Updated Fri, Nov 29, 2013 2:18 pm
Rio Grande, Ohio. Population: 830, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Home of the original Bob Evans farm and a university with a particularly diverse soccer team.
RedStorm student athletes litter the sidelines and bleachers in what are normally sparsely populated stands on Wednesdays and Sundays in the fall. Thick accents fly through the air, with quick cries shouted in Portuguese, French, Spanish, Japanese and English. Broken English is the practiced language of choice as soccer terminology can be heard through the night. Junior goalie Jon Dodson’s screeching voice commands, “SQUEEZE,” “HOLD,” and “PRESS” throughout the full 90 minutes.
Junior center back Cesar Lopez plays the ball back and forth, feeding his teammates passes that start goal-scoring runs. He flies under the radar, keeping fairly quiet for most of every game. The talented and consistent Lopez is in his second year in Rio Grande by way of Montreat, N.C., and originally San Salvador, El Salvador.
In his home country, Lopez played a combined four years for the country’s U17, U20 and U21 national teams. During that time, Lopez played thousands of hours of soccer, traveling to the likes of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru, Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States and more.
Lopez came to the U.S. by way of a recommendation by a friend of a former teammate in El Salvador. He originally went to Montreat College in North Carolina where he spent two years with his friend and current teammate Maximilliano Viera. Lopez came to the idea in a somewhat roundabout fashion. Viera was set to go to Rio after several years at Montreat. For Lopez, the opportunity kind of just fell into his lap.
“A friend of a friend that I played with – I played with this guy like since I was nine,” Lopez said, “and his brother was starting playing at Montreat … I saw them Christmas over there, and he said something about it and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going, I like that idea.’”
Rio head coach Scott Morrissey originally did not recruit Lopez. He had been playing with Viera for two years, and he also wanted to go elsewhere to play soccer.
“Maxi was the one who told us about Cesar was wanting to leave as well,” Morrissey said, “so it just kind of came together, so we were very fortunate to get both of them actually."
Lopez had much to share with his counterparts, even while he had much to learn himself.
Just as important in coming to the United States as soccer was, receiving an education was critical to his journey. Lopez by no means comes from a background in which he wanted for necessities like food, clothing or other simple needs. His father works within the Catholic Church in El Salvador and his mother is a dressmaker who works out of the family’s home. He realized, however, he had a great opportunity before him to come to the U.S. and receive a quality education and play soccer at a high level.
Since coming to Rio, Lopez has worked toward a degree in mathematics. His classes are small and he, while shy at times, works diligently with his fellow students and professors to grasp the concepts he hopes to possibly teach in the future. Among the two math classes he takes in the fall semester of the 2013 school year, there are four people in each of the two classes. Both of these classes are with Dr. Jean Daniels.
Lopez said Dr. Michael Rhodes is possibly his favorite and most influential teacher. In the two years Lopez has been at Rio, he had Rhodes for four mathematics courses.
“In Cesar’s case he came very prepared, and he was highly motivated, and was one of my best students,” Rhodes said. “He is one of my best students that I have had in all my classes. He is hardworking and has a good background.”
More than anything, even education, Lopez says, getting an American girlfriend has been the most pivotal part of his acquisition of the English language. Lopez specifically talked of himself and teammate Viera as examples of this idea that finding a partner has the potential to be the best learning tool, in the most non-materialistic way, of course.
“You can ask Maxi,” Lopez said. “He got a girlfriend in two months and in a year he was fluent.”
Nicole Ogg is a senior defensive specialist on the Rio Grande volleyball team. Ogg and Lopez have been dating since November of 2012. Lopez credits his girlfriend with helping him pick up English much better than he had in his previous two years in the United States. Ogg has spent a great deal of time trying to better understand Lopez and help him acclimate to English.
“It has taken a lot of patience from me because I’ve never been with somebody who doesn’t speak English as a first language,” Ogg said, “so it was really hard at the beginning, ‘cause I was just getting used to it and I got frustrated a lot because I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Lopez also asked Ogg to stay on him about improving his English. If there was a word he did not understand or he spoke in an incorrect manner, he adamantly proposed that Ogg correct him. The two would work together with the help of an English translator.
Ogg decided to pick up Spanish to better acquaint herself with Lopez’ native tongue. She received a 100 percent on her first test of the 2013 fall semester. Now, the two plan on traveling to El Salvador over Christmas break to meet Lopez’ family.
As much as being immersed in the language with a significant other has helped, there is no doubting that being a member of the RedStorm soccer team has played as big a part as any. Morrissey continually stresses the importance of being on the same page in terms of communication. This can be quite difficult at times, considering all the different languages spoken and the degrees to which the players can handle communicating in the same languages, namely English.
