Photo by Aislinn Menke
The soccer ball sits between senior Kristian Jespersen’s orange and black cleats. “Let’s see it Kristian,” a teammate calls from the background. His face turns somber with concentration as he strikes the ball powerfully. Too powerfully. The ball flies over the goal and beyond the fence. He smiles as he shakes his head, looking down toward the turf. Time to go run after the ball – a familiar action in an unfamiliar country.
Jespersen is a foreign exchange student from Randers, Denmark.
“I came to America, because I wanted to experience a new culture,” Jespersen said. “I was getting stuck in the daily life of Denmark.”
Kristian was getting use to all the same things. Same people. Same food. Same schedule. As he tries to come “unstuck” in a new country, he brings something familiar with him – soccer, a passion that’s given him a home 4,665 miles away from home on the varsity boys soccer team.
Jespersen came without any expectations for what his new country would look, feel or sound like. Jespersen didn’t research anything about America so he wouldn’t get his hopes up. His only presumption, which he saw in the movies, was that there’d be a nice big hill he could stand on and look out toward a scenic view. He waited to form his opinions of America on his own. And so far they have been positive.
“Everyone over here is more kind and more open, you know?” Jespersen said. “They want to influence everybody, and I really like that.”
Most people Jespersen meets seem to be just as attracted to his smiley, upbeat personality as he is theirs. When asked if he was excited to have Jespersen on the team senior varsity soccer player Tommy Nelson just laughed.
“Uh, hell yeah,” Nelson said. “We all like him as a person and especially as a player.”
After playing with Jespersen these past few weeks, Nelson has seen his ability to control the ball and beat players one-on-one. Although his style is less physical than most Americans he’s played with, Nelson was sure Jespersen would make the team after only the second day of tryouts. Jespersen took a varsity spot playing the position of striker no problem. His responsibility is to score goals and to create scoring chances for other players.
Jespersen has secured a “family” as he describes it, through the soccer team. They have allowed him to experience a new culture while keeping his roots in soccer.
“I have [soccer] to fall back on,” Jespersen said. “I always have something that I can do well. If my English wasn’t as good as it should be or school was difficult, I still have something I’m good at.”
Jespersen started playing soccer when he was eight years old on a local club team in Denmark. At age 12 he moved up to the bigger club and new team which he played on for five years – until his knee injury.
After injuring his knee, Jespersen got out of shape. Instead of going out and playing his sport with friends, Jespersen had to sit at home playing FIFA and swim laps at the pool to keep himself busy while he anxiously waited to play soccer again. By the time his injury healed, his coach had lost faith in his abilities as a player. He didn’t feel Jespersen had given his full effort during recovery. This year at East is Jespersens chance to prove himself again.
“I think this is a new start,” Jespersen said. “Restart and do it all again. I like to get back in the training period where you concentrate all about the soccer and giving 100%.”
he’s playing, Jespersen isn’t thinking about the loads of sociology homework or US history he has – Jespersen is thinking about the game. He’s ready for the next ball. The next move. The next pass.
“When you’re playing soccer everything [else] doesn’t matter,” Jespersen said. “You can put everything in a little box and just lock it and put it in the corner.”
Allen and Sandy Burger, Jespersen’s host family, have seen a change in Jespersen comfort level since soccer season started. He is their seventh foreign exchange student they have hosted through Rotary International Youth Exchange.
“He was nervous about soccer at first and wasn’t sure what to expect here,” Burger said. “The minute he got that soccer ball in his hand and was on the field, he was a lot more comfortable.”
East and it’s administration have made Burger feel confident about sending Jespersen to East. She believes it will not only benefit him, but also other students, to connect with someone from another country, especially with someone as positive as Jespersen.
“His glass is always half full. Except I guess for [during] soccer games,” Burger laughed after Jespersen had bolted out of the room minutes ago to root for Denmark while they were behind.
Jespersen is going to continue to watch every Denmark game possible. He is confident that being away from his friends and family will make him value them even more when he goes back home. But for now he is going to keep trying new things, like Chick-fil-A and orange Gatorade. He’s planning to keep up his enthusiastic, smiling attitude. He will continue to tie his right lace before his left– like he does before every game. And he’s going to keep complaining about dressing up on game days and how Americans try to be so special by calling it soccer. In Denmark it’s futbol.
The soccer ball sits between senior Kristian Jespersen’s orange and black cleats. After two weeks of practice, it’s finally time for varsity’s first game: the blue and black scrimmage. Jesperson’s eyes lock in on the cross coming from the right corner. He shoots from just outside the six-yard box, burying the ball in the side netting. People cheer from the stands, the voices no different than those he hears back home.