The Only Regret Would Be Not Having Tried
Emmanuel Akyen, known as Nana, is originally from Accra, Ghana, West Africa. All his life, even as a child, he has had a tremendous respect and passion for the sport of soccer–or, as it is known elsewhere, football.
"Football is a way of life for me," he says. "Watching professionals on the television screen and in my humble neighborhood inspired me to become like them. Football for me, was the way out of impoverishment, a chance to overcome the harsh realities in my home country of Ghana, so I can change the tough conditions my family had to experience on a daily basis.”
Nana was groomed and initiated into the competitive professional soccer environment at the Right to Dream football academy, the best soccer academy in Africa. Upon graduation in 2006, he became the first RtD graduate in his generation to receive a full soccer scholarship to come to America to pursue his education and a professional soccer career.
During his four years at Santa Barbara's Westmont College, Nana played as a Warrior and received special opportunities to try out with the L.A. Galaxy II (USL team), and also with the Orange County Blues (USL). He continues his competitive playing career even now, and also coaches competitively at the club level in Santa Barbara, for Coastal Valley Soccer Club (CVSC).
Currently, Nana plays semi-professional soccer with the Oxnard Guerrerros FC (OGFC), a new professional soccer club located in Ventura, California, one of the richest talent pools in the country. OGFC competes in the Nation Premier Soccer League’s (NPSL) Southwest Conference. Nana also holds his E coaching License, and is incredibly savvy at coaching and teaching young soccer players to help them reach their goals.
I met Emmanuel "Nana" Akyen at his home in Goleta on August 28, 2017, and I was struck by his kindness, enthusiasm, and humor. He shines with his own inner light.
Born in Ghana, he graduated from the elite Tom Vernon Football Academy (now called Right to Dream) and received a scholarship to come to America to pursue his education and a professional soccer career. He completed his high school education at Dunn School in Los Olivos, and went on to attend Westmont College, from which he graduated in 2014 with a degree in history. He continued to hone his soccer skills during college, playing for the Westmont College Warriors for four years. He was invited to try out with the L.A. Galaxy II and Orange County Blues, has coached club soccer locally for Coastal Valley Soccer Club, and led training camps in Utah, Idaho, and elsewhere.
Nana still aspires to a professional soccer career, but he has discovered a love and a knack for working with kids, and his highest goal is to establish a nonprofit residential school for orphans in Ghana, opening the world for them through soccer and education. In fact, he is calling it GOAL, an acronym that stands for Ghanian Orphanage Advocacy and Leadership. He envisions it as a way of giving other young people the kind of opportunities he has had. (I've included his own statement about GOAL later in this interview.)
The youngest in a family of seven siblings, Nana was an orphan by the time he was five, too young to understand or have clear memories of his parents. He was cared for first by an aunt, next a brother in Accra, and then taken in by another brother who wanted to share the burden. That's how it is in Ghana, he explains. Extended family steps in; there is no system of foster care.
Nana was playing soccer seriously by the time he was six or seven, and his brother took him to join a city team. He played in a few tournaments, did very well, and was recruited to attend the Tom Vernon Football Academy, which is now called the Right to Dream. As Nana describes it, "It's a way a for a kid to change his or her life, family, country, the world. Soccer is the pathway."
The Academy was a humble establishment in the mountains of Ghana where Vernon rented an old stadium, provided housing, and built a structure for classrooms. It was essentially a boarding school, and it was not only about soccer, but about education and character as well. It was highly competitive, drawn from the "best of the best", but Nana was game.
"I work very hard," he says matter-of-factly, "I appreciate the opportunities people give me, and I try not to waste them."
Nana went back to Ghana only once after he graduated from Dunn School in 2010, and it had undergone a great deal of change, even in the four years of his absence, becoming more industrialized, and impacted by the discovery of oil. I asked him to share his thoughts about the way things were changing:
But having been in the United States since the age of fourteen, he has a decidedly California sense of home. He speaks of Santa Barbara in particular with great fondness, of the way so many people seem to know each other, of the beauty and gentleness of the place. "It feels like a haven to me," he says.
He remembers how he felt when he was first told that he had qualified for a scholarship to attend Dunn School in America. "They asked me, 'Would you like that? Would you like to go to America?' Would I like that?!"
Somehow Nana had always believed he would do that someday, and now it was happening.
