connection for getting to college. There was a group of players who weren’t economically wealthy, and we kind of hung together and played soccer because it was cheap and free and local. There were not a lot of black kids playing soccer at the time, and that became more true as you advanced in the club system. But my high school coach took an interest in me, and I became obsessed by the game.

I think passion starts on the playground, and we have to find a way to make the game more accessible to those who don’t have means.
Eddie Hawkins

Did you suffer discrimination?
By and large, I escaped a lot of it because I got into situations that helped me compete at the national level from a young age. But there were very competitive players from my town and in similar situations who didn’t end up with the same opportunities because the system wasn’t affordable. They didn’t have the means to participate in any substantial travel, which is what you needed to do. I was able to hitchhike, or my coach, Tony Martelli, would drive me anywhere. I never felt slighted because I was African-American in soccer, but there were not a lot of us. And in terms of black players to look up to, there really weren’t any at that time.

Once in college, there were some hooligans in the opposing crowd shouting obscenities at the two African-American players we had on the field. They kept on until I got a pass behind their defence and looped it over the head of the oncoming goalkeeper and into the net. It was very embarrassing and the crowd went silent. I ran to them, placed my hand to my ear. Silence. Another time, when I was drafted by the Diplomats, I was speaking on the phone to an agent who asked to represent me. At the end, he mentioned how refreshing it was to speak to such an intelligent young athlete as opposed to one of those ‘illiterate’ black players that just get by on talent. At the time, he did not know me, and he would have been very surprised to have met me in person. Needless to say, I chose another agent.

Your cap came against Ecuador at the end of 1984. Was there any notice at the time that you were the first US-born African-American player?
At the time, I didn’t know. There were a few other black players that had been nationalised, but I did know a couple of years later that I was the first American-born. There really was not much attention given to the fact that I was black and playing in the team because I knew most of the other players from the camps. I had built those relationships through soccer, so it didn’t seem strange. The good part about it being ignored was that it gave me the sense that it was my ability that got me to that level, versus any kind of favouritism. The bad part is that because nobody did a lot about it, there was no messaging like there would be today. Maybe it didn’t touch as many players as it could have, which might have led them to think: ‘Hey, I can do that too’.

What was your reaction when you found out? Were you surprised that it hadn't happened before 1984?
I was very surprised, and I felt like it was a Jackie Robinson experience - with him breaking the colour barrier in baseball. But I didn’t feel that way while I was playing, and it wasn’t until a couple years after that I thought there was a breakthrough there. Maybe it was a little more subtle, but it was still a breakthrough. Even when I look at it now, I still think we are a little bit challenged when it comes to Latino and African-American numbers in these programs. When I walk around downtown Chicago I see high-quality players in the park that are incredible, and I am always asking myself how to get them into the national program.

And you are now involved in the process of trying to reach those kids.
I think passion starts on the playground, and we have to find a way to make the game more accessible to those who don’t have means. It really does take a village to raise a great African-American player - or any player for that matter. I have been to many tournaments and seen precious few black players on the high-end teams. While it is getting better, it does not compare to the numbers when you look at basketball teams. Mentoring is huge and possibly more important than coaching. If we can find a way to select the high-potential African-American players and get the proper mentors in place to offer them guidance on how to advance in the sport, we would eventually have a larger pool of role models for them to follow. For instance, I would be nothing in this game without Tony [Martelli]. He is a true example of the mentoring we need for players of colour to emerge in this game.

Eight of the players in the US squad at South Africa 2010 were black. Do you feel connected to that?
I think when you look at me and my influence on the game, I feel like I made it through a barrier. It may have been a soft barrier, but it helped show others that it’s possible. It’s a really big difference that it was 30 per cent of the team in 2010, and against Ecuador in 1984 it was just me and Dave (Cayemitte, who replaced Hawkins in the second half of that match). That shows great progress, but I also feel like my contribution is now to be a pied piper who can go into the inner-cities and help get these new kids in the pipeline.