Renken the next big thing for U.S. soccer
He still makes the lopsided soccer balls out of plastic bags.
And almost every day Charles Renken grabs one of them off his dresser, shifting it around in his hands, before dropping it to his feet for a few touches.
The soccer-crazed masses are already comparing him to his idol, Freddy Adu, on Internet chat boards and blogs. They gush about Renken's electric skills, chart his ascension up the U.S. soccer ladder, monitor his height at every age. Then compare all of it to Adu.
"It's a great compliment, but I think we are different players," Renken says. "I can only be myself on the field. I just stay focused on soccer, and I try to stay humble and work hard every day. I love to play, so I prove things to myself on the field. Not to anyone else."
For now, Renken trains with the U.S. national U-17 residency team in Bradenton, Fla. But the kid who plays soccer in his mind -- even when he's not playing on a field -- turning over scenarios again and again until they become nuanced, is destined for even bigger things.
Renken's expected to sign a pro contract with a big-time club within 12 to 18 months. Every English Premier League team -- from Manchester United to Liverpool -- has shown some interest in Renken. He has already worked out for Arsenal and Reading and, in Germany, 1860 Munich.
Each team has told him they will have him back whenever he feels like crossing the pond again. Still, if it weren't for an unlikely twist of fate, the world would never know Renken. Before he was Charles Renken, soccer phenom, he was Charles Bimbe.
Charles Bimbe grew up poor in Kalingalinga, Zambia, located outside the capital of Lusaka. He and his family lived in a mud hut converted into a house with no bathroom, electricity or running water. Zambia is one of the poorest countries in Africa.
So poor that it's common for families to fight over a deceased family member's shoes. The dead are often buried in makeshift graves, and robbers sometimes dig up corpses to steal the blanket they were wrapped in.
About 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the average life expectancy, according to the U.S. Department of State, is 37. AIDS, tuberculosis and starvation are all common causes of death in Zambia -- located in Southern Africa.
As a young boy, Bimbe played barefoot soccer almost every day in the streets and in fields and pastures, dreaming of playing for Zambia in the African Cup of Nations. He and his friends scoured the streets, looking in gutters and garbage cans in Kalingalinga for plastic to make soccer balls. They created them by rolling the plastic tightly into a ball and using matches to bond the mass of garbage together.
"Charles and I actually tried making some soccer balls out of a Wal-Mart bag [in Bradenton]," says one of Renken's close friends, Alex Bramall.
Bramall, a junior at Newburgh Free Academy in upstate New York, played with Renken on the residency team last year. Adds Bramall: "Whenever we did stuff like that, he got really emotional. It brings back a lot of memories. I think Charles gets like that because he knows how his life is now, how everything is taken care of; he had nothing in Zambia."
Charles' new life in the U.S. was set up by his older brother's nightmare experience here. Back in 1999, Richard Bimbe came to the U.S. from Zambia as part of a traveling choir. A Baptist minister named Keith Grimes brought them over with his ministry, TTT: Partners in Education.
Grimes, now deceased, lured the boys in by promising them and their parents that TTT would provide them with an American education, salaries and stipends for their families in Zambia. Instead, he shuffled the choir from church to church across the country, keeping all the money that was raised. And keeping the Zambian boys captive.
When the Immigration and Naturalization Service busted the TTT ring in January of 2000, they needed host families. A few months earlier, the group had played at First Baptist Church of Maryville in southern Illinois. Pamela Renken didn't attend the service, but when she heard of the Zambian boys' plight, she and her husband, Seth, co-owner of a floor covering business, agreed to take Richard in.
A year later, the Renkens adopted Richard. Seth and Pamela kept in touch with Richard's mom Margaret and stepfather John in Zambia (Charles' birth father died when he was a young boy). They bought a cell phone for Margaret that she keeps charged at the home of a relative who has electricity. The Renkens sent clothes to Charles and his brothers, Peter, now 17, and Steven, 25. Once, at Charles' request, Pamela sent him his first pair of soccer cleats. Or "boots," as he calls them. "But they hurt his feet," she says. "So he took them off and someone stole them. He was so upset, and it was so hard for him to tell me. When he did, I just sent him over another pair and told him to keep them on his feet."