He spoke of his first impressions of Los Angeles, including a memorable stop at a restaurant for lunch:
Even the most welcoming place can seem disorienting when you first arrive from what is essentially another planet, and Nana experienced his share of homesickness and bafflement, but he weathered the hard times with a resilient spirit and a sense of humor. My favorite story of cultural collision is his hilarious take on Dunn's highly celebrated "outdoor education" program. Let him tell it:
After graduating from Dunn and Westmont College, Nana had professional soccer trial opportunities, but the complexities of his visa and pending paperwork left him in a kind of limbo. However, instead of dwelling on his disappointment and frustration, he decided to use his talents to coach, which turned out to be a good fit...and in its own way a kind of outdoor education.
"Coaching is a form of teaching," he says, "and I discovered that I really enjoy it. In addition to a knowledge of the game, it takes a lot of patience and understanding, and a different kind of communication. These are kids, not adults. You find ways to use imagery and visual cues. I've learned a lot about myself in the process too."
Nana designed innovative circuit training modules for players and coaches for the boys' team at Coastal Valley Soccer Club, and was soon in demand as a private coach as well. He co-founded a company called Elite Star Soccer based in Ketchum, Idaho, and recently decided to launch a company of his own that would give him more flexibility. He calls it Nito Soccer Academy, where kids are taught to play with their hearts, not just their feet. And there's a bigger dream behind it:
There's a lot of work yet to be done to make GOAL a reality, but Nana has never shied away from hard work, and he has clearly given this a great deal of thought. After the formation of a board and designation as a nonprofit organization, fundraising will begin in earnest, and the Ghana base will be developed. His ideas include the building of a school and dorms, working with a church to locate host families, and creation of internships and scholarship opportunities. He even envisions volunteer teaching opportunities and a hostel for American (and other) students taking a gap year.
In the meantime, he is focusing on developing the Nito Soccer Academy here. A part of the proceeds will be directed towards GOAL, and so, as Nana says, "A parent who signs up for our camp not only gets the best training, but will be helping a fantastic cause." But Nana recognizes that there are needy kids in America too, and he is resolved never to turn anyone away for lack of funds.
Nana uses poetry as a way to express his emotions, and I felt honored that he shared a few of his poems with me. They gave me a deeper sense of who he is...the darkness, pain, and complexity behind the affirmative dreamer with the handsome, easy smile. One of my favorites, called Humor Me, seems to allude to struggles he has faced that still haunt him, the effort he is making to build something, his continued concern about the ones left behind, and the sense of being seen as an alien, all the while yearning for a chance to do some good in the world:
Give me a stage to start my flow,
That way, I guess, I can kick in a show
Experience has known me,
We’ve dined plenty, crying through the night,
I guess you feel the stage fright
Only if you knew,
Only if you saw,
Really, Billy, the night makes a man angry.
Despite all this,
besides the still-nights,
Blind in my thoughts, I try to keep a steady mind
I know this place,
I’ve jumped that wall, survived in the dark,
But I guess you can see me now
My history is plain,
Our history is in flames,
All I ask is the change, knees bent,
Just so my-kind can see through a day
I shouldn’t be here,
You hear that, my dear,
My origin a mystery,
Many seas away
Just a young alien,
Seen the agony of a life-changing quest
From afar, I’ve seen the dream,
I need the hope,
I feel the heat, beyond the seas,
Knowing this, do sympathize I need to be here?
I’ve been in fights, many fights
Sadly, I can’t discern the fate of the ones left behind
I’ve seen in those intense eyes,
That tea-bread is a luxury,
A privilege that makes me guilty,
But the Lord knows I’ll ship them plenty
That child with the mouth dry makes me weary
Those men, the blind minds, make me itchy
Even my own steps make me dizzy
The toothless laugh, my boy, you’ve grown too small
But you tell me, how is lacking the basic, supposed to make me tall?
Yet after all this, besides those blanks,
I feel the heat from that childhood even now
But you see, I still keep an open mind
Fidelity you’ve seen,
I’d say I yearn for my roots
Shockingly though, some don’t sympathize
They see those like me, and mock parasite,
But Mike says I’ve got a flame,
A soul, one that shames the blame,
With a heart, so free, can even cheer a mime
All I got to say is I’m a good sport,
Simply a man here to chase a dream
So don’t judge,
Just know I’ve been here, been there, seen dare,
Talk about sleepless nights,
I assure you, I’ve been there like sound bites.
Need more proof?
Check my form, see my bones, touch my skin, test my soul
I guess the story of hustling poor man,
is written on his body.
Nana understands that his dreams are big and not easily attainable, but his determination and commitment are powerful forces, and as he puts it, he'd rather try hard and fail epically than not try at all:
But despite his discipline and drive, Nana also has a certain gentleness about him. He is a kind and gracious man who genuinely cares about other people. I think this attitude is beautifully reflected in what he said when I asked if he had any advice or words of wisdom to offer others:
Nana's statement about GOAL: