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Oct 6, 2007

Cisse prospers in his new homeland

El Hadj Cisse was 14, and he was walking home from school with his best friend Mamadou Sylia in the Ivory Coast. Their conversation should've been about soccer, school or girls, but they did not have the luxury of indulging in such trivial topics since their home country was embroiled in a violent civil war. Innocence and youth were lost that day as Sylia was tragically shot that day, and did not make it home from school.

That sequence of events led Vakaba Cisse to send his son to the United States to live with his brother in New York. There, El Hadj Cisse would be able to pursue an education, and although deciphering the English language would be difficult for his son, it was a more preferable dilemma than worrying about getting home from school unscathed.

Cisse just wanted to play soccer. Yes, he was safer in the United States, but he didn't really care much about school. Despite his fluidity in four other languages, English was hard. His best lessons in the language came in 7 vs. 7 games, not in any classroom. In fact, he traded soccer lessons with his pals for tutoring in English and American culture.

But arriving in the United States in 2000 did not solve all of his problems. Cisse's uncle was not interested in furthering his education as his parents wished. Instead, he insisted that Cisse get a job and pay him rent. Home and the warm embrace of his parents were a thousand miles away, and like Robert Heinlein's character Valentine Michael Smith, Cisse was a stranger in a strange land.

With parents he could only talk to on the phone once a week with a $5 phone card and no other family in the U.S. to lean on, soccer was Cisse's companion. Through a club coach he got into foster care where he connected with his advisor, Shawn Lewis, in the same way that thousands of others with hearts the size of wrecking balls do every day in that profession. She, along with his foster mother, Bakairi Sadiat, got Cisse interested in school just like his parents had originally hoped. They convinced him that he could in fact grow as a soccer player and pursue a career as a professional while concurrently advancing his education.

With things in order academically, he landed at N.C. State and has starred for the Wolfpack. He has started every game and scoring 15 goals and five assists in his three-plus seasons in the Wolfpack midfield. It's been a reprieve for someone who has been isolated and disoriented to now be in a place where he is welcome and understood.

"N.C. State is my new family," Cisse says. "They showed me love -- they wanted to be my family. I've learned more at N.C. State than any other time in my life."

Happy at N.C. State, there were still flashes of moments when Cisse ached to be with his parents. At the ceremonies where Mom and Dad stand proudly behind their child when they receive an award or recognition, Cisse stood alone. Phone cards weren't as easy to come by in Raleigh as they were in New York, so his contact home was limited to about once a month or so. But finally, in January 2007, seven years after his parents sent him away from home to avoid danger, he returned.

"My dad was with my brother at the airport, and he saw me instantly and knew me," Cisse recalls. "My brother was only five when I left, so he didn't really recognize me. My dad hugged me and told me, 'I'm glad you're back safe. You're not a kid. I sent a kid, and you returned a man.'" They returned to his house, and the sight of the young man made his mother cry consistently for days.

The next day, Cisse tried to reconnect with his younger brother at a local restaurant over breakfast. His younger brother was now 12, just two years shy of when Cisse moved to the United States.

"I told him if he ever got the same opportunity as I did to take it, and to not give up," Cisse said. "Even if you don't know the language, and your uncle deserts you, and you don't want to go to school, don't give up. You're not a quitter. I told him I didn't want to let Dad down -- Dad didn't raise a quitter."

As part of his three-week stay at home, he arranged soccer tournaments in two nearby towns. There were five teams of 20-30 players, and they played small goal. Because he was gone for so long he had no real friends to visit or catch up with, but he smiled because soccer was still soccer no matter where he went.

"It was weird because I didn't have any friends and I was the new guy in my home town," he says. "Doing the soccer tournament was fun, though, because it just made so many people happy."

Even though the civil war has ended, Cisse does not plan to return to his home country for good after he wraps up his collegiate career in Raleigh this year -- he's settled here in the U.S. and has no interest in being the new guy again. He will, however, visit more than once every seven years. He intends on playing soccer professionally, and he's proven so far that there's not much out there he can't handle. Besides, dad didn't raise a quitter.

Adam Zundell is a contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at azundell@yahoo.com.