Zakuani
Mike Fiechtner

Learning to be happy one day at a time

NOTE: This is a feature in the October edition of Sounders Monthly. It is available free-of-charge at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App.


In January 2009, I was in my hotel room leading up to the MLS SuperDraft. I was 20 years old and full of nerves because I didn’t know what was ahead, but confident since I just had a very successful season at Akron. Alexi Lalas was covering the draft for ESPN and called my hotel room – I didn’t even have a cell phone yet – and he asked where I wanted to get drafted.

“Alexi, man, wherever they take me, I am going.”

Of course, he didn’t take that for an answer. He asked again. I thought of this new team with 20,000 season ticket holders. I reminisced on being in the stands with my mom when Freddie Ljungberg made his debut for Arsenal. I grew up watching Kasey Keller.

I knew my answer.

“Seattle”

***********

I used to say London was my home, but now the answer isn’t so clear. I was born in the Congo and lived there for four years. I can’t run away from the reality that my family and my background are shaped from it. My memories from school and football, the music I listen to, my slang, my accent – that’s all London. I spent most of my life in London. But my two years of college in Ohio were the two most important years of my life. Now Seattle is home. When I go anywhere – even the places I used to live – I know where I am coming back to. Originally, Seattle was just the place where my team was located. Nearly a decade later, it is where I find the most peace, purpose and comfort.

The moment I arrived in Seattle, I could sense the excitement from the fans and the organization. When I met Adrian Hanauer, Sigi Schmid and Brian Schmetzer, I knew this place was special. I worked for several years to get to this point – my only career goal was to play professional football. When I arrived at Akron, I was so disciplined because I had to go pro. Being immersed in a college environment helped shape my worldview and the way I think. I began to really enjoy my classes. From there, I realized I desired to do many things in my life, but first I had to experience what it was like to be a professional football player.

During my rookie season in 2009, I lived in South Lake Union without a car. My teammate and good friend James Riley would pick me up and take me to and from training. One day, instead of driving home, he drove us to the Renton/Skyway Boys & Girls Club. I said, “Oh, this is an appearance.” He said, “No, I am just doing this.” Until this point, I had only associated giving back to the community with mandatory paid appearances, but this was on his own time. I started joining him every week and built a connection with the kids. I was also beginning to realize the platform I had in Seattle and how much people embraced me. As I settled into my role on the pitch, I envisioned ways I could help the community.

In 2010, I founded my non-profit organization, Kingdom Hope. The idea had floated around my head for several years, but I stuck with it and my goal then became scholarships. I achieved my goals through education and football, so I wanted to give today’s youth the same opportunity.

After two promising seasons, both individually and as a team, we were ready to break out in 2011. Although we were still young, we were very confident after winning two U.S. Open Cups and making the playoffs both years. Unfortunately, my career took a dramatic turn when I broke my leg during a match in April. It was devastating. Without getting into too much detail, I can say the support and love I felt from our fans helped me get through it. 500 days after the horrific injury, I made my return for the Sounders at CenturyLink Field. It was a moment I will never forget. I played for a couple more seasons, but I was unable to get back to the same form I had before the setback. At the age of 26, I was a retired pro footballer.

I have been blessed to make some incredible connections through the game I love. As a boy in London, David Beckham was revered second only to the Queen of England. Yet, when he was with the LA Galaxy, we traded jerseys and he told me he respected me. It meant the world. Two other huge names – Thierry Henry, who I admired at Arsenal while I was in their youth system, and Landon Donovan, also retired in 2014. They retired in their 30’s and by their choice after accomplishing great things, but my situation was different. I spoke with both of them and they shared the same sentiment... there was a fear of what was going to happen next. All we had ever known was looking ahead to the next training session, the next match.

I very quickly lost attachment to Steve Zakuani: The Footballer. The further I get away from my career, the more I look back on it, but I no longer dwell on what could have been. I am astonished at what we did for those two and a half years. I was 21/22 and Fredy Montero was 22/23, and we had nearly 40 goals between us. That’s crazy – we were so young and unproven, but what we did was exceptional. Now, I think it helps off the field, knowing I was successful during my time on the field. Earlier this season, I was mingling with fans at a Sounders match and a kid came down and asked if I could get Jordan Morris to come out of the locker room. It was hilarious, he had no idea who I was because he never saw me play. That’s totally fine. You can know me as a broadcaster and I will try to be as good at this as I was at playing. As long as I am connected to the Sounders somehow, it’s fine with me. I love this team.

I am happy to represent the team in any way I can. Adrian has always done right by me – I have so much respect for him, I think he is the best owner in sports. He always helped me and supported me. From the owner to my relationship with the fans, I am too ingrained in this community to leave it at this point. I am going to invest in this city as much as I can. For as much as I give, the community always gives back. When my time is done here, I will know. That time hasn’t come yet.

Kingdom Hope has been a few different things since its inception. It’s now very simple – raise money for scholarships. Our focus is to provide scholarships for youth in Washington to play football, while giving education scholarships to kids from my native Congo and its neighboring countries. One of our scholarship recipients, Eric, came to the U.S. for college from Africa and is now an engineer in Portland. It’s very amazing to me. Our current goal is called Project50. Over the next five years, we want to give out 50 scholarships. I can’t wait to see it happen.

I am learning to be happy one day at a time. I knew that when I retired, the void would be there. Can I be fulfilled in life?

I had to stop playing the game I loved at 26 because of injuries. I could be depressed or upset, or I could be happy. I knew happiness would be a journey. Three years on, I can say I am happy. I can say I am home.

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