In his final preparations for his penalty kick, Abdi H. bent over and touched the ball one last time, looking at it resting before his neon green-and-black cleats. He was cold. He wore leggings underneath his shorts and gloves on his hands, but for the first time during the game, he felt cold. He turned his head, his spray- painted blue hair in stark contrast to his white uniform, and waited for the ref to blow the whistle. As the ref raised his left hand, Tomkinson began to jump in the goal, opening his arms as Abdi H. took a small step back. Hearing the whistle, he moved back to make room for a short run while Tomkinson crouched, arms still outstretched. Abdi H. fired his shot as Tomkinson threw his body to the left, diving sideways.
The team believed the ball was going in. The fans believed the ball was going in. They had no question as to what would happen because Abdi H. hadn’t missed a penalty kick all year.
That’s right: not one. All year. Until now.
Tomkinson embraced the ball, hugging it to his chest, and quickly leaped up as his team roared, a swarm of celebration. Abdi H. stood, dumbfounded, his hands gripping his head in disbelief. He turned and slowly started to walk back to midfield as Tomkinson booted the ball. It felt impossible to get back into the game, but he knew he had to.
“When you take a penalty, you just try to pick one side and place it, and hopefully you can beat the keeper,” Abdi H. says of what had been his fail-safe move. “And I think from the get-go, from the beginning, the keeper picked his side and he just happened to go
to the same side as me.”
Excerpt from Chapter 1, “Why Not Us?” in One Goal
The similarities were eerie, and later, Abdi H. told me that he knew it. Exact same shot. Exact same situation. The ability to equalize resting on his shoulders.
“I was literally thinking of the state final game when I stepped up to take it,” he messaged me after the game. “My junior year. Missed it that year but I wasn’t gonna miss it this time.”
But this wasn’t high school. This was college. Division 1. The University of Massachusetts. The uniform was still blue, but he was a Riverhawk, not a Blue Devil, and now wore a number 7 on his back.
Senior Day. Last game. One last chance to get on the board.
That Abdi made this shot is the stuff dreams are actually made of, his shuffling feet building power until he launched the ball in the opposite direction of the keeper’s leap, a soaring shot that landed exactly where he wanted it. I was not the only one who watched with tears streaming down my face. His lost senior intercollegiate season because of COVID-19 now somewhat recovered with spring games, and he capitalized on this last chance to finish what he started. His two-season legacy as a much-loved captain – always beloved, where ever he goes, one longtime Lewiston fan told me last night – abundantly apparent with the outpouring of social media posts that followed the game.
“That’s my captain,” wrote one. “Imma miss you dawg.”
The team hoisted him over their heads, their joy for the eventual win superseded only by their affection for him.
“When he smiles, his mouth barely moves, the corners turning up only slightly, yet somehow consuming his entire face,” I wrote about Abdi in One Goal. “It is a rare occurrence, something usually reserved for family or closest friends. But when he does smile, you feel like you’ve won something.”
Abdi H. is smiling today. We all are.