Before every game, Hadji Barry reaches into his locker, picks up two sweatbands bearing the colors red, yellow and green and slips them around each wrist. For Barry, the bands his mother sends him through the mail do much more than keep sweat from trickling down to his hands.
The colors represent the Guinea flag and are a constant reminder of where he’s from, what he’s been through and why he’s here in the U.S.
“I’m not just doing this for myself, I’ve got family back home that is looking up to me. That’s just a motivation,” Barry said. “Every time I step on the field, I just think about where I come from.”
The leading goal scorer on the UCF men’s soccer team, with eight goals in 12 games, came to the U.S. in 2006 to lead a better life than his parents thought may be possible in Conakry, Guinea, an African city nestled about an hour and a half north of the diamond-rich Sierra Leone border. He came to earn a better education and follow his dream of becoming a professional soccer player.
But that dream meant he’d have to make sacrifices, including leaving his mother Mariame and father Amadou as well as three brothers and three sisters — all whom he has not seen face-to-face since the day he boarded that airplane in 2006.
“Leaving my mom and dad was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Barry said. “A young boy leaving his family at age 13, it wasn’t easy … As the years went by, I knew my mom made the right decision to bring me here because it’s not easy back home. I know a lot of kids would love to have that opportunity, so I’m blessed.”
His mom’s younger brother, also named Amadou, took him into his Rochester, New York, home. He took care of him like a son, paying for his schooling and soccer fees while enrolling him in English classes, a language Barry said he picked up quite easily outside of his native French tongue.
“My uncle’s kind of like my father figure now,” Barry said. “He’s done everything that my dad or mom would have done for me. I thank him for everything. I wouldn’t be in this position without him.”
The senior forward spent his first two years of college playing at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. He came to UCF in 2014, and his uncle was a little worried when he decided to go so far away from what he grown to know so well the past eight years.
“I had mixed feelings … about him going away from me,” his uncle said. “[But] soccer was his first passion.”
Barry achieved what his family had always dreamed of as he took a scholarship to play collegiate soccer as a Knight, earning a free education.
“He had a hard life growing up and he’s making the most of his opportunity. Not just on the soccer field, but academically as well because a college degree for that kid is going to go a long way,” UCF head coach Bryan Cunningham said. “It’s a real blessing to be playing college soccer — we’re getting to do what we love to do.”
Barry has an entire box full of the red, yellow and green sweatbands his mom, who he Skypes, texts, calls or emails almost every other day, has been sending from Guinea since 2006, and he will continue to add them into an already full box until his soccer playing days are far behind him.
“Everywhere I go, it’s there. It’s always going to be with me,” he said. “Even if I go into the next level, they’ll always be with me.”
Jarrod Heil is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @JarrodHeil or email him at JarrodH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.