Soccer ball

Makeshift soccer ball shaped one of Iowa’s greatest soccer players

One of Leroy Enzugusi’s favorite soccer balls is made up of crumpled plastic shopping bags linked together by strings. Enzugusi, who recovered the ball on a trip to his home country Kenya as a child, traded his own soccer ball for it.

The makeshift ball was created by children playing in a park near the apartment of Enzugusi’s aunt and uncle in Kenya. It also helped to create a lifelong love for the sport.

“I wanted to be like them because they were good at football,” Enzugusi said. “I was like, ‘Maybe if I use this ball I’ll be as good as them.'”

Enzugusi, who joined the group of about 20 kids playing football that day, was so impressed that he was inspired by it. So that evening, he returned home and proudly showed his balloon to his mother, Sibil.

It was then that she realized it. He was addicted to football.

“From that point on, he changed,” Sibil said. “He said, ‘I play football. “

Drake senior forward Leroy Enzugusi stops the ball in the second half midfield against Chicago's Loyola on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 at Drake Stadium in Des Moines.  Enzugusi was drafted by Nashville SC earlier this year.

He never stopped.

And his plan to be as good as those kids failed. Enzugusi trained to be one of the best soccer players in the state and one of the best in Drake’s soccer history. Now the Bulldogs senior, who was selected by Nashville SC in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft earlier this year, is set to begin his professional career.

And it all started that day and with this little homemade soccer ball.

“It’s really amazing,” said his father, Jonathan.

Fall in love with football

Drake senior forward Leroy Enzugusi moves the ball up in the first half against Chicago's Loyola on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 at Drake Stadium in Des Moines.  Enzugusi was a star at Linn-Mar High School before coming to Drake.

Enzugusi was born in Kenya. His father, who was an electrical engineer, said it was not uncommon for families around them to be so broken up that household hunger was rampant. About 36 percent of the country’s people live in poverty.

“It can be very difficult for others,” said Jonathan.

Jonathan moved his family to South Africa and then America after winning a Green Card Lottery, a program to receive a United States Permanent Resident Card. Leroy Enzugusi was 6 when his parents found a home in Tennessee and then Mississippi. They moved to Marion, Iowa, when Jonathan got an engineering job with Alliant Energy.

Her son, who spent most of his childhood in the United States, returned to Kenya every few years to visit his family.

One of those trips took place in 2007 when Leroy was around 12 years old. The visit lasted almost a month. It impacted his life forever.

After spending so much time in the United States, Enzugusi grew up wanting to play popular American sports like soccer and basketball. But when they returned to Kenya that summer, his parents told him how popular football was.

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“He took a soccer ball and he had cleats with him because we told him the football there is big,” said Sibil. “So he was ready. He said he was going to go to a club. (He said) ‘I want to play’ and we kept telling him ‘There really is no club. He doesn’t. ‘there is no organized club.’ “

Enzugusi, who spotted around 20 neighborhood children playing soccer in a park, jumped into one of the matches. He quickly realized he was out of place. He remembers that many children had so little that they played without shoes. The ball was made up of connected shopping bags. Enzugusi took off his crampons and played in his socks. He then traded his soccer ball for one of the homemade balls.

“I was like ‘Maybe if I use this ball I’ll be as good as them’,” recalls Enzugusi.

“Maybe if I don’t play with my shoes, I’ll be as good as them.”

He was immediately drawn to the sport. When Enzugusi returned to the United States later that summer, he signed up for as many football teams as he could. He also started training on his own using the small but special ball to hone his skills.

“It’s like a little ball,” Enzugusi said. “It’s not perfect when you kick it in the air, so you have to adjust your foot perfectly. This is your first contact in football. So it just cleans up your first contact. So, then, when you go to a perfect ball, it’s easy. ”

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Leroy Enzugusi was named Des Moines Register's 2016 Male Football Player of the Year. Enzugusi met NFL quarterback Peyton Manning at the event.

An unrecognized star: “Why someone hasn’t seen him is beyond me”

Ahead of Enzugusi’s first season at Drake, Bulldogs coach Gareth Smith asked him to buy a notebook and write down some of his goals. One of the first he noticed: becoming a professional footballer. It seemed a bit far-fetched at the time. Enzugusi was a football star in Linn-Mar who ended his career with 57 goals and 39 assists and helped the Lions win the 2015 Class 3A title.

But despite all this success and despite playing for Sporting KC as a senior, Enzugusi has been overlooked.

He only had two scholarship offers outside of high school: Chicago’s Loyola and Drake. Smith said part of the reason is that he’s from small town Iowa. He also believes that by the time most schools adopted Enzugusi, the teams had already used their scholarship money. Resuming football so late also didn’t help his cause. But the fact that so many schools missed it still puzzles Enzugusi high school coach Corey Brinkmeyer.

“Why someone hasn’t seen it is beyond me,” said Brinkmeyer.

So wanting to be close to home, Enzugusi signed up to Drake and set himself the goal of becoming a pro. It didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to realize that maybe he was on the right track.

Enzugusi, who joined the starting lineup in first year, led the team in goals in their first three seasons with five in 2017 and eight in 2018 and 2019. In January, Enzugusi was selected by Nashville SC in the third round. Drake, who had six players selected in the MLS Extra Draft, had never had a player selected in the SuperDraft, until Enzugusi.

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“He’s a winner from a mentality standpoint,” Smith said.

The future looks bright for Enzugusi, a data analytics specialist who plans to graduate next month. The notebook that Smith urged him to get is full of workouts, memorable moments, goals, and scribbles.

Enzugusi still has it, still has the soccer ball he got in Kenya and still has his dream of playing professional football.

He chose his major as a replacement to continue working in the sport, just in case the football didn’t work out.

Nevertheless …

“Football is going to be successful,” Enzugusi said.

Tommy Birch, the Register’s featured sports company and reporter, has worked for the newspaper since 2008. He is the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sports Writer of the Year. Contact him at [email protected] or 515-284-8468. Follow him on twitter @TommyBirch.