'Wiggy' scores memorable summer gig
Central soccer coach travels to Africa to teach fùtbol at O'Brien School for the Maasai
Last updated 9/11/2019 at 3:47pm | View PDF
For years, Hinsdale Central soccer coach Mike Wiggins had organized the donation of hundreds of soccer balls for kids at the O’Brien School for the Maasai in Tanzania, Africa.
Then Kellie O’Brien, the Hinsdale woman who founded the school, asked Wiggins to donate something else.
“You know, what we really could use is you,” O’Brien remembers telling Wiggins. “You would be the best gift.”
It would be his dream, he responded.
“I said, ‘Let’s make it happen,’ ” she said.
And so in July, Wiggins, his wife, Bonnie, and his son, Brad, made the 20-hour trip to reach the school, located just a few miles away from the Kilimanjaro International Airport in Eastern Africa.
“When they found out we were actually bringing a soccer coach from America, the whole school was so excited,” O’Brien said.
“I did not see this coming,” Wiggins said of the volunteer opportunity. “Kellie had said a couple of times it would be great if the kids could see where the soccer balls are coming from and have an actual soccer coach come over and meet them and see them and coach them.”
Wiggins taught five classes of soccer — or fùtbol, as the sport is known outside of the U.S. — during the day and coached the team after school. Brad, a high school senior, led a running club during the week and organized cool down runs after practice. Bonnie did a little bit of everything, getting kids from place to place and documenting the trip in photos and on video.
“What was really cute was the kids would come out and they would be with their class, but then all of the sudden the class would grow in size and it was because kids would be doing anything they could to (sneak) out and learn soccer during the day,” Wiggins said. “The kids would say, ‘They are not in this class! They are not in the class!’
“The level of excitement, the level of enthusiasm, the eagerness to learn, the pure joy of seeing a soccer ball and seeing that they were about to learn something ... was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he said.
And that enthusiasm persisted despite the tough conditions — dusty fields home to softball-sized rocks and an occasional thistle bush, and a lack of equipment, including shin guards. There was never a complaint.
“ ‘Wiggy, it’s no problem,’ ” the students would tell their visiting coach.
“They never let that take away from their desire to play,” Wiggins said. “When they fell down, they were quick to brush themselves off, gather themselves, pick the burrs off and get right up and they’d be back in the activity.”
The kids loved the end of class, when Wiggins would teach them the trick of the day — like balancing the ball on their foot or their nose.
“They just loved it and they couldn’t get my attention enough,” he said, sharing a video of kids crowded around, yelling “Teacher, teacher! Look, teacher!”
“I would show them a skill and they would show fascination and that really, I think, describes literally every moment in time throughout the time I was there,” he said. “They just couldn’t get enough of the soccer, the interaction, the learning, the laughter, the excitement.”
He enjoyed his work after school with the team as well.
“They were just exceptionally talented and very respectful and very disciplined and very creative and imaginative, hard-working,” Wiggins recounted.
On his final day, a Saturday, he had planned for the kids to play a scrimmage game from 11 a.m. to noon. At the end of the game, he struggled to get his emotions in check and give his final address to the kids.
“As I’m getting ready to do this speech, they said, ‘Wiggy, can we play again?’ ”
“They jumped for joy. They were all excited,” he recalled.
The same request came at the end of the second game and Wiggins again acquiesced. The boys screamed and gave each other high fives, he said.
By the time the third game ended it was late afternoon, and Wiggins finally had the chance to tell the kids how proud he was of them.
“One of the boys, as they were walking away, he said, ‘Wiggy, don’t forget us,’ ” he said. “That was pretty special because that really caught me by surprise.
“They didn’t realize the effect that they had on me,” he related. “I said, ‘You guys, never.’ ”
Wiggins said he plans to continue to work with one of their teachers, sending over videos and other materials so the students can keep learning more about the game.
O’Brien couldn’t say enough about the work Wiggins did at the school, which opened in 2007.
“He’s so good at what he does and he’s so enthusiastic, everybody just loved him,” she said. “You couldn’t help but smile the whole time. The kids loved it and I know they’ll never forget it.”
Neither will Wiggins.
“They taught me more than I ever thought I could learn from working with a group of boys,” he said.