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Ex-Nigerian National Team Star Now Coaches Soccer, Character at CPS School

By Justin Breen | August 20, 2013 7:58am
 Christian Nze is a teacher and the Urban Initiatives On-Site Program Director at Crispus Attucks Academy in Bronzeville.
Christian Nze
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BRONZEVILLE — Christian Nze's first soccer experience consisted of kicking rotting oranges in the back alleys of Lagos, Nigeria.

"We'd play until the juice would spill out," Nze said. "We had no playground or soccer balls, so we had to improvise."

Nze, 66, has come a long way since then — playing for the Nigerian National team as well as two other pro teams in Nigeria before moving to the United States.

For the past 10 years, he has coached the sport to students at Attucks Elementary School as part of the Work to Play program run by Urban Initiatives, a Chicago nonprofit.

Work to Play, which begins Sept. 3 at the school, allows players to learn the game, but also builds discipline and improves their overall health.

 Christian Nze was a soccer standout at Blackburn College in downstate Illinois.
Christian Nze was a soccer standout at Blackburn College in downstate Illinois.
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Blackburn College

"He has helped me become a better person and helped with my character," said Renardo Coburn, 13, an Attucks eighth-grader from Washington Park. "And Coach Nze helps us with our self esteem and teaches us new moves."

Nze, of South Holland, knows soccer quite well. He played sweeper on the Nigerian National team — the Super Eagles — from 1967-71. He also was on two prestigious company squads — Electric City Corp. of Nigeria and African Continental Bank — in his native country.

The game also allowed Nze to leave Nigeria and earn an American education. Some of his former Nigerian teammates competed for Blackburn College in downstate Illinois, and they told the soccer coach about Nze. When he was 28, he received a letter from Blackburn asking him to join the program.

Three months later, after securing a visa, he was headed to America.

"Illinois was quite a shock, especially seeing the first snow," said Nze, who later transferred to Eastern Illinois University, where he played for the school's soccer team with fellow Africans and graduated with a bachelor's in marketing.

After moving to the Windy City and earning a master's in special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Nze began teaching at Attucks in 1990.

He also participated in several youth soccer instructional programs before Urban Initiatives created Work to Play in 2003. Attucks was the third Work to Play school; now there are schools in 20 Chicago neighborhoods affiliated with the program.

At Attucks, 70-minute Work to Play sessions take place Tuesdays and Thursdays before school and Fridays after school. Players usually square off against each other, but there are occasional tournaments. Healthy foods like apples and granola bars are provided afterward.

"Because Coach Nze has been such a consistent and committed member of the Urban Initiatives team at Attucks, he has been able to have a significant impact on not just the students on the team, but also on their families," said Urban Initiatives executive director Jim Dower, of Logan Square.

Nze's No. 1 rule for his players is they should never lose their cool, and they appear to be listening. When interviewed separately, both Coburn and sixth-grader Jakari Berryhill said Nze first and foremost preaches not to fight back even if struck by an opponent.

"He teaches us things to win games but also about good sportsmanship," said Berryhill, 11, of Greater Grand Crossing.

Nze said the best part of his involvement with Work to Play has been "making a difference in many of the students that I worked with ... teaching them a way to discipline themselves while respecting one another, and