College of William and Mary men’s soccer Head Coach Chris Norris remembers when sophomore Nat Baako saw his first hallmark of Williamsburg — a squirrel.
The two had just met in Richmond and Norris was driving Nat around campus when a squirrel scampered across the street. Having never seen one before, Nat asked Norris, “What is that?”
“That’s a squirrel, they’re all over the place here,” Norris told him. “You will see lots of those.”
Moments later Nat asked: “Is it harmful?”
It was then that Norris realized that both he and Nat were in unchartered territory.
Nat arrived on campus five days into preseason practice in August 2007. He carried one suitcase with him. Inside were his favorite clothes, some money, a youth soccer medal and family photos. Everything else remained at home in Ghana — everything except Nat’s smile.
“The first thing you notice about him is he laughs easily, he smiles a lot and he’s got an infectious personality, so we hit it off right away,” Norris said.
Nat left behind 20 family members — including his mom, dad, two brothers and two sisters — in a shared, 11-room house in Tamatoku, Ghana. His father, David, trades locally-harvested salt and his mother sells produce at a local market. Nat’s family rose at 4 a.m. everyday to prepare for work, but Nat got to sleep in — until 6:30 a.m. — before departing for school.
He attended classes daily, during which he anxiously waited for the 10:30 a.m. break when the entire school hustled to claim a soccer field. Teams that score the first goal get to stay on. Everyone else sits.
It was this love of soccer that sent Nat over 5,000 miles to the College.
Nat first heard of the College in April 2007 when his youth soccer coach, who happened to have connections to the Tribe via Virginia Tech University Head Coach Oliver Weiss, encouraged Nat to obtain a much-coveted visa and apply to the College.
Nat’s father, David, decided to allow his son to give it a shot because of the College’s sterling academic reputation. If his son wasn’t going to get an education, he wasn’t going to let him go.
Nat prepared to leave his friends, family, culture and country behind.
First up was securing a visa to attend school internationally. Nat had a five-minute meeting scheduled with a government counselor at the American embassy in Accra. His meeting only lasted one minute. In those 60 seconds, Nat had to detail his academic credentials and convince the counselor he could finance his time in America.
“I was definitely nervous and I was young, so I was obliged to go with my dad,” Nat said. “My dad was nervous. He didn’t actually want to talk to the counselor, so I had to go on my own.”
In the spirit of their Christian faith, his family fasted the day before the interview, sacrificing for Nat’s goal. Their sacrifice worked — and Nat was Williamsburg-bound.
“I was really excited and so relieved,” Nat said. “I don’t think I will feel that way ever again. It was amazing.”
His family congregated at a local restaurant that night — a family tradition typically reserved for special holidays. They rejoiced in Nat’s success and discussed his upcoming adventure, offering Nat advice about what to expect in America.
Outside his family, only his best friend Hassan Kulog Mohammed knew of Nat’s plans. Nat was advised by Ghana’s government and his father to keep his departure a secret (the government didn’t want Nat to fail and his father felt superstitious), leaving friends in the dark until the day of his flight.
David and the rest of Nat’s family successfully kept the secret.
“You want to think that your son or daughter pursues his education and opportunities. We realized an additional talent of soccer in him,” his father David, who still lives in Ghana, said in an interview over Skype.
“We gave him all the support we could to let him capture that talent. He excels both academically and on the field of play and that is why I am very proud of him.”
In Ghana, it is nearly impossible to get both a college education and continue playing soccer at a competitive level. Ghanaian collegiate soccer does not operate like the NCAA, as there are no conferences, only a national tournament. The College offered Nat a first-rate education and competitive athletics, which satisfied David’s preconditions.
“We Africans think of the United States as a place where the best can come from, a place where, in the case of both soccer and academics, all the instruments [exist] to make a serious person like Nat [best discover] all his talents,” David said.
David always required Nat, his two brothers and his two sisters to put school first and everything else second.
“My father made sure the better I did in class, the more time he gave me to play soccer,” Nat said. “He knew I loved soccer. He knew I couldn’t leave the game.”
Growing up in Ghana, Nat played on youth soccer clubs, advancing to the national level and earning a scholarship to enroll at the C.K. Gyamfi Academy for soccer at age 11. The academy was one of the best in the Accra region of Ghana. There, Nat boarded while playing soccer and attending Winneba Secondary School, a 15-minute walk away.
Of the 24 students in his class at the academy, Nat was the only athlete to make the jump to the United States. Nat was one of few Ghanaians who was capable of making the leap both on the field and academically, as his grades and SAT scores made it possible for him to come to the College. Nat is one of only three Ghanaians in the CAA.
To the Ghanaian people, soccer encompasses more than just wins and losses. It’s about beauty, finesse and companionship. Nat has noticed that Ghanaian sentiment runs counter to the American focus on winning at the sacrifice of appreciating the game.
“It is one sport that when people get involved, especially with the international team, everyone’s problems, whether social, tribal, political are put aside,” Nat said. “It is a unifying partner in the country. Even the old women know the starters on the national team.”
Nat, a member of the Ga-Adangbe tribe, appreciates both his country and the game, aspiring to be part of the Ghanaian national team, the Black Stars, after college. Nat is also considering pursuing his CPA or attending graduate school to obtain his MBA.
“Playing on the [national] team means, first of all, a lot of pride,” Nat said. “That is what we live for, pride.
They are the heroes of the nation. It is almost like a government leader. If you are on the team, you are an executive of the nation. You are the source of joy, you give the people hope. That is what every kid works for and looks at.
“You don’t play for the money, you play for the Ghanaian part of you.”
Nat’s optimistic attitude is shared by most people of Ghana — a country known as the “Gateway to Africa.” His acceptance of different cultures has allowed him to adapt to the melting pot that Americans so readily take for granted.
Norris said Nat has performed “extremely well” in the College’s classrooms. His play on the pitch has been solid as well. Nat started every match as a freshman and provides the Tribe with a burst of infectious energy and heady play in the midfield.
Despite becoming assimilated so quickly, Nat still feels the pangs of homesickness. He hasn’t returned to Ghana since his August 2007 arrival at the College and says he misses his family deeply. These occasional bouts of sadness, however, haven’t affected his trademark personality.
Even though he’s an ocean from home, he’s still smiling.