Ending with a great list of players from the black community for our month long black history features, we are excited to continue to empower, educate and advocate for the USC Black Soccer Coaches Group through stories that are not just important to the black community but everyone as a whole. We have previously mentioned and used as a theme the term “Triangle of Blackness” as originated by a professor at NCAA national champions Howard University under the guidance of Coach Lincoln Phillips. The professor friend of coach Phillips Dom Basil was also an educator at Howard spoke to the national champions before games and came up with the theory of the different players coming together from different parts of the world as Howard University’s players from around the world remained strong and united in their quest to win a national championship that was stripped from them in 1971.
To refresh your memories that triangle, according to Dom Basil “started in Africa, went to the Caribbean and then goes, at its furthest point away, in America. And there was that link that would link back to Africa with the kind of excellence. He went on to add that “the whole African diaspora could look on this one team(Howard Bison) in reference to the DC school’s undefeated 19-0 national championship team of 1974, as an example of the best that we(as a united people) can be.”
We will share the stories of six pioneers and their great contribution to the beautiful game known to as football and in North America as soccer.
In the 60’s and 70’s even to some extent until very recently most homegrown African-American soccer players were a rarity but it is important to note that there were always pioneers of American homegrown that pushed for the growth of their sport within their community. One such person is Cleveland Lewis. Born in the south in Birmingham Alabama Lewis and his family moved to New Jersey where he excelled in soccer while his siblings 2 brothers and a sister were track and field stars. Their parents were both track and field coaches. His mother also was a USA national team hurdler. Cleveland was the only one who pursed the beautiful game.
Before playing professional soccer with the New York Cosmos, Cleveland Lewis attended college at the prestigious New jersey school Brandeis University. He played all four years at NCAA division 3 school and was an All-American and All New England selection. He set the school’s all-time scoring record with 58 goals, and was named MVP of the 1976 NCAA Division III national championship game won by Brandeis. He was captain of the first national championship team in the history of the University.
Meanwhile around that time Lewis was a standout and thus he became the first black American to be drafted by the NASL. The North American Soccer League (NASL) was the top-level major professional soccer league in the United States and Canada that operated and the team that drafted him the New York Cosmos were loaded with some of the world’s best players including the great Pele. Even though he went on to play only 3 years after being traded to the Memphis Rogues, Cleveland Lewis despite coming from a family of track and field has set his own mark as a legend of college soccer and a pioneer of professional soccer in the USA. We are proud to feature a great American that has opened doors for many more people of color. Cleveland whose mother by the way name d him after her track and field coach at Tuskegee University was inducted into the Brandeis University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1993 as one of the first inductees.
Our second player also an American home grown player from the bay area of California is Otey Cannon. Otey was a forward and could very well be the first black player in the North American Soccer League. He also played in the American Soccer League. Cannon attended Chico State University where he played on the men’s soccer team in 1970 and 1971. He played two season and scored 42 goals which puts him in the top tier of the team’s career goals list. He also once scored 6 goals in one game and was a strong leader on and off the field. He was selected as an all far west as well as All American player. Meanwhile, Chico State inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995. After College 1972, Cannon turned professional with the Dallas Tornado of the NASL where he played alongside of Kyle Rote Jr. He was then traded to the expansion team at the time the Seattle Sounders. After a 4 year career in 1976, Cannon moved to the Sacramento Spirits of the American Soccer League. As a professional he had to compete against international players from around the world and was able to hold his own despite the challenges he faced. We honor Otey Cannon as one of our American homegrown players on this feature.
Danesha Adams is an American star who has added so much value to the women’s game. Starting off her college soccer career, Adams led UCLA to four NCAA Final Four College Cups. She also was a three-time Pac-10 Conference First Team selection, two-time Herman Trophy finalist and was a finalist for the Pac-10 Player of the Year. While playing at UCLA, Adams also represented the U.S.A, playing with the U-20 and U-23 Women’s National Teams, earning her first cap with the Full Women’s National Team in 2006. Following her career at UCLA, Adams was selected as the 6th pick in the 2008 WPS Supplemental Draft and played professionally from 2009-2010 with the Chicago Red Stars, before joining the Philadelphia Independence from 2010-2012.
Adams decided to retire from an illustrious playing career and transition into the coaching profession. Danesha was a coach of the Ladies team at Villanova University in Philly. Soon after she was pursued by the University of Houston where she helped the Lady Cougars become a top notch program. Danesha Adams earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree from UCLA in sociology. She also works as an educator and has left a huge impact on future generations of young people. We salute Danesha Adams for the Black History month’s last feature as part of our six people from the three different parts of the world.
Sam Okpodu’s college career as a player for North Carolina State University is amazing even by today’s standards. Sam became the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leading scorer with 193 points and was named first-team All-American three times. Sam Okpodu went on to play for the Orlando Lions Professional Soccer Team.
Okpodu played for teams in the USA at a time when pro soccer was being reshaped. His ability to be in coaching field was known when he became an assistant at his alma mater North Carolina State for three years before accepting the position at Virginia Tech, which in 1993 upgraded the program from club to varsity. He became the first women’s soccer coach at Virginia Tech.
