It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in Miami, and a couple dozen teenage soccer players are on the field behind Edison high school, in Little Haiti, trying to run a scrimmage in the mud.
Frederman Mendoza, or Freddy, a 23 year old who grew up in Honduras, stands at midfield with a whistle in his mouth, his clothes soaked through. “Nice halftime, nice play,” he says. “We’re gonna balance out the teams.” Around him, a gaggle of his old high school classmates joke with one another in Haitian Creole.
The group is a distinctly Miami mix—there are Cuban-Americans, Salvadoreans, Guatemalans—but the occasion is a soccer tryout for Silver Lake College, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where Mendoza is a sophomore. Silver Lake is a small Catholic school about an hour north of Milwaukee, and worlds away from Miami. Most students there live close enough to drive home every night. Just 200 live on-campus, but thirteen of them—including most of the school’s soccer team—came from South Florida on scholarships.
How did they find out about Silver Lake in the first place? The answer is simple: Freddy Mendoza.
After another 30 minutes of slipping and sliding, Mendoza closed the tryout with a pep talk. “Remember what I said in the beginning, guys: soccer is just the door to your education. Once you get an education, you’ll get everything in life. But if you don’t open that door, nobody’s gonna open it for you. Believe that!”
Staff from Silver Lake’s admissions office were on hand to pass out applications in the rain, then stayed in Miami to meet with families who might have questions about Manitowoc. Twenty one kids from the try-out applied.
This is not usually how college sports scholarships work—with a student being the ringleader for recruitment at an entire soccer program. Nevertheless, said Dr. Christopher Domes, president of Silver Lake College, if you get a student like Freddy, you might as well embrace it.
“Freddy is one of the most determined—,” Domes paused mid-sentence. “I’ve been in higher education 31 years: There’s not many students over my 31 year career—and I’ve met thousands of students— like Freddy.”
In high school, Freddy thought he’d go to college on a soccer scholarship, but it didn’t turn out that way. He wound up working construction and taking night classes at Miami-Dade College. The schedule was brutal: he left the house at 6 and got home after midnight. “I remember one day I sat down with my mom,” Mendoza recalls, “and I told her, Mom, I don’t want to be working, because if I don’t start college now, at my age—20, 21—If I wait until I’m 24, 25, I’m not going to make it to college.
A college education is one of the strongest tools for upward mobility in American society. But college is expensive, and the application process can be daunting. Many talented low-income students don’t apply to schools they could get into, or don’t go even if they get in.
In his free time, Freddy combed the internet looking for soccer teams that might give him a chance. Eventually, he got in touch with the coach at Silver Lake. He wouldn’t have to pay a dime for tuition; all he had to cover was room and board.
“So when I get there, the first day, when I went to practice, I thought, this cannot be possible…I trained so hard, I thought they had a good team,” Mendoza says. What he found instead was a motley team with just enough players to field a side. Coaches at opposing schools started to proposition him after games. “They came to me and they asked me about what I was doing in the school. Why, if I’m such a good player, why I was playing at a school that didn’t even be in the conference yet?”
At the end of the season, Freddy and one of his teammates made a move. “They set up a time with my executive assistant—they said ‘we really gotta talk to Dr. Domes,’” Silver Lake’s President recalls. “And they come into my office, very prepared, and Freddy said, ‘I just gotta say it straight up, Dr. Domes. I cannot go through another season like this, we gotta get better players.’”
Mendoza’s version: “I put pressure on him.”
Watching the tryouts in Miami, Domes’ wife, Mary, recalled how disappointed Mendoza had been to be part of a team that sometimes saw opponents crack double digits in the score box. “I mean, they won two games and lost 11, or something like that,” she said. “But what does he do? He creates a video, and he contacts all his friends, and he goes to the president and says, ‘we can fix this.’ I mean, what kid does that?”
“He kept saying I got 50 people, I got 50 people…” Mary Domes says. “Really? 50 people? You’ve got fifty guys? So we round the corner and we come to the Little Haiti Soccer Complex, and there, filling the bleachers, are at least 40-50 guys, all in their soccer cleats, all ready. Just, oh my gosh….!”
Lo and behold, the second season turned out a lot better: Silver Lake went 10-2, and a crew of Miami athletes is headed for a degree.