The World Cup may be over and the French have their trophy, but for Nigerian-American Forestville resident Julius Ujeh, soccer is not just a seasonal affair. It is a way of approaching life.
Known as “Chief” to friends and family, the perennial soccer coach and former professional player was initiated to the sport as a young boy, kicking a ball barefoot in his Western Nigerian neighborhood.
In his early teens, a nearby mission school took notice of Ujeh’s athletic talent and granted him a high school scholarship. But on his very first day at school, he was sent home—it was required that all students wear shoes.
“We were poor, most of my friends had no shoes,” said Ujeh. “I remember the only time I got shoes was at Christmas. Every year, I would grow taller and outgrow the shoes, but my dad would say, ‘That’s it. You wait until next Christmas.’ That was the way it was.”
At the mission school, Ujeh remembers being a bit overwhelmed—it was an institution populated by mostly better off students.
“I just brought a sack of rice with me to the boarding house. There were these kids with milk, with sugar, coming with beverages!”
But Ujeh found a way to fit in: he played soccer, volleyball and handball; he joined the track and field team. He soon became known as one of the best athletes in the school.
When a fellow student gave him a pair of soccer shoes, everything changed for Ujeh. Sports became his life. He trained day in and day out. He played soccer professionally from 1980-84. The sixth fastest man in Nigeria, he qualified for the Nigerian track team for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
Unfortunately, his dreams of Olympic competition were not realized: Nigeria was able to take only its top four runners to the United States.
Undeterred by this reversal of fortune, Ujeh gathered every last penny that he and his family could collect and, with his visa already approved, he set out to visit the United States. In America, while sleeping on friends’ couches to get by, he was lucky enough to meet the head soccer coach of Boston University who offered him a full scholarship.
But his transition to the United States and college life proved more difficult than Ujeh anticipated. He failed out of school.
Again, undeterred by misfortune and with “luck and God’s help,” he was offered a fresh start on the soccer team at Salem State University in Massachusetts.
After graduating from college, Ujeh played pro football (soccer) in Denmark for a few years before starting work at Gillette.
When he was offered a job in California, he was confident that the move would be a great fit for him — “I asked the [recruitment] woman, ‘Do they play football [soccer] there?’ and when she said yes, I said ‘I’m good then.”
Ujeh moved to Rohnert Park in 1994 and soon found himself on the soccer field once again, playing with strangers. “That is how I started making a life in California,” said Ujeh.
Monica Rowley, then owner of Sports City, was one of the people he met while playing soccer. Rowley, now one of the owners of the Epicenter sports complex in Santa Rosa, was quick to recognize Ujeh’s kind spirit and work ethic both on and off the field.
“He’s tireless, talented, and he cares so much about others,” she said.
Ujeh grew to love Sonoma County. He moved into a low-income housing project in Forestville in 2006.
“People may look at my house and think it is no big deal. Looking at my background and where I come from, this is my castle,” said Ujeh. “America gave me an education, showed me that if you are worthy, if you are honest, and if you can work, the sky is the limit.”
Ujeh is not a rich man, but he feels strongly about the need to give back. In Healdsburg, he worked to get kids out of gangs through soccer. Over the years, he’s coached numerous soccer teams throughout Sonoma County, and has found fulfillment working with the homeless.
“I would go to homeless shelters, and I would see if any of them could play. Then we train, and we work to move through the obstacles,” said Ujeh.
At the Redwood Gospel Mission in 2006, he discovered a young and struggling Cornelius Bracy Jr, who later went on, with Ujeh’s help, to represent the United States in The Homeless World Cup. (Read the full story here)
In 2013, Ujeh decided to do something for the children of his home country.
“A lot of people who are from impoverished countries, they come here and get comfortable. They don’t want to go back. At first I was fighting it. I thought, ‘God, why are you putting this burden on me? I don’t have money, I don’t have this, I don’t have that.’ But you always have excuses to not do a lot of things.”
How did he plan on giving back? Through soccer, of course.
Ujeh had founded Spitfire Leadership & Sports Academy in 1992 in the US. He returned to his home country to establish a Nigerian version of the program in 2013, and began working with young children. He rented a tractor and with the help of a few friends set about fixing a giant crack which ran through the center of the soccer pitch. He started the first girls soccer teams in his Western Nigerian neighborhood when his wife, whom he’d met upon his return to Nigeria, asked what he was going to do for the future of his two little girls, Lydia and Sophia.
His latest goal? To create a real soccer field for the local youth and build turf fields able to survive the annual floods.
In addition to raising funds, Ujeh spends much of his yearly disposable income on the Spitfire soccer program. Because he doesn’t make enough in Nigeria to finance the entire operation, he returns to his Forestville home during harvest season to work as a weighmaster for Clos Du Bois Winery.
He spends summers in Sonoma County volunteering after work and picking up used jerseys, shoes, and trophies at Salvation Army to bring back to Nigeria.
Monica Rowley, his friend from the soccer field, has donated hundreds of jerseys and shoes over the years through her non-profit, The Goals Foundation. Santa Rosa’s Atletico soccer club donates trophies and medals they’ve won so that Ujeh can bring them back for Spitfire tournaments in Nigeria.
“Football is such a powerful tool that changes people’s lives. When I came here, I saw people playing in Rohnert Park. I didn’t know who they were, and they were speaking Spanish. I didn’t speak Spanish, but we started playing soccer and we understood each other. The language: one ball and we know what it’s for. That is why it’s such a universal game. That is why I want to bring it home,” said Ujeh.
Monica Rowley has set up a fund through The Goals Foundation to support Spitfire in Nigeria. If you are interested in learning more about the program, or contributing to the fund, it can be found here.