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Nnamdi May: Chasing a chance to go pro

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Feb. 10, 2014

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Nnamdi May, Woodruff Library security officer. Courtesy photo.

To observe Nnamdi May on patrol at the Woodruff Library, you might not guess that he leads a double life — behind the uniform of a campus security officer lurks the heart of a budding soccer star.

Growing up in Freetown, the capital of the war-torn Republic of Sierra Leone, May found soccer a welcome refuge, a place to escape the bitter landscape of war. "That was my sanctuary," reflects May, who is 26.

Born a few years before the outbreak of a civil war that would last for a decade, May discovered that in the face of disaster and disruption, dreams were a powerful coping mechanism. So he dreamed big.

Someday, he would become a professional soccer player.

This month, May will pursue an opportunity that could make that dream come true.

On Feb. 7, he left to join a select team of U.S. amateur soccer players who've been invited to fly to Turkey to compete against European professionals in a showcase event being held to identify new talent and sign new players.

Before he caught his plane, Emory Report talked with May about both the opportunity that lies before him and what he's found working at Emory:

Can you talk about the role soccer played during your childhood?

Growing up around the war was definitely life changing. It was crazy, but at the same time I know people who have lived through worse. So I'm grateful to have survived.

I've been playing soccer since I was seven. If there wasn't a soccer ball, we'd find a way to make one. We'd collect plastic, wrapping it around and around, almost like those rubber band balls that kids make, until it would get as big as a soccer ball. On the soccer field, that's where I get away from everything — the memories, the stress, the pain.

How did you continue to grow in the sport?

My family moved to the U.S. in 1998. I started playing with the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association and also played in youth leagues for the Gwinnett Soccer Association. It was an opportunity to work hard, be healthy and have fun at the same time — definitely a good outlet for me when I got to the states.

I continued to play in middle school and high school, and a little when I was at Georgia Perimeter College. Now, I play (in an amateur league) at Atlanta Silverbacks Park. They have a Wednesday league and amateur Sunday leagues.

Did you always plan to try out for a professional team?

My dad and I and all my cousins, we're all die-hard soccer fiends. Ever since I was a kid, we'd watch the World Cup as if it was our Super Bowl. So I always wanted to be a professional athlete. When I got to the youth system in the States, I just kept going for it.

Today, soccer is my getaway. I look at it as throwing on a cape at night and going out to live my other life.

How did you get invited to go to Turkey?

I'm going with an agency called Pro Soccer Consulting. In December, I went to a showcase soccer event and they chose me to play on a select team. Basically, I'm going to Turkey and showcasing myself. We'll play five games against professional opposition from all over Europe to see if we have what it takes to go to the next level. They're looking for players. If I do well, I definitely could be picked up. I'm apprehensive, but excited. I'm going to leave it all out there.

How long will the soccer showcase take?

I'm going to be there for about two weeks. I'm just thankful I could work it out and be able to do that. I work with some good people at Emory; I've had a lot of support. I think some (people I work around) are aware of what I'm doing, but probably not everyone. I'm a quiet guy.

Honestly, it will be fun to compare myself to professional players. I've always had the passion for soccer, but this opportunity is just surreal to me. My personal mantra is "carpe diem, seize the day." I'm just trying to seize an opportunity, because not many people will get the chance.

What soccer position do you typically play?

On the amateur team, mainly I'm a defensive mid-fielder in the forward position. You have to be in good shape; it's kind of like you pretty much control the whole field. You have to know what to do long before the ball gets there. I'd much rather assist my teammates and give them a good pass than score the winning goal.

Do you have a nickname for you on the field?

My Wednesday team calls me "the beast." But I'm a gentle beast. (laughs)

How did you come to be a security officer at Emory?

I've worked at Emory for two years now. One of my friends works here and told me about Emory Temporary Services. I began filling in for someone on leave, but they didn't return. So I just got lucky and fell into this spot.

I work mainly at the front desk. We'll do an hour on patrol, cycling on and off the security desk. Mainly, we're just there to help with anything out of the ordinary in the library. It's a library, not a jail, so we really focus on the students and staff. Our main focus is security, but a big part is customer service.

What do you enjoy about the job?

The interaction, the people, the diversity — you get to meet (people from) so many different cultures. I'm pretty reserved and quiet, but I love meeting people from lots of places – I'll try to interact and get to know them. Seeing how different people from different religions and cultures interact with each other — it's a beautiful thing.