Kids at a soccer practice. Photo by: Chemonics

Growing up in Odumaseh, Ghana, my dream — even as a young boy — was to play professional soccer. Gifted with speed, an intuitive understanding of the game, and endurance, I played soccer all day with my brothers and other children in my village.

I carried my soccer ball everywhere. I even played with it while doing household chores. It seemed I was destined to play soccer. There was just one problem: I would have to excel in school to get scholarships that would put me on the soccer field. And I hated school.

I longed to be playing soccer instead of sitting in a classroom. As a result, my grades suffered. Trying to focus my attention on school, my parents grounded me. Not only that, they took away my soccer ball — the thing I loved most. For the next three weeks, I dressed like I was going to school, but as soon as I was far away from my house I changed clothes and played soccer all day with friends. It wasn’t long before the headmaster noticed my absence and told my parents. Now that they knew I had been lying, I had two options: I could confront them or run away. I chose to run. I was only nine at the time.

I spent that night at a friend’s house and the next morning began my journey as a homeless child. For five days, I begged for food on the streets or offered to work for food or money. Some days I didn’t eat or bathe. I slept on roadsides, in taxis and under trees. I walked for miles, missing my family, watching soccer matches along the way, and feeling like the world was against me.

Then one night three men attacked me and left me for dead on the side of the road. Unable to move for hours, I could only cry and call my parents’ names. That night still haunts me, but it was also my turning point.

I realized that I had to accept responsibility for my actions so I pulled myself up and began the painful 20-mile walk home. I knew I had made the right decision when I saw the relief wash over my parents’ faces. They told me, “Son, what you did was very bad. … But we are glad that you realize and are grateful for what you have; you never know how good your life is until it is gone.” That journey changed me for the better, and I’ve never forgotten those words. That night, I decided the world no longer owed me anything. Instead, I owed the world, and I was determined to use my athletic gifts for good. I changed my attitude and focused on school.

Soon things began falling into place. I was selected to play on the Right to Dream soccer team in Ghana, where I excelled and won awards for leadership. Within a few years, I won scholarships to the Dunn School in Santa Barbara, California, and then to the University of California in Santa Barbara, where I was drafted by the Seattle Sounders Soccer Club in Major League Soccer. Playing for the Seattle Sounders was really a fulfillment of a childhood dream.

In many ways, soccer saved my life and molded me into the man I am today. Teamwork, perseverance, good communication — all of these qualities enable you to success on the soccer field and in the business world. Above all, you must learn to use your gifts for good. Your gifts are not meant for you alone; they are meant to be shared with the world.

Want to learn more? Check out the Youth Will website and tweet #YouthWill.

Youth Will is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, The Commonwealth Secretariat, The MasterCard Foundation and UN-Habitat to explore the power that youth around the globe hold to change their own futures and those of their peers.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Michael Tetteh

    Michael played football for Seattle Sounders FC. The Ghana native is an author and a speaker. Michael is passionate about leadership in Africa and believes the missing piece on the continent is effective leadership. He started One Kingdom Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to be a catalyst for a new generation of African leaders with honorable character.

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