Running to school and herding cows made me tough, and I could handle the heat. My upbringing in the village shaped me for my life.

May 13, 2023

“I grew up in a village in Zimbabwe, a country in Africa. There was no electricity or running water, so rural life was working together. I am from the south, which is the Zulu tribe. My school was 15 miles away from our village. We left at 5:30 a.m. and ran barefoot to get to class by 7:15. We walked home in the afternoon. We didn’t think much about the distance because we had nothing to compare it to.

We were farmers – livestock was the livelihood of everyone in our village. I returned from school in the afternoons and went to the field to meet the gentleman watching our cows. Sometimes the cows were 15 miles away, but they usually ate their way home.

My love was soccer. Running to school and herding cows made me tough, and I could handle the heat. My upbringing in the village shaped me for my life.

My dad lived and worked in the city of Bulawayo. At the end of the school semester, we took a long-distance bus to visit the city. I was nine years old when a civil war broke out. Our village was burned, and people were killed. My family moved to the city.

In the village, everyone was the same, but moving to the city showed how poor we were. Entering fifth grade was a tough adjustment in the city’s European-style school, but it had more resources and was only 15 minutes from our home – no more running 15 miles every morning.

My teachers brought out the best in me. I was good at art and helped decorate classrooms. Each year, the school gave me a leadership role as a prefect. My confidence grew from there. In our culture, parents didn’t know how to encourage their children because they can’t give what they didn’t have. My mom was solid, and my dad was strict.

Playing soccer kept my head straight. I was disciplined and didn’t follow the crowds. I was drafted by a semi-pro team and played pro for CMED Football Club in 1991-1992 in front of 80,000 people, but it didn’t feel right. I became friends with an American player who talked me into going to the U.S. Several small colleges recruited me even though I was in my mid-20’s, and I received a soccer scholarship from the University of Mobile.

The University of Mobile is a small Christian school. I grew up in a Christian home but didn’t know I was a Christian. Searching for my purpose, I read Matthew 6:17: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and all of this righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.’ I thought, whoa, I am taking this deal. A voice said, ‘Repent and invite Jesus into your heart,’ so I did and went to church. The next day, my professor said I looked different and asked what happened. I gave my life to Christ and never looked back.

I graduated from college and tried out for a pro team in Texas. I was 27 and didn’t make it. At that age, it doesn’t matter how good you are, teams want to invest in young kids. God was changing my plan.

God called me in the summer of 2002 to use soccer to minister to kids in Mobile. I finally found my purpose: coaching soccer, not playing it. I started soccer camps in Mobile and Zimbabwe. The first time I returned to my village with a duffel bag filled with soccer balls and shoes, my life started to rewind. All of that running in bare feet led to this opportunity. I did camps and wanted to do this for the rest of my life. On the flight home, the name Soccer4Life came to me.

I graduated from the University of Mobile in 2005 and worked at Best Buy. My Visa expired, and I couldn’t work for 12 months while getting an H-1B visa. That year was the desert experience I needed, and I learned to trust God. My degree is in computer information systems, and I installed software and designed websites to survive, but there was little food at home and my gas tank was always on E.

One day, my car cut off at a traffic light in Prichard. I pushed it off the road and left it in a shopping complex, then got a ride to the church conference. I went back the next day to get my car, but a crackhead had sold it and was trying to tow it away. I learned to feel what others are going through because I have been there. I am sensitive to when someone needs help or if they need gas. God told me to do prison ministry at Metro Jail in Mobile during that time, so I went there every Saturday for nine years.

In early 2008, I ministered to a large refugee family from Sudan who had only lived in camps. This was their first time living in a house, and no one taught them how to care for it. After my lease ended, God told me to move in with them and help them adjust. I played games with them about keeping their home clean and eating healthy. We went to the beach if they kept their home neat for a week.

Many refugees were coming to Mobile. I learned about their culture and frustrations, and their kids started coming to my soccer program. God brought Africa to me.

Soccer4Life expanded from camps to soccer teams to get kids off the street and give them another choice. The majority of kids from our soccer teams are from the inner city. We have almost 450 kids; half are 13 years old or younger. I coach them myself and have ten volunteer coaches. Parents see that I am persistent and serious about their kids, so they get serious about the program.

Most participants who remain with us season after season have received full college scholarships or have traveled to Europe for soccer tryouts. I have gone to Germany four times, taking our oldest kids to trials. Two players are living in Newcastle, England, attending a three-year soccer school. Some players are helping us coach.

I travel to South Africa twice a year for camps. We established a program in Mpumalanga to keep kids playing throughout the year. Soccer4Life is more than the game, it’s impact, and I still love every minute of it.

Before our practice starts, we have Bible time to spread God’s love and teach kids they can do all things through Christ. This season’s theme is putting on the whole armor of God.

Kids want someone to believe in them and see their best sides. I see myself in these kids. We all deserve a chance.”

Zenzo, Coach Z

6 Comments

  1. Cynthia Garner

    That was great! Loved reading how God has worked in your life and continues to bless your ministry.

    Reply
  2. Dana Carthen

    I loved reading your story and how God has shown up in the midst. What comes to mind is a scripture in the Bible that says, “your gifts will make room for you. – Proverbs 18:16. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  3. Mellanie Johnson

    Coach Z, out of all the years that we worked together at Mobile Parks and Recreation- I thought that I knew your story. I was wrong- I didn’t know half of it! You are an inspiration and I it is an honor to call you friend.

    Reply
  4. Dorothy May

    Now I see why you are such a compassionate person. You have been very helpful to me with developing websites for me. I know you are a Christian and I love seeing how God is moving in your life.

    Reply
  5. Mattie Marshall Shepard

    Coach Z, I am so proud of you and I know your Mobile dad (Heavenly Angel) would be so very very proud of you! Keep the good work up because the youth of today will be our future leaders of tomorrow!! God Bless!!!❤️

    Reply
  6. Jacqueline Brown

    Thank you for sharing your amazing and heartwarming story. You have been a blessing to so many lives in Mobile and abroad. I am blessed to call you my friend.
    God was always preparing you for this moment Zee.

    Reply

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