Life wasn’t always easy for Raymon Gaddis and Andre Blake.
Professional soccer has always been a dream but getting here was half the battle.
Gaddis and Blake were born worlds apart, one hails from a small town in Jamaica while the other calls the American Midwest home. From the outside these may seem like opposite ends of the residential spectrum but dreams manifest themselves no matter the circumstances. But for these two being a professional soccer player was the only occupation they believed in.
As both players find themselves productive members of an American professional soccer team it would be understandable for them to think their jobs were done but this could not be further from the truth.
This sense of responsibility led both players to the Boys and Girls Club of Delaware on an overcast Wednesday evening to share their stories with a group of young Wilmington, Delaware children whose circumstances bear a striking resemblance to the player’s upbringing.
“Everyday that I play for the Philadelphia Union I don’t take it for granted and I feel a sense of responsibility to the community because I made it out of my circumstances,” Gaddis said during a recent interview
Most of the children in the crowd were members of Mike’s TEAM a mentoring program where volunteers from the surrounding area come once a week for an hour session where the volunteer helps a child with homework, academic practices, and life-skills. Many of the children come from low-income families and Mike’s TEAM provides them with a positive environment where they can focus on achieving their goals.
The organization has a three-fold mission statement that promotes the self-worth of youth, enables youths to make positive life choices, and finally strives to improve their lives, and communities.
A place like this oozes positivity, but reinforcement from those that have lived that life is what can make all the difference for these aspiring young minds.
Enter Raymon Gaddis and Andre Blake.
When Gaddis and Blake arrived at the event many of the children had a vague idea of who the Philadelphia Union were and what the club stands for. Like most young people the minute they heard professional athlete their ears perked up and they became fully invested in what the players had to say.
Andre Blake and the kids of the Wilmington Boys & Girls Club share a laugh during a meet and greet Wednesday
“To see successful, professional athletes and hear stories about the adversity they encountered as young people was very powerful for the Club’s youth. It was moving to see the kids understand that these players faced challenges similar to their own,” said Mike’s TEAM Executive Director Megan Kneisl-Faulkner.
Looking around the at the young, impressionable faces, many sat wide-eyed listening to the two players speak, for the kids it was a moment they won’t soon forget, but the same goes for both players.
“I feel like I can relate so much to these kids, and I hope that my message can stick with them whenever they are going through tough times or facing adversity. They can think back to today and what I have gone through to get here,” said Blake.
The key word from the entire day was adversity, and not simply how to deal with it, but how to overcome it. Both Ray and Andre used the word extensively in their discussions with the kids, because they understand the importance of succeeding through the hard times.
For them success isn’t necessarily all about becoming a professional athlete, it’s also about becoming a good person. Both players made sure to remind the kids that while it may have been their dream to be professional athletes, it’s not only about what you want to be, but the journey you take to get there.
The players stressed that this journey is going to be full of adversity, and sacrifices are going to have to be made. Ray described keeping his “eye on the prize” while some of his closest friends were making the wrong choices he had to remain stalwart in his mission.
Both players admitted it can be hard because often what others are doing around you is more “fun” then extra time in the weight room or a weekend study session, but these are what make you successful.
Success isn’t measured by the car you drive or the house you live in, true success is defined by the person you are, both players know that events like this are where they can truly articulate this message, and why they are so inclined to come to places like the Boys and Girls Club.
Ray and Andre were once the kids they spoke to, they grew up facing challenges on a daily basis that required them to make tough choices, but the right choices.
“My senior year of high school a group of guys that I hung with decided to rob a store, I told them it wasn’t right, and I literally walked the other way,” Gaddis recalled. “A couple of them got caught and I was grateful I chose to turn the other way. That’s a prime example of choices, and I always had ambitions of doing more.”
This type of experience has a profound impact on a human being, you look back in life and value the right choices you made because they are what make you into the person you are today. It’s also experiences like this that make Ray and Andre want to give back to the community.
They have seen people close to them make the wrong choices and let adversity define their lives.
It’s the mission of both players to communicate to all young people they come in contact with how to take that adversity and use it as motivation to do well in life.
A significant California trip where points are vital and a recent Jamaican national team call-up remain the focus of both players but these professional responsibilities don’t take away from the profounder parts of the job description.
“These guys are great! I think the Union is my new favorite team,” said Jaseem, a young Mike’s TEAM participant.
The children of the Boys and Girls Club of Delaware and Mike’s TEAM are the real teammates on this day.
- Written by Philadelphia Union digital media intern Doug Ammon