Sixty percent of South African children are growing up without a father in their household. Ubuntu Football is a non-profit soccer academy with a focus on mentoring and educating the next generation of leaders in South Africa. Starting with boys at 11-years-old and investing in them for the next 7+ years of their life, Ubuntu provides elite soccer training, a quality education through their own independent school, mentorship and leadership training, and a loving home at the academy residence. While it would be amazing if one of the Ubuntu players became the next great soccer star, the real hope is that through their mentorship and education, they will become great fathers, community leaders, and role models for the future of South Africa.
This series is dedicated to sharing their stories.
When COVID hit I really was not sure if I would be able to attend school in the US. My visa wasn’t ready, my passport wasn’t ready, and neither was my unabridged birth certificate – never mind that there were no flights for three months.
Calem Tommy was set to start his junior year this fall in Lake Placid, New York when the coronavirus pandemic hit South Africa and the country went into lockdown.
Kloof Street in Cape Town, March 2020
Everything just fell into place at the last few moments before I planned to leave. After lots of battles with the South African home affairs, we managed to get everything that was needed in order for me to be successful in America, — Tommy said.
This was not the first challenge Calem had come across in his football career, but in his mind it’s all part of the process. “One of the most important lessons that I learnt at Ubuntu is to trust the process, even if sometimes you feel like everything is against you,” he said.
For a player who was on the path to a professional career, Calem’s football background isn’t all that traditional. He was only 9-years-old when he started playing for a local club near his grandparents’ home called Evertonians FC. It was after that year of playing Calem realized he wasn’t all that interested in soccer, and he quickly pivoted to cricket. He took a 3 year break from the sport, until one day a conversation with a man in his home who was repairing the family gas top altered his course.
Everything changed from there,” Calem said. “This man was so much older than me, and I was so curious as to why he had so much soccer equipment in his car if he was working as a gas top installer.
As the conversation went on, Calem found out he was actually a coach at a soccer team near his home. From there, he joined a team called Tramways, where he managed to gain recognition from the coaches at Ubuntu Football in his first match back in 3 years.
I was so nervous. I was showcasing my skills in front of so many coaches that I’d only ever seen on the television screen. After 6 days of trials, I managed to get invited to the Academy. That experience molded and shaped me into the football player and man I am today, — Calem said of Ubuntu.
When Calem talks about his time at the Academy, the ups and downs of the rollercoaster ride are real.
Those were six of the toughest yet most memorable years of my life, and I would not have chosen to play my junior years any other place. During those years of ups and downs, I began to realize the importance of my education as an aspiring footballer.
After a major knee injury put Calem on the sidelines in 2019, he decided to use that as motivation to think about the long term play.
It impacted my decision to come to America, ultimately because I thought more in depth about life after football. It changed my perspective of the importance of education, and made me realize that I need to be secure in that as well as continuing to pursue my footballing career.
Calem’s main goal at the Northwood School is to get good grades, focus on training, and try to get as much exposure to colleges as possible to prepare for the next chapter of his life.
I felt that it was the right time to make the move and I am glad that I made it,” Calem said. “Although everything isn’t sunshine and roses, it’s important to put yourself in uncomfortable situations in order to prepare for life in the football world and outside of the football world.
Back in Cape Town, Calem is missing his mother, Natasha, his father, Charlton, and his younger sister, Logan. When he isn’t on the pitch you can find him socializing outside and playing spikeball or foursquare with new friends.
If you had to eat one thing every meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
“It would have to be the slice of pizza we had in NYC. It just hits differently.”
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Photo Credit: Stennett Smith (Author)