Two years ago, Daniel De Souza resigned his job as soccer coach at a community college in Bristol, England, crossed over the “pond” and took over the reins as soccer coach at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, a school that hadn’t won a state championship in any sport for 26 years.
A native of Ghana, De Souza brought years of “futbol” experience with him—he had played semi-pro soccer in both Europe and Africa before a knee injury cut his career short—but he inherited an inner-city program facing an uphill battle on several fronts.
Most pressing was lack of good nutrition for the players, some of whom came to school hungry and went home after practice the same way, having had little to eat all day. Add to that the dehydration resulting from constant running during practice, and the players found themselves physically drained most days.
Providentially, God provided De Souza with an answer to his players’ nutritional woes by feeding him breakfast as the 2010-11 school year began. He attended Oklahoma City, Northwest’s annual Teacher Appreciation Breakfast, along with fellow teachers from Northwest Classen, and he met Allen Marks, NWBC’s director of community outreach that morning. Marks told the coach to let him know if the church could do anything for him and his team.
That sincere offer of assistance led to De Souza revealing the team’s nutritional woes to Marks, who conferred with Senior Pastor Ben Brammer, and the church’s congregants soon had basically adopted the soccer team.
“The church provided nutritional energy bars and electrolyte replacement drinks for the players, along with fresh fruit such as bananas, oranges and apples,” De Souza said. “The players’ performance began to improve almost immediately.”
The Knights posted a 17-2 record during the 2011 season, and were ranked as high as 22nd in the country, De Souza said. Still, the Class 5A state title, which was claimed by Tulsa Cascia Hall, eluded them.
Soon after the season ended, the church hosted a banquet for the high school soccer team, which saw nine seniors graduate. As De Souza took a look at his returning roster, he knew the 2012 season would be difficult, with nine starters having to be replaced. But, he saw other challenges as well.
“The challenges from a soccer standpoint were, first, the fact that we lost so many quality players from the year before. We lost nine seniors, who were all starters,” De Souza said.
“Another challenge was bringing in the new players who were not starters—seven of them—and helping them realize they were no longer bench players. And, I didn’t know how many of my players were going to have to be working after school to help out their families.
“We also had a lot of injuries during the season, so that made it quite difficult.
“Now, the part where Northwest Baptist came in and made a huge impact on our team, is that the church provided us with a lot of support. And when I say a lot of support, I mean they provided us with sports drinks and energy bars, and fresh fruit. It was a constant flow of that from the church. They also provided some pre-game meals.
“The bananas were very important for the potassium and electrolytes they provide to the players, who run as much as eight to 10 miles—usually at a sprint—during a game. They have to have the electrolytes or they face serious damage to their health.”
This season, the Knights started slowly as injuries mounted and the players adjusted to their new roles. But, with their nutrition woes solved, thanks to the church, the coach was free to focus on crystalizing the team into a unified force that eventually reached the pinnacle when they posted a 3-2, double-overtime victory over Cascia Hall on May 12 to claim the school’s first state title since the Knights’ boys basketball team won it all 27 years ago in 1985.
But, it didn’t come easy, De Souza said.
Another challenge he faced this year was, simply put, the make-up of the team itself.
“I had players from all over the world,” the coach explained. “One kid who was a Burmese refugee. Refugees from the Sudan, Eritrea and the Congo and others from Mexico and Guatemala.
“At the beginning of the season, each of them held on to their cultural background very strongly. The challenge for me was how to bring all of those different people together into one unit. How to put all of the factions together to work together for one goal, one dream.
“It was a special year, I have to tell you. I’m not sure how we did it. I think sometimes, you lead by example. That’s very, very important. You don’t only say things, but you show it. That’s what you see in Northwest Baptist. They recognized a need we had and took care of it. The church has been phenomenal.”
De Souza said his players also inspired him by their efforts this season.
“The players were very dedicated and, sometimes, I had to tell them to go home when they stayed so long working out after school,” he said.
That work ethic has paid off for several of them.
Of the eight soccer team seniors who graduated this year, seven are going to college next fall on full athletic scholarships. Four will attend Southwestern Christian University in Bethany; two are headed to Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa, and one will go to Oklahoma City University.
“That’s a life-changing opportunity for them,” De Souza said. “It goes back to the fact that when you have a group of people with varied backgrounds and they can put their differences aside and work together for a common goal, that’s very inspirational and touching.
“The true American story here is the fact that people need to see each other as one in God, no matter what our differences are. That we are able to put those differences aside and help each other and to come together as one and when we are able to do that, we are able to achieve anything we put our minds to.”
Part of that story has been Oklahoma City, Northwest’s investment in the young soccer players and their veteran coach. Their ministry has affected a total of 45 players, including 22 on the NWC varsity this season and 23 on the junior varsity, some of whom will step up next year and try to bring home the Knights’ 16th overall state championship and second in-a-row in soccer.
The ministry not only has affected the soccer team, but other students have been impacted as well.
“I had other students come up and ask if there were any more bananas or other fruit left at the end of the day,” De Souza revealed. “There are a lot of hungry students here who also have been helped.”
“NWBC has been a really great source of change for us,” De Souza concluded. “I like what this church is doing; I like what this church is about; that they put God first. They don’t just talk about it. Seeing what God has done in my life and how God has blessed me, I accepted Christ and decided to get baptized. I felt a need to be a part of this church.”