Sam’s story in the American soccer circles since his days at North Carolina State is worthy of a book. He was named first-team all-American three times and ACC player of the year as a sophomore in 1982. His 78 career goals remain an ACC record and tie him for the 10th-highest total in NCAA Division I history. As a coach he led the Nigerian Women’s National Team to win the African Women’s Championship, qualifying them to play in the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the United States. He later went on to serve as the men’s head soccer coach at Newberry College. He also recently coached in Nigeria’s first division where he helped his team the Warri Wolves FC Premiere Team to the African Champions League.
Sam also serves as a member of the Black Soccer Coaches Association and has been a part of the team of one of its earliest founders. Sam Okopudu is a great motivator and it is our honor to have him as part of our Black History month’s feature.
Karina LeBlanc a goal keeper from Dominica in the Caribbean who played for Team Canada and has represented Canada in four World Cups and two Olympics is our feature for the last issue of Black history month. What so unique about Karina is that she was born in Atlanta Georgia from a father that came from Portsmouth, Dominica not to be confused with (Dominican Republic) and a mother who is Jamaican.
Even though born in the USA she lived in Dominica as she was closely attached to her roots in the beautiful Island of the Caribbean. A two-time All-Big 12 selection during her collegiate career at Nebraska, she was named an All-American and a Hermann Trophy finalist in 2000. She received a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Nebraska, and was a two-time First Team selection to the Academic All-Big 12 Team as well as a recipient of the Arthur Ashe Sports Scholar Award.
In Canada she lived in Maple Ridge,?British Columbia. She has served as a goalkeeper coach with the Canadian Under-15 National Team, has developed goalkeeping clinics throughout the United States and Canada, and has been active with several charitable organizations. Canada won the Bronze Medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Karina LeBlanc also competed with the Canadian National Women’s Team in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, posting 12 saves in her team’s 2-1 overtime loss to eventual gold winner Team USA. She has played with the Canadian Women’s National Team since 1998. Karina went on to coach at NCAA division 1 Rutgers University in New Jersey while also pursuing a career after she was selected fifth overall in the Women’s Professional Soccer league draft by the Los Angeles Sol until she decided that after 17 years playing at an international level, and 13 years playing professionally, it is time to hang up her gloves at the end of the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League with the Chicago Red Stars. At this special time of Black History month, we honor a goalkeeper, a woman, an American-Canadian, Caribbean which brings us back to the power of the triangle of blackness.
While this name may not have been heard in the soccer circles the importance of the name and the contribution of this man to the beautiful game is very important. It is a story of a soccer star but more than that a selfless human being that helped contribute to society as a diplomat whose soccer/football career helped him become the best. So in honor of black history month the African side that most people never hear about and the connection to the beautiful game is being told as a human interest story on this our last story. This is the story of Girma Asmerom an Eritrean-American soccer star that played for a strong NCAA small school in the New England region.
It begins in the late 1960’s when a young soccer star for a team known as Dagnew in Ethiopia whose popularity during the heyday of soccer in the horn of Africa was at his best. He dazzled many fans in stadiums and was selected to represent the Ethiopian national team. Eritrea at the time fighting for it’s independence was forced to play under the Ethiopian banner as the national team of Ethiopia consisted of many Eritrean stars during the 1968 African nation’s cup. The team was also invited to participate as guests in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City .
The 1968 team like the African Champions of the 1962 team consisted of many Eritreans. Ambassador Girma was a great scorer as his goals in the African nation’s cup had made him a popular figure. After arriving in the USA he attended a strong NCAA division three school in the state of Maine that had a great education and soccer program. The school was known as Bowdoin College. The New England region was known for strong soccer programs during these times even with smaller schools challenging the big name school. Ambassador Girma who played forward at Bowdoin College known by their nick name the Polar Bears shattered several scoring records. Some of his records stood strong for 35 years. He once scored 4 goals in a game as well as 8 points total in a game while his all time goal records still stand at number 2 after it was broken in 2007. After a successful stint at Bowdoin College a private school where he excelled both in School and athletics, he went on to get his masters at American University in Washington D.C in international relations. He served as an assistant coach for NCAA division 2 power house and HBCU school the University of the District of Columbia which was known at the time as Federal City College.
Like many other Eritreans, Africans and Caribbean’s and Black Americans who sacrificed careers to fight for their self given rights he left the comforts of the USA to go fight for the independence of Eritrea by joining the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) in the trenches of Eritrea. There he served in many capacities including being responsible for educating the thousands of Ethiopian prisoners of Eritrea’s army in a civil and humane manner.
After Eritrea’s independence in 1991, Ambassador Girma went on to become the first Eritrean ambassador to Ethiopia. He then went on to serve as Eritrea’s top diplomat in South Africa, the USA, European Union, the African Union and the United Nations. The great soccer star who kept a low profile about his playing days had many offers to play professionally in the USA and Europe, however his story should also memorialize what Black history truly is for all black people.
While the civil rights movement was taking place in America in Africa many countries were just getting their freedoms from European colonizers and Caribbean nations were transitioning towards self empowerment. In Eritrea’s case while still fighting against another African nation that was popular and supported by the west, it always kept that the Pan-African solidarity of all oppressed people within its ideology of its struggles making it a truly self reliant struggle that most black people would be proud of.
With this in mind we decided to choose an outstanding soccer player and diplomat with many accolades as our last 2020 feature for black history month. The great ambassador may his soul rest in peace passed away while serving his nation Eritrea at the United Nations in October 2016. The role of blacks in the development of the sport will continue to be told.