UVa’s ‘U.N. of football’ dealing with fallout from Charlottesville violence

Eric Adelson
A day after their soccer match was ‘canceled because of the KKK,’ the University of Virginia men’s soccer team came together for this group photo. (UVa Athletics)

Perhaps the hardest moment came when his oldest friend called, and he had to advise him to stay home because of the color of his skin.

Hayes Fountain still gets a wave of emotion when he talks about that phone conversation, even though it’s been a week since the “Unite the Right” rally brought mayhem and tragedy to his hometown. He grew up in Charlottesville and plays there now, a senior on the University of Virginia men’s soccer team.

“We call our locker room the U.N. of football,” Fountain says. “Seventeen countries represented. Six continents. Everyone cares about each other.” And on what was supposed to be a match day last Saturday, the United Nations of football was huddled in its locker room, unable to go to the pitch or even to the cafeteria.

“We were in our locker room preparing to play the world’s game,” says coach George Gelnovatch, who graduated from UVa and has won two national titles there in the last decade. “Got a call from the athletics director telling me the game is off, and it was shocking. The best way to say it is you see this type of stuff on the news but until it arrives on your doorstep it’s hard to imagine.”

Raheem Taylor-Parkes, a sophomore from Tampa, tweeted: “In 2017, who would’ve thought I would have a soccer game canceled because of the KKK. Damn shame”

The incoming freshmen were staying at a hotel because dorms hadn’t opened yet. They were instructed to stay with the upperclassmen until further notice. Don’t go back to your hotel room, not even for a toothbrush.

“There were some scared guys,” the coach says.

The team turned to Fountain, who’s one of the leaders in the group. Here was a Charlottesville native, unable to process how this was happening in his idyllic town, and suddenly trying to explain it to people from Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

One was Eddy Opoku. He’s from a remote village in Ghana. When he was 10 years old, a man arrived from the United Kingdom to offer soccer tryouts for local children as part of the Right to Dream program. The entire town showed up that day, not to watch the kids play, but to see a foreigner. Opuku had never laid eyes on a white man before.

“He was the whitest person you’ve ever seen,” he remembers. “Honestly I was shocked. My whole life before then, I never thought I would see this. It was tears of joy for me.”

Eddy stared at the man’s skin, at his hair. Then he went through with his tryout, and he made the program. Soon he was leaving Ghana, leaving Africa, on his journey to New York and then a beautiful town in Virginia. Eddy didn’t know much about the history of race relations in his new country, and no one had ever uttered a cross word at him since he arrived. Now this was happening on his doorstep and Fountain was trying to help him make sense of it.

“Everyone has a right for their voice to be heard,” Fountain said, “but I was explaining to them everyone has that right until you start inciting violence. That’s not legal, that’s not allowed. There’s nothing about that that’s acceptable by anyone.”

Fountain was always an ambassador for his town, but now more than ever. So many of the perpetrators had traveled from out of state, but he still wanted to step up and say something. “I don’t want their impression to be unfavorable to the U.S.,” he fretted. “That’s not what the U.S. is, domestically or internationally.”

And yet he was also on the phone with his best friend, an African-American in the National Guard, hoping aloud that he wouldn’t come anywhere near the streets where Heather Heyer was struck and killed by a Nazi sympathizer in a car. It was heartbreaking to him that anyplace in Charlottesville was potentially unsafe for a black man.

“I’ve traveled the world and I’ve never seen any community as accepting as all the citizens of Charlottesville,” Fountain says. “That’s been hard; it hurts even more.”

After a long and upsetting night, with Gelnovatch constantly checking in with players, the team gathered for training on a sunny Sunday morning. Before the first pass, the team came together for a team photo. The power of the moment immediately hit everyone. There were faces from Guatemala, from New Zealand, from Denmark, from Saudi Arabia, from Nigeria and from Virginia. It was the most diverse team the coach had ever assembled, by far. Gelnovatch knew it would become one of his most meaningful pictures. “I’ll have that one for good,” he says.

In the hours and days after, other UVa teams followed, coming together for photos of their own. The hashtag they shared was #HoosTogether.

The team gathered together again on Monday, and Gelnovatch wanted to open up the locker room for discussion. Three or four players spoke. Then the coach did: “The last thing I said was, ‘I’ve been here a long time. A student here, an assistant coach here, a head coach here, got married here, raised a family here. I’ve been around a long time. People here are good people. Open-minded, progressive-thinking, good people. I don’t feel these people are our people.’”

The rest of the week was not without challenges. The coach reached out to some recruits to reassure them about UVa. “Yes we have some explaining to do,” he says. “We have to talk people through it.” But he said there have been “no issues” with recruits, and he has faith that the Charlottesville he knows will be clear to anyone who visits.

For Fountain, there was another scare later in the week. One of his roommates, Sergi Nus, is from Barcelona. His family was visiting on the day the terrorist attack happened there. Everyone back in Spain is OK, but that made two unimaginable tragedies in the span of a few days. Fountain, who speaks Spanish, did his best to offer support – again.

And when a reporter asked for an interview, he was happy to oblige – quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela as he spoke.

“I would want people coming to Charlottesville not to forget how much joy there is in life,” Fountain said. “And to not let a group of people taking the brightness out of that joy. That’s the only way you lose, when you stop living your life by your terms.”