Zohn gets ball rolling on AIDS awareness

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Eccentric behavior is a key ingredient of reality television, but for "Survivor: Africa" champion Ethan Zohn, his most unusual exploits have been saved for his time away from our TV screens.

Dribbling a soccer ball 550 miles along the East Coast is not exactly a normal project to undertake. But Zohn, who won $1 million in Survivor's third series, is not exactly your average character.

After enduring 40 days in Kenya's Shaba National Reserve without having a single exit vote recorded against him in the popular reality show, Zohn deposited his check, bought some gifts for friends and family and threw himself into launching a charity project aimed at eradicating AIDS from the African population. With soccer being one of the key components of his life, it was no surprise he chose the world game to promote his cause.

Zohn's latest and most ambitious undertaking is Grassroot Soccer United Dribble 2008 in which he will travel from Foxboro, Mass., to Washington D.C. with a soccer ball at his feet over 100 days.

He was forced to call in reinforcements recently when injury struck while he was playing in a charity game. However, that apparent setback actually added a new dimension to the project, as some leading members of the American soccer community stepped up to help out.

Former U.S. men's national team star Jeff Agoos, U.S. women's Olympic gold medalist Heather O'Reilly and the New Jersey Ironmen of the Major Indoor Soccer League have all done their part to keep the ball rolling. Landon Donovan and Alexi Lalas have also lent support.

The American soccer community, from Major League Soccer downwards, has opened its arms to Zohn, recognizing him as one of its own.

Zohn played college soccer at Vassar and upon graduation was determined to pursue a pro career. His search took him to the Hawaii Tsunami and Cape Cod Crusaders of the United Soccer Leagues before a unique opportunity arose to play for the Bulawayo Highlanders in the Zimbabwe first division.

Soccer is tantamount to religion in the African nation and Zohn was thrust into an experience that permanently altered his outlook on life.

"The level of soccer I played in the U.S. meant there were no big crowds and there wasn't a really professional feel to it," Zohn said. "But out in Zimbabwe there is so much passion for the game and I wanted to sample that kind of experience.

"I came from a very middle-class, Boston upbringing. Out in Zimbabwe it was a total culture shock. Some games we would get 50,000 fans and I was one of only three white people in the stadium. It was an incredibly rewarding time."

During his stay in Zimbabwe in 1999 and 2000, he first became aware of the extent to which the AIDS epidemic has torn apart society in many African nations. Just over two years later, after winning his seven-figure prize on "Survivor: Africa," he was in a position to be able to help the cause he held dear.

"While I was in Africa I witnessed what was happening firsthand but didn't know what I could do about it," Zohn said. "What is happening is a tragedy, and one that people in the United States and other western countries need to be aware of.

"Grassroot Soccer is an organization where we train professional soccer players about HIV and AIDS, and then they go into the schools to teach the youth about AIDS prevention. We've been running it for six years now, we're in 15 countries [and] 250,000 kids have graduated."

The ultimate goal is to graduate 1 million African children ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Zohn believes the global nature of the event can greatly raise awareness of the AIDS crisis.

"We saw with the Olympic Games in China that people got to know of certain things that were going on that otherwise may not have been highlighted," he said. "I really hope that happens in Africa and I think it will if people care about the cause and push it into the spotlight."

Once his latest dribble ends Dec. 1 in the nation's capital, Zohn will take a well-earned vacation before turning his mind to the next step for his foundation. Further long-distance dribbles will follow, with a trip to the United Kingdom likely. If things go to plan, he'll take his cause to the 2010 World Cup and South Africa with a trek from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

"I don't find motivation a problem," Zohn said. "When you believe in something like I do, it keeps driving you forwards."

One step – and one kick – at a time.