After leaving Yemen for the United States, Ahmed Dalai quickly became obsessed with Richards’ football.
Dhalai wanted to play for the Bulldogs so badly that he showed up for a tryout when he was in sixth grade.
“All my friends were older then and they were talking about trying out,” Dhalai said. “At that time it was my second year in America and I thought I could just be on the team, but my friends told me I had to be in high school to play.
“I went to watch but when I saw everyone putting their cleats on I was like, ‘I can’t miss this’ so I said I was a freshman and I’m went over there.”
Dhalai caught the eye but knew he couldn’t continue the ruse.
“Coach thought I was good,” Dhalai said. “He was asking my friend who I was. My friend said to me, ‘Dude, you better not come tomorrow’. So I didn’t go back after that because I was only in sixth grade.
A few years later, however, Dhalai changed Richards’ story.
The junior forward led the Bulldogs this season to the program’s first regional championship.
Dhalai, the 2022 Daily Southtown Boys Football Player of the Year, scored a school record 35 goals and delivered nine assists. He also became the program leader in career goals with 67 heading into his senior season.
Dhalai was a regular spectator at Richards’ games when he was in college. He would dream of straightening out the troubled program.
“I was always going to watch them play,” Dhalai said. “It was something I couldn’t wait for. They were talking about the fact that Richards had never won a regional. I used to tell people that when I got to high school, I would help them win one.
After a pandemic-shortened freshman season, Dhalai raised eyebrows in second grade in 2021 with an output of 27 goals. But the Bulldogs only went 7-12-5 and lost 2-1 to Goode in a Class 2A Regional Championship game.
The success of the team was what Dhalai really wanted.
“After losing that regional, the next day I was on the court because I knew I had to do whatever it took to win that regional this season,” Dhalai said. “There was nothing that was going to stop us.
“During the summer, I worked night shifts from 12 p.m. to 9 a.m. I went directly to the field and I trained from 9 a.m. to noon. It was so hot and I would be tired after work, but I would go out and try to make myself feel good.
Rafal Slomba, coach of Richards saw that drive to Dhalai rub off on his teammates.
“Coming into this season, not only has he improved his IQ on the pitch and improved in some things that weren’t his strengths, but most importantly he’s become a leader,” said Slomba. “He understood that it takes a full roster to push a program in the right direction.
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“Sometimes when kids are at that level, they become complacent. But he was one of the hardest workers ever and he was always trying to improve.
Dhalai scored the only goal to bring host Richards to a 1-0 upset against Bremen in a Class 2A regional league game.
“We had a corner with about 15 minutes left and the ball hit a defender and was bouncing past the box,” Dhalai said. “I walked in and fired. Then we won 1-0. It’s something I will never forget. I’ve probably watched the video 1,000 times already.
“There are a lot of things to take away from this season. It will live forever.
Dhalai helped the Bulldogs, who finished 15-10-2, earn respect.
“People thought Richards was an easy game,” Dhalai said. “We wanted to show people that Richards was no longer an easy win. I said to the guys, ‘We’re going to change all that.’ »
Steve Millar is a freelance journalist for the Daily Southtown.