The Renkens and Margaret Bimbe had always discussed the idea of the family adopting her other boys. But when Charles' sister, Leslie, died of tuberculosis at the age of 16 in 2003, Margaret knew it was time to send the boys to America.
Charles and his two brothers arrived in Edwardsville, Ill., in February of 2003. According to Pamela, he began calling himself Charles Renken that day. The Renkens officially adopted him about two years later.
"God just told our hearts to get those boys out of there so they can have a better life," Pamela Renken says. "I had a friend who went to Zambia. It was devastating."
Adds Charles Renken: "We lived day-to-day [in Zambia] and had to work hard to make opportunities for ourselves and enjoy life. I can't imagine my life without [the Renkens]. I feel that we are all blessed because we are together. If it wasn't for the Renken family, I don't know where I would be, but life would be different."
From day one, it was soccer, soccer, soccer with Charles. The Renkens knew nothing about the game, but there was Charles, dribbling a ball in the front yard, in the driveway, all over their five-bedroom house. He nearly drove Pamela crazy.
With the help of Richard, they set Charles up with a local U-9 team, Metro United. The team hadn't won a game the previous season. Metro United didn't lose with Renken.
He overwhelmed the kids of suburbia with his game -- raw and powerful -- full of speed, athleticism and creativity. Renken played striker and scored goals in bunches, but gave up even more glory to set up kids who hadn't ever ripped the back of the net.
"The first time I ever saw him, ironically, he got a red card for a strong tackle on one of my players," says Kevin Kalish, director of soccer operations for the Scott Gallagher soccer club, located 25 minutes away from Edwardsville in St. Louis. "He was just such a menacing, goal-scoring forward. He just fought for balls so hard, took on three or four guys. You could tell he was a special talent."
Renken played for Kalish's U-14 team as a 10-year-old in 2004 and dominated. If he scored two goals in a game, he likely could have scored three or four, but Renken's skill and vision allowed him to dribble through or by several players inside the box before laying it off to a teammate.
You have to come see this kid, Kalish told the U.S. national scouts he keeps in touch with. Of course, Renken was already on their radar, and soon his rise began. Renken played with the U-14 national team in 2005, moving up to the U-15's the following year, before arriving in Bradenton last January. The hype surrounding Renken flared up even more after he helped the U-17's to wins over Russia and Brazil at the Nike Friendlies in Bradenton last December. If Renken hadn't tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right leg during training eight months ago (he's playing again), he might already be training at some place like Old Trafford, Anfield or Villa Park.
"You worry about the Freddy Adu syndrome, and too many people telling Charles he's too good," Kalish says. "It's nothing against Freddy; he's a great player, but it seems like in this culture we have to anoint people for marketing and stuff like that. It's hard not to listen to that s--t. But I don't think Charles will let his ego get in his way. He's so driven, and will do great things for soccer in this country."
He has to.
Renken's drive was born back in Zambia, where death and suffering surrounded him every day, almost taking him. He trains relentlessly twice a day. After that, he pops in an Arsenal DVD and studies it for hours.
Soft-spoken off the field, Renken has shied away from marketing deals. His only focus is on the field. Besides, just the other day his mom requested that he send her one of his jerseys to auction at a church charity event. He told Pamela Renken he didn't think anyone would want to buy his jersey.
With his game, plenty of Renken jerseys will be wrapped in plastic of their own, sent en masse around the world. Renken, now a U.S. citizen, is a two-footed slasher who controls the midfield brilliantly with his sharp touches. His ability to see the game, thinking ahead three, four or five plays as he beats someone, is why he could be destined for stardom.
"The international community thinks more of Charles than Freddy [Adu]," said one international scout who requested anonymity. "They think he will be better. Some players just have a certain magic. Most players can't see the things Charles does, and if they do, they can't pull it off."
And when Renken does sign a mega-deal, he's going to help his mother back in Zambia. Help the barefoot kids with beaten-up feet who play soccer in the dirt fields with the plastic balls that are a part of Renken's soul. The aspiring star's dream is to one day build a soccer academy in Zambia. Renken can't wait to see kids in Kalingalinga dribbling a leather ball -- many for the first time -- around the dusty pitches he learned the game on. Of course, Renken will have to make some plastic ones, too, and bounce them around with a proud smile on his face.
Justin Rodriguez covers the USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.