ONE GOAL tells the inspiring story of a city and its high school soccer team—the Blue Devils of Lewiston, Maine—and how their quest for a state championship title united a city that had undergone dramatic change after thousands of Somali refugees resettled there.
Lewiston is an economically struggling, overwhelmingly white, Catholic, mill town in one of the whitest states in America, and racial tensions hit a fever pitch as longtime residents and newcomers were uneasy living side by side with their new neighbors. They spoke a different language and practiced a different religion, and matters weren’t helped when the mayor asked Somalis to stop coming. Lewiston’s long history with French-Canadian immigrant factory workers did nothing to dispel myths about the Somalis, despite the constant reiterations of reality from city officials, community leaders, and teachers like Ronda Fournier and high school soccer coach Mike McGraw. But McGraw, who had come close to a state title back in 1991, began to see how newcomers like Shobow Saban could help lead the way, and integrated the refugee kids onto his team. If he could put the rules of the game to work for his increasingly diverse team, perhaps the community would follow in their footsteps, and perhaps their shared passion for soccer would help heal old wounds.
The following is adapted from One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together by Amy Bass, published by Hachette Books. Copyright © Amy Bass 2018.
Soccer lends itself to a particular kind of teamwork. It is a game of continuity, with more flow than ruptures. It doesn’t reorganize after a whistle, like basketball, or have a to-do list like the innings of a baseball game. To score in soccer, a team has to move the ball through an enormous amount of space, making decisions about who will take it where, from the first touch until someone sends it hurtling toward the net. Just by doing what a soccer team was supposed to do, the Blue Devils could become an example to the community.
Ronda Fournier, an assistant principal at Montello, often heard McGraw talk about “the ball” as she watched him adapt to change. An unapologetic “girl from the backwoods,” Fournier grew up in Sabattus, a small town just a stone’s throw from Lewiston, and attended Oak Hill High School, where football reigns supreme. A three-sport athlete herself—field hockey, basketball, and softball—she studied education at the University of New England and eventually landed in the biology classroom next to McGraw.
“He’s a really special man,” she says, smiling, a heavy Maine accent soaking every word. “You know? We are all blessed to have him as a part of our lives.”
Over the years, she got to know a lot of soccer players. If McGraw stepped out for a moment, they knocked on her door instead.
“Mrs. Fournier, you gonna let us in so we can put away our soccer gear?” they’d ask. “Yep, no problem,” she’d answer. “I’ll put it in for ya.”
Over the course of ten years, she and the coach developed a close working relationship. Few people had a better view to see how McGraw developed his winning formula.
“I remember him telling me of how difficult it was in the beginning, but it was all about the soccer.”
By prioritizing the game, she says, McGraw could make sure “the other stuff just didn’t interfere.” They didn’t have to have conversations about where a player was from, or what religion he practiced, or what language he spoke, or what his family had been through. Instead, they could focus on what a kid could do on the pitch.
McGraw, the players still joke, doesn’t care where they’re from as long as they pass the ball. “I watched Mike in the classroom for years. I see him out on the coaching field, and he does the same thing,” says Fournier. “He takes a kid’s strength, and he helps that kid use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses. He shows how they’re related, so that a kid can capitalize.”
Fournier pauses. “Any kid,” she says, and then waits another moment before repeating it, with emphasis. “Any. Kid.”
Fournier knows well the challenges of teaching here, but she doesn’t see the Somali influx as anything other than Lewiston being Lewiston. The newest immigrants have needs, just like those who came before them, and it is the schools’ job to meet them.
“It started with the French-Canadians, right?” she says.
Her own grandmother came from Canada, her grandfather from Scotland. They worked full-time shifts at the Rubber Heel, a long-gone shoe manufacturing plant in Sabattus, while growing cucumbers for the Litchfield pickle plant as a side job.
“You know, Lewiston’s gonna be kind of rough,” she remembers people saying when she first considered the job in 2005. “Things are going to be different—you sure you want to go teach there?”
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it matters where the kids come from,” she told them, shrugging off the comments. “They all need the same thing.”
She knew what people were too polite to come right out and say. Lewiston kids, among the poorest in the state, were considered problematic well before the Somalis came. But now, according to rumors, things were worse. Kids praying in the hallway, speaking different languages, dressing in “weird” clothes, eating “strange” foods. But Fournier didn’t care what anyone thought they knew about Lewiston High School. Teaching was teaching.
“To me, it didn’t matter at all,” she says. “Kids need love, they all need to know that somebody cared about them. And now they all want to play soccer.”
Fournier relied on McGraw for advice to help his players in her classes. He used the same strategies in the classroom he did on the field, emphasizing teamwork, urging her to call on a struggling student’s classmates to help. There was no question McGraw knew what was best for the players, academically, on the field, or just walking down the hallway.
But McGraw, too, faced challenges. Names no longer rolled off his tongue, and at times he resorted to calling players by their numbers until he became more familiar with pronunciations. The high school yearbook showed just how rapidly surnames in Lewiston were changing; the “A” section of class photos grew quickly because of Somali surnames. In the early days, aside from class photos, the soccer pages were the only place Somali students appeared. They weren’t photographed at prom. There were no casual photographs of them hanging in hallways or jumping around during Spirit Week. No one paid to put their baby picture in the back pages because such photos didn’t exist; if they did, there was no money for such things.
