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February 29, 2024

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Straight from Jamaica

Anthony Grant walks slowly down a deserted sidewalk that borders a tree-enveloped cemetery with gently rolling hills.

Nearly 3,000 miles away from home, he’s on a college campus and in a rural town that he had never heard of in his native Jamaica.

As he continues his trek across campus, his knee ice-wrapped and aching after an early-morning practice, rain clouds cast a shadow on his muscular frame.

He misses his family back home. He hasn’t seen them since December. He rarely talks to them on the phone. He doubts if he will be able to visit them in the summer.

But he must keep walking. There’s no time to dwell on the past or wish for better weather. He’s got an 8 a.m. class to catch — and his first game with a new team to prepare for on Saturday.

Grant, 22, is adjusting to life in the United States and at the University, where he plays forward on the men’s soccer team. He’s not alone in his endeavors. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, international student athletes will account for an estimated 10 percent of all players in Division I men’s soccer next fall.

Like so many others, his transition to the U.S. has not come without pitfalls.

“It’s really difficult being away from my family,” Grant said. “I feel isolated here. I miss my friends. I miss my past.”

Grant grew up in a crime-riddled neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica, the nation’s capital and largest city. Located on the southeastern coast of the tropical island, Kingston is nestled in the Blue Mountains, a growing region crowded with nearly 1 million inhabitants.

“It’s rough,” said Grant. “There’s a lot of poverty. People are struggling there.”

It was in Kingston, on a sun-dried soccer field, where Bowling Green soccer coach Eric Nichols first met Grant in November 2010.

Making his first recruiting trip abroad, Nichols said he remembers arriving in Kingston and checking into a local hotel, a place where he and his traveling party were confined for most of the trip. They were advised to not leave because of unrest in the city.

“I’ve been to Jamaica before — to tourist areas,” Nichols said, now in his fourth season as coach at BG. “What I saw in Kingston was completely different than what I’d seen before.”

“There are families living in one-room houses,” he said. “The kids eat, sleep and do homework in the kitchen. Just to know that those kids want a chance, it kind of tugs at your heart.”

Nichols said he and a few other coaches would leave the hotel only at designated times to travel through town and scout local prospects.

At that time, Grant was playing club soccer at the University of the West Indies, an academic institution located a few miles outside of Kingston, dreaming of playing college soccer in the United States.

Competing at a collegiate showcase tournament in Kingston, Grant wanted desperately to catch the eyes of talent-hungry college scouts.

He raced up and down the local fields, most of them covered with more dirt than grass. He hustled to every loose ball. He overpowered much weaker players.

Nichols took notice.

“I knew there were a lot of kids who could play, but I wasn’t sure which ones I was sold on — except Anthony,” he said. “I loved the way he played, and I could see it translating to Division I. He was strong, he was fast, and he worked hard.”

Nichols wanted Grant. And Grant wanted to attend BG — until he was told he couldn’t.

Due to NCAA eligibility clearinghouse standards, which require athletes to demonstrate that they took 14 core courses in high school and achieved a certain score on the ACT or SAT, Grant would soon learn that he would have to sit out of athletic competition for a year if he enrolled at BG for the fall 2011 semester.

As a fallback, he enrolled at McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill., where he was cleared to play by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a college athletics governing body separate from the NCAA that does not require its athletes to sit out a year.

Nichols, back at his office in BG, could only scratch his head in disbelief after hearing the news.

“When I got that phone call from him and he told me he was going to McKendree, I figured that was the last we would hear of Anthony,” Nichols said. “And it was too bad because I really enjoyed getting to know him during the recruiting process. It was disappointing because I had spent so much time recruiting him.”

Grant went on to play for the Bearcats last fall, and he dominated the competition. He led McKendree to a 17-1 record, the best in program history, with his school record 23 goals and nine game-winning scores.

Grant wanted more. He wanted a chance to prove his abilities at a higher level. He wasn’t happy there. So, after dedicating himself academically and becoming eligible to compete in NCAA athletics, Grant reached out to Nichols, the man he had gotten to know so well a year earlier.

“I didn’t like the area where McKendree was located,” Grant said. “It was way too rural for me. Plus, the level of soccer just wasn’t high enough. I needed a change.”

Late this past fall, Grant sent Nichols an email asking if there was a chance he could transfer to BG. Nichols quickly responded, but knew McKendree coach Donny Sheehan controlled Grant’s fate. He’d have to give Grant written permission to attend BG and become eligible to play next season — something he was reluctant to do.

“He took it hard,” Grant said, referring to Sheehan when he learned of his best player’s request to transfer. “It’s not easy losing a talented player, but I think he knew when he gave me permission to leave that it was for the betterment of me.”

Nichols said Grant’s persistence in transferring is indicative of his dedication and willingness to succeed.

“It takes a special person like Anthony to be willing to jump through all of those hoops,” Nichols said. “I was committed to following through because I believed in him so much. As a person, as a student and as a soccer player, he fit our mold.”

Grant pauses and leans on a second-floor railing in Olscamp Hall. It’s the first week of April, and he’s almost finished with his first semester of classes at BG.

“I’ve always wanted to play pro soccer,” says Grant, undeniably exhausted after a hard week of practice. “I want to do it as a profession. I am not going to give up on my dream until God tells me I can’t, or I get too old.”

Nichols, who played soccer at The Ohio State University and professionally for five seasons, said Grant has the skill set to accomplish his primary goal.

“He’s got the physical abilities. More important than that, he’s got the drive,” Nichols said. “The way you get respect from your teammates is to come in and work hard. That’s what he does.”

“He’s a good goal scorer, which is something that’s hard to come by,” Nichols added. “He’s got a natural knack for scoring.”

Teammate Rodcliff Hall, also a native of Jamaica, said Grant caught everyone’s attention at spring practice. The newcomer scored two of BG’s three goals in a 3-1 spring-game win over Dayton on April 15.

“Anthony is an attacker,” Hall said. “He can run the field and score with ease.”

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