Morrissey is in the ears of his players at practice constantly. He said he believes it to be imperative for them to be able to comprehend English.
“It’s so very important that they get away from their native language and start to understand English because we are the ones who are trying to bring this all together, so it’s easier said than done,” Morrissey said. “And it’s not something that happens in one, two, three, four weeks, or let alone a season. It takes a while to figure that out, so it’s going to be an ongoing battle to get that across to everyone.”
In bringing together all of these different cultures, there are shared methods of communication. Rio communicates in short commands and hand gestures during the course of a match. Dodson yells in his distinctive way from the back of the pitch, directing his teammates. A hand gesture with a thumbs-up is often what verifies the reception of the command. A thumbs-down shows the need for Dodson to repeat what he has said.
“I like using eye contact and hand motions with them so if I say ‘squeeze in’ you know I’m doing hand motions to pull them in or push them out, whatever it may be,” Dodson said. “It’s just them giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, you know if they need to hear it again. It’s really if they understand it, you know, then I can keep going or saying something different or some other way they might understand.”
Lopez is one of those players who is expected to help communicate commands and inform his teammates of any changes in strategic positioning. Yet, he is only able to assist with the players who speak Spanish and or Portuguese. The roster is complete with players from the United States, France, El Salvador (Lopez), Brazil, England, Uruguay, Spain, Colombia, Chile, Japan and Jamaica.
Tuesday dinners are another way Rio attempts to bridge the gap of cultural differences and promote team unity. Each Tuesday night the squad has a team dinner in which a player will share a dish unique to his home country.
The diversity presents an always present challenge to communicate, but in a sense they all have a common language: soccer. Players on the Rio Grande team understand soccer like it is a common discourse. Yes, it is difficult to understand one another at times, but there is an always improving, dedicated group of guys on Evan E. Davis field fighting for the RedStorm.
“Most of the players … they don’t speak English or we do not have a common language,” Lopez said, “but when you know like how to play, when to pass the ball, like the basics, a little more of soccer, we are fine in the fields. We just need to fix a little bit.”
Soccer as a common language is a reoccurring theme that is heard among Rio coaches, administrators and those within the community.
Rio Grande Sports Information Director Randy Payton speaks in awe of what he sees displayed on the pitch when the RedStorm play.
“I guess that’s the one thing that maybe the one thing that soccer has that some other sports don’t have,” Payton said. “It is that you may not necessarily know each other’s language, but soccer kind of bridges a lot of the gap between different nationalities and things like that.”
One of the more peculiar things Lopez has experienced in his travels are the slight differences in lingual exchanges. Even while being able to comprehend the things Portuguese players say, as well as other Spanish-speaking players, Lopez cannot help but be amused by some of the minor differences in the way certain things are said in other Spanish-speaking countries.
“Ready for me means listo. For Maxi, it means pronto. So after many years with somebody with different cultures with different places … I don’t lose everything, but I lost part of it because I spend so much time with other culture,” Lopez said. “I don’t say my word anymore, I say pronto for that specific translation.”
Lopez now uses many words that Viera and his teammates have used around him, in place of his previous usage of certain words.
Another example was Lopez’s use of frijoles (beans) and Viera’s use of the word porato to mean the same thing. The cultural differences Lopez has absorbed have been just as meaningful to his experience as learning a whole new language.
Lopez’ accomplishments are on display in his every day actions with his team and his girlfriend. Ogg remains proud of what Lopez has accomplished as the two grow closer. He has family in Rio Grande now, and they are united in a number of ways.
“Also, one of the points for us, that makes us be more together than other sports, is that we are far away from home, and we don’t have anybody here,” Lopez said. “Our team is like our family. Because we live with them, we eat with them … it makes us be more together."
The team does all of these things – winning the Mid-South Conference and placing eight players on the All-MSC team, for example – while going through the process of learning to communicate with each other. Lopez is one of the most vital to the current group’s understanding of each other.
It’s likely the last thing one would expect from the town that gave life to Bob Evans’ country cooking. The small town of 800-plus brings flavors from all over the world to put on a show twice a week every fall. Rio Grande’s chemistry on the pitch is delectable to the soccer fan’s voracious mind.
“For somebody who, you know frankly spent most of his life in West Virginia and didn’t get out to see a lot of things, it is really neat,” Payton said.
Cesar Lopez helps lead the way. Amid the voices crying out in diverse dialects and languages is a quiet but consistent voice, as Cesar Lopez’ demeanor shapes the methodical and efficient manner in which the Rio soccer storm rages on.