By ANTHONY ZILIS
Patrick Nyarko turned and pointed out the window of Palace Gate Restaurant on a chilly October day in uptown Chicago, where he was having lunch with Fire teammate Dominic Oduro. He can’t look at an open space in a cramped city, like the small parking lot outside, without being reminded of his childhood soccer games.
“If we were in Ghana, we’d play right out there,” Nyarko said with a smile. Oduro nodded in agreement.
Nyarko remembers those carefree, barefoot games on the dirt and gravel fields fondly, even though they were far from organized. Nothing shaped his style of play or love for the game more. Still, he loves life in Chicago. He enjoys the anonymity that comes with being a professional soccer player in a big American city, where he can take long walks or go to a restaurant without being recognized.
But on this particular day, a stocky Ghanaian man not much older than Nyarko walked into the restaurant and immediately recognized the two soccer players sitting in the corner. The man turned to them and, speaking in the native Ghanaian language of Twi, told them that he recently attended a Fire game.
In a different setting, Nyarko would have shied away. But the two chatted. The man told Nyarko that he played soccer back in Ghana with some well-known players, some of whom Nyarko recognized. After about five minutes, the conversation turned to laughter and the man left with his takeout.
Nyarko had so many friends like the man at the restaurant. So many players back home dream of being in Nyarko’s position, only to have their careers derailed for one reason or another.
He was almost one of them.
Nyarko’s heart was beating a little faster than normal as he approached Isaac Lartey’s house on a scorching-hot Kumasi day in November 2004. Ten minutes earlier, he was on his way home from a friend’s house when he got a call from Lartey, the soccer coach at his rival school. Nyarko had never exchanged more than a few words with the man.
“Come over, someone wants to meet you,” Lartey said, not offering any more explanation.
A few weeks earlier, he played in a community league game and was approached by an agent,who told Nyarko he could find him a professional club. But his father refused to let him forgo his education. As he approached the house, he saw a middle-aged European man sitting with Lartey in the front yard.
“Another agent…” Nyarko thought to himself.
But Oliver Weiss, he soon found out, was no agent. He was the soccer coach at Virginia Tech, and he was scouring the country to find a star goal scorer. He wanted to discuss the possibility of offering Nyarko a scholarship.
Athletic scholarships are somewhat of a foreign concept in Ghana. Some students, like Oduro,play soccer in college, but there isn’t an academic support system for athletes. Playing the sport often means giving up on studies.
Nyarko’s father wouldn’t have that. He was always adamant that his son put his studies before soccer. Patrick, who didn’t even play organized soccer until high school, was set to go to University of Science and Technology in Kumasi to study civil engineering.
But what Weiss proposed was something different. He’d be able to live in the United States, play soccer and concentrate on his studies.
Nyarko was silent for almost the entire hour-long meeting. His head was spinning.
“That first meeting was really strange,” Nyarko said. “I wasn’t considering anything like that. I would’ve almost given up soccer at that time.”
Weiss was intrigued by Nyarko. He took his silence as a show of respect, and Nyarko was a good student. The two parted ways and the German-born Virgina Tech coach left with a good feeling. Now, all that was left was to see him play.
Nyarko woke up at around 5 a.m. the next morning, wired with excitement.
He was used to getting up early in the morning to play soccer. On the gravel fields in Kumasi, it’s tough to get in a game if you arrive late, so as a kid Nyarko used to make the barefoot trek to seek out a game every day before sunrise.
On this day, he had to take a bus to Accra, where he played in a pick-up game in front of Weiss.
After a few minutes of the bumpy, four-and-a-half hour bus ride to Accra, Nyarko drifted off, weary from arguing with his parents late into the night about whether he should even make the trip.
When he arrived at the sparsely-covered grass field, everything moved quickly. He was barely able to gulp down some orange juice before he was shoved onto a field along with 21 players he didn’t know.
Weiss saw a little bit of everything from Nyarko in that game, but he didn’t see quite enough. He wanted to find a difference-maker in Ghana and didn’t think Nyarko had star potential.
Weiss told Nyarko his play wouldn’t cut it in the ACC.
“Are we playing in the EPL?” Nyarko murmured in response.
Lartey pleaded with Weiss. He told him he would train Nyarko over the coming months and make him into a player fit for his program.
Nyarko moved in with Lartey, and they worked on his skills day in and day out. After a few months, Lartey convinced Weiss to take a risk.
“I owe everything to him,” Nyarko said of Lartey. “He saw my talent when Oliver didn’t think I was good enough.”
Weiss didn’t know what he had gotten himself into during Nyarko’s first few days at Virginia Tech.
The player he saw wasn’t the star he was looking for. Nyarko just didn’t look comfortable. He was slipping around the practice field.
"I almost second guessed myself," Weiss said. "I was like ‘What’s he doing?’ He couldn’t get his grip."
Nyarko played with an unorthodox style. Instead of charging past defenders, he seemed to slip by them. At first, teammates mistook this for awkwardness.
“I think it sort of seemed like he lost his footing or something, but I think that’s sort of Patrick’s deceptive style of playing,” Virginia Tech teammate Ben Nason said. “I think we thought that he was sort of struggling when in reality, that’s just the way he plays.”
Teammates and coaches quickly realized they had mis-judged Nyarko. It didn’t take long for the rest of the ACC to take notice. During his freshman year, he led the Hokies with eight goals, andthey climbed to a surprising No. 10 ranking. Nyarko was named ACC Freshman of the Year.
His off-field comfort also took a turn for the better. He had trouble adjusting to his surroundings early on – especially the food, which often came right back up. Eventually he adapted and started making friends. He grew particularly close with fellow freshman Kevin McFadden, who shared his fondness for waking up early on Saturday mornings to watch English Premier League games.
