In this time of ubiquitous sports, from the Rose Bowl to the Winter Classic, an excellently written story appeared last week about a Liberian Soccer star dying homeless in Newark, New Jersey.
Looking for a sports story to sum up the end of the year, I found a story that encompassed not just sports, but American history, politics, economy and fame turned to tragedy.
It is the life of George Sacko.
His soccer talent coined him the Wizard. He played for Liberia over a half century ago and though the soccer team never made international acclaim, he was a national hero for his game as much as his heritage.
George Sacko was born of an American-born mother and native Liberian father. In a time when Africa was struggling against European colonists with its indigenous tribal roots, Sacko’s game and personality united a country teetering on civil strife. This made him a star forever in Liberian history, as well as an athlete breaking societal boundaries at the same time Jackie Robinson was doing it in Brooklyn.
Liberian immigrants have been a strong illegal and legal immigration presence during the turn of this century on the east coast because of political turmoil. An American colonized African nation, Liberia was a place for freed slaves to free themselves of America’s horrific slave past.
George grew up in a middle-class family, went to schools and excelled in his game. He learned the game from the streets as he played with his brothers, who followed him in soccer and basketball excellence, even to the States.
So many years after freed African Americans left America, the question of racial discord of being born in an America was still visible. This is another amazing impact of American slavery rarely explored in history.
George would date Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who would become winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She was one of the first female presidents in the world. She brought Liberia back from multiple civil wars and still continues to lead with strength and vision.
As George left for America after his soccer career ended, he completed a journey so many years after his great grandfather, born in Maryland, became president of Liberia. He came to America looking for an opportunity as an immigrant, but unlike his ancestors, his family was free.
The freedom would end in tragedy after George’s wife and children left him. His job was outsourced in the '80s to another nation and he became a victim of unemployment, drug culture and depression. This sports star, who was adored in his homeland, had become alone, desperate and abandoned in America.
For all the talent, connections and accolades, George Sacko died on the streets of America.
The story of George Sacko is the part of the dreams of every athlete playing in college football and basketball. It is also the story of many NFL, NBA and NHL players who have struggled with poverty and drugs in the wake of their playing careers.
It is the story of American middle-class manufacturing jobs leaving a community devastated with urban blight, poverty and drugs. It is the story of America history reflected in Liberia, slavery and immigration.
George Sacko is a name to remember. Maybe we should admire him for great soccer playing. Maybe we should learn from his tragic downfall. But most certainly, we can learn how greatness and tragedy are not so far apart, in sports or life, and the most powerful story is a man’s life and not a game played on the New Year's holiday.