But on the soccer field, Somali students started to lay claim, quickly becoming the majority of the varsity roster. As McGraw strategized his so-called advantage of the ball to integrate the team, he also helped incorporate the new students into the culture of the high school. He didn’t think twice about it—the game came first, and trust worked both ways. He knew that when those first Somali students came to talk to him about playing, some level of trust was established. But he had to make it grow.
McGraw knew that whatever happened on the field— teamwork, communication, patience, and persistence—could impact the community as a whole. But it was going to take some serious coaching, and not just in terms of scoring goals. There’d been animosity and growing pains—all of his players had stories. Hallway skirmishes. Standoffs in the cafeteria. “Go Back to Africa,” among other things, scrawled on bathroom walls or in the dirt on car windows. White kids telling Somali kids that they paid for their shoes, their food, and their apartments. Fights in the parking lot. Teachers who showed Black Hawk Down in class or reminded students that their behavior wasn’t acceptable “in this country.” McGraw knew he had to do more than yell “together” from the sideline. Moving together, winning together wasn’t going to solve the world’s problems. But it was a first step. What, he wondered, was the next step?
Shobow remembers it well. It happened on a hot day in the early fall of his freshman year. McGraw saw the players getting ready as he approached the practice field. He watched them pulling up their long socks, strapping on shin guards, and huddled over cleats, trying to get knots out of tangled laces. They weren’t together, he realized, and there was a pattern. The Somali kids, Shobow included, sat in the shade by the garage, leaning against the cool bricks. The white kids were over in the sun, sitting around the light pole. Both groups were talking, separately. Both groups were getting ready, separately.
This, McGraw thought, has to change. It has to change right now. As the coach, he had to change it. He had no doubt he could succeed at making this better; this was one of his strengths. Soccer was the connector. He had to make them see that.
“I want you guys to come over here in the middle and sit,” he called as he walked over. They looked up, unsure of what he meant. He started pointing, moving players around, making sure they mixed up. Ali here, Jonny there.
“You!” McGraw roared, pointing at Shobow. His voice had yet to descend into its usual midseason rasp. “Come here—sit.”
Shobow hopped up almost instantly, not just because coach just told him to, but also because he realized what McGraw was trying to do. He wanted to bring them together. He wanted to help them be together. This, thought Shobow, was good.
McGraw continued to point, calling each of them out, until he was satisfied with the reconfiguration. Now they are speckled, he thought. Perfect. It was time to take an old-school idea of team and apply it to these players who sat before him. He wasn’t trying to save the world; he wanted to win. And to do that, he needed to build relationships, something he was good at. On the field, at least, he needed them to shed their identities—white, black, Muslim, Catholic, Franco, Somali, native, immigrant—and become something new: a team.
“Okay, this is how it’s gonna be,” McGraw started. “It has to be this way—this is how a team plays. This is how I want you to be on the field and off the field: together.”
The players looked at one another and began to relax. Almost immediately, McGraw noticed a change in their demeanors, their bodies, their faces.
“To play the game, you’re gonna have to play together. It’s the only way to play,” he continued.
He noticed some of them starting to smile. He was on to something. Keep going, he thought. Take it all the way.
“You’re going to have to talk to each other, because it’s the only way we’re gonna win,” he continued. “Sometimes our communities don’t understand each other, but you can show the adults how it is supposed to be. By playing together, that’ll send a message that our cultures can get along.”
But he knew it was going to take more than suiting up together. Learning how to be teammates, if not friends, was a process on and off the field.
“This is how I want you to look everywhere you go,” McGraw continued. “Everywhere. If you’re going to the store, if you’re going to class, you guys have to do it together. High-fives in the hallway. You need to hang out together. You don’t have to sit together in the cafeteria if you don’t want to, but you need to stick up for each other and be together. It’s a brotherhood.”
Wow, thought Shobow, stretching out his thin legs. From his new location on the grass, the sun on his back, he liked what he was hearing. He wanted his team to be united. A new sense of team spirit came across him, a deeper sense of connection. It was encouraging to hear Coach talk about this, to see him face it headon. Shobow knew from his friendship with Jonny how important this was.
McGraw finished his speech. It was time for practice. The players got up and started walking onto the field to warm up.
“Good job, Coach,” Shobow said to McGraw in a low voice as he walked past him, keeping his eyes down out of respect. “That was good.”
McGraw smiled, satisfied. For the next decade, it would be almost impossible to talk about Blue Devils soccer without referring to the day McGraw created his so-called speckled team, his constant sideline cry of “Together! Together!” taking on new meaning.
“How would you guys say it?” he asked a few Somalis on the team one day. “How would you say ‘together’?”
Pamoja ndugu, a few replied. It was Swahili, one of the many languages of the refugee camps. It meant “together brothers.”
It became their rallying cry. “One, two, three!” they shouted before every game, huddled together, hands in the middle, McGraw at the center. “PAMOJA NDUGU!”