Shortly after the Hokies were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, McFadden invited Nyarko to spend Thanksgiving with his family. Nyarko and the McFaddens took to each other quickly. Pretty soon, Nyarko became a part of the McFadden family.
The McFaddens pushed him to work hard in school, just like his father had wanted. Kevin’s mother, Ilene, taught Nyarko how to drive. He was even given a room in their house in Richmond, Va., where he spent every break. Eventually, Nyarko was splitting his time in the off-season between the McFadden household in Richmond, Va., and Kumasi.
During the 2010 season, Nyarko introduced Ilene to former Fire goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra as his mother.
“You’re from Ghana?” Dykstra asked Ilene with a confused look on his face.
It was the 2008 MLS Draft, and then-Chicago Fire assistant coach Mike Jeffries kept reporting back to Weiss, who sat with Nyarko and the McFadden family.
“What teams are asking about Nyarko?” Jeffries kept asking.
Nyarko had become one of the biggest names in college soccer during his junior year, when heled the Hokies to the College Cup semifinals and was runner-up for the Hermann Trophy for national player of the year.
Jeffries was the interim head coach at Duke in 2007 and had his eye on Nyarko.
“He gave us fits when we played him,” said Jeffries, now the Fire director of player personnel.
Nyarko was expected to be taken in the top couple of picks, and Chicago picked seventh. If the Fire were going to pick him, they thought they would have to trade up.
Luckily for the Fire, Nyarko had a sub-par MLS Combine (he had gum surgery early in the week, which prevented him from participating in many of the drills). When the seventh pick rolled around, Nyarko was still there, just as the Fire hoped.
Nyarko wasn’t the goal scorer the Fire hoped he would be, but he hasn't been a bust either.
He joined the Fire in May after he finished his junior year. After playing spot minutes at forwardhis rookie year, the Fire coaching staff figured out they would be better served with Nyarko playing in the midfield.
“I thought he would be a decent scorer in the league. I don’t think he’s ever been the most clinical finisher,” Jeffries said. “Patrick’s pretty unpredictable when he has the ball, and he’s a pretty good passer. I think he’s very awkward to defend against because he can change directions very quickly.”
Nyarko has developed into one of the more productive wingers in MLS, leading the Fire in assists in both 2010 and 2011.
In 2011, the Fire traded Calen Carr for Oduro, a native of Accra, Ghana. The two have known each other ever since Oduro, who went to Virginia Commonwealth for two years, found out there was a Ghanaian player at Virginia Tech. They talked on the phone and exchanged text messages once every few months, and Oduro gave him advice about joining MLS.
Now that they are teammates, they speak to each other exclusively in Twi and go out for Ghanaian food once a week or so.
“It’s been great having him here, it’s more comfortable,” Nyarko said. “It keeps you in tune with your background. In the past, it’s been two languages in the locker room, English and Spanish. We’ve added one more.”
Nyarko’s career hasn’t been without setbacks. Concussions sidelined him for extended periods of time in 2008 and 2010. There is a possibility that he suffered a third concussion at the end of 2010, but it wasn’t diagnosed because the season was over.
His concussion early in 2011, though, put his career in jeopardy.
Nyarko laid down in his bedroom in April with the light off, day after nauseating day, staring at the ceiling. Sometimes he’d listen to music, but he made sure he kept the volume low.
After the he collided heads with a Colorado defender in an April reserve game, the piercing headaches and nausea just wouldn’t go away. He wouldd trudge into his living room a few times a day to watch TV even though doctors advised him not to. He just couldn’t bear the boredom.
“It was just about finding something to do instead of being in a dark room for 24 hours. I don’t know anyone can do that,” Nyarko said. “It was just miserable. It’s the worst kind of injury to have because you can’t really have a life during that period.”
He went to practice every day even though he couldn’t participate in any type of physical activity that would raise his blood pressure. He would simply sit on the sideline with a hat shading his sensitive eyes. Still, it was good to get out of his apartment.
The only thing keeping him sane some days were phone conversations with Ilene, who refers to Patrick as her son.
“Some days you just wake up sad. For that month, it’s just absolutely bad,” Nyarko said. “It’s just encouraging to know that someone’s thinking about you enough to ask you how you’re feeling. That in itself helps you feeling positive.”
The concussions weren't Nyarko’s first encounter with a painful injury. Playing pick-up soccer on the dirt and gravel fields of Kumasi, it’s typical to grit through pain. He arrived at Virginia Tech with a bad sports hernia and played the entire season in excruciating pain. The next year he had bone spurs in his foot.
But concussions are a whole different, life-altering animal.
He knows that with all of the recent research on concussions, a more few knocks to the head could have serious, maybe even career-ending implications.
“I try to turn a blind eye to it just to avoid the fears,” Nyarko said. “It does worry me. In training and in games I try as much as possible to avoid collisions to the head, even with the ball. I try to control the ball with any other part of my body than my head.”
Still, if his soccer career ended today, it would have to be considered a success. Especially considering how far Nyarko has come, and considering his humble beginnings.
Not long ago, just having cleats was considered a luxury. His father bought him one pair when he was young, and he had to tape them together over and over because he didn’t know when he’d get a new pair. Most days, he’d play barefoot because he coveted that pair of shoes.
These days, shoes have become an obsession for Nyarko. He owns more than 30 pairs.
But more than shoes, soccer has given Nyarko a life in the United States, a second family, and the chance to pursue what once seemed like a distant fantasy. Without a chance meeting, he would almost certainly still be in Ghana. And he probably wouldn’t be playing soccer.
“There were so many good players,” Nyarko said of Ghana. “If I say good players, I mean really good players. If they got good training and good coaching, they would way better.
“I found myself in the right place at the right time.”