HARTFORD – — When Methembe Ndlovu was growing up in Zimbabwe, he thought he had to make a choice at 16: play football or go to school.
In Zimbabwe, he couldn’t do both at a high level. Both of his parents were teachers; they wanted him to continue his studies. Ndlovu wanted to play football.
One day, at a football practice, a man from the United States showed up. He talked about colleges in America and how Ndlovu could play and go to school.
This moment changed his life.
“I like to say I’m one of the luckiest guys,” Ndlovu said.
Football and education took him all over the world – to Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, where he first saw snow and was a four-time Ivy League player, to play football professionally , to train the second most popular football player. in Zimbabwe, to help launch a program combining AIDS and HIV education with football.
Today, 49-year-old Ndlovu returns to New England for his first year coaching the men’s soccer team at Trinity College. Former coach Mike Pilger retired after 18 seasons in November after the Bantams went 3-11-1 last season.
“I spent my early years in the United States on the East Coast, so it always felt a bit like home in the United States,” said Ndlovu, who has served as an assistant at Notre Dame and Penn State. . “I had a very high regard for [the NESCAC] so when this opportunity came up, i thought it might be a good choice.
Ndlovu started playing football as a boy. He grew up in a town called Bulawayo in the southwest of Zimbabwe.
“I was a very committed athlete, but my parents told me: ‘You continue in school,'” he said. “I played with my club team when I could, which is unusual – my parents said if you kept those grades you could play club.
“Kids who really wanted to turn professional as football players, they trained in the morning and in the afternoon. I could only train in the afternoon after school. placed in a good position for American universities. I knew nothing about college, scholarships or financial aid. It was something that was not even a thought for me.
That is, until someone from Dartmouth comes to one of his practices. A man was teaching English at a local school and came to watch the club team play and asked to speak to Ndlovu, whom the coaches pointed out as a good student.
“He moved back to the States and started sending me SAT prep stuff,” Ndlovu said. “It was completely random.
“That’s why I say I’m one of the luckiest people. A year later another person came on the same kind of exchange to teach, so I developed a connection with the school and with the coach and prepared for the SATs and a few years later, I was in Hannover NH”
Ndlovu got off the plane at Logan Airport, not knowing anyone in the United States. An assistant coach named John O’Connor was there to greet him with a sign bearing his name. In a full-circle moment, on Oct. 16, Trinity will face Castleton University (Vt.), where O’Connor now coaches.
Ndlovu always assumed that he would play professionally and then become a teacher. But watching his college coach, Bobby Clark (who won a national championship at Notre Dame in 2013), he realized once again he could do both.
“Being exposed to the whole college atmosphere in the United States, it kind of started to plant in my head the idea that you could actually teach football for a living, it could be a career,” he said. -he declares.
He played for the Zimbabwe national team and in the United States for a professional team on Cape Cod. He had the chance, for 2 and a half years, to coach his favorite childhood team, the Highlanders, and they won the Zimbabwe national title.
He was also the co-founder of a program called Grassroots Soccer, which sought to educate young people in Zimbabwe about AIDS and HIV using soccer as a vehicle. Zimbabwe has the fifth highest HIV rate in the world.
“It’s a subject that can be difficult to bring up with young people, so football was just a tool for engagement,” he said. “I’m still involved. When I moved here, I had become the CEO of Africa. I was doing programs in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa for Grassroots, so when I left I transitioned into the board. And I just left the board this year, but I still remain involved behind the scenes.
“Our mission is to save lives. We have graduated over one million teenagers in 22 different countries since 2002. This means many young people have come through our programs, graduated and received life-saving information.
Trinity’s soccer practice started on Thursday. Earlier in the week, Ndlovu was eager to start.
“We want to improve every day,” he said. “And at the end of the season, we will end up where we belong. But what we want to do is work together as a group, on and off the pitch, with and without the ball, really be a team – if we take care of those little things, work together, play well, we Properly prepare for matches, the results will take care of themselves.
Lori Riley can be reached at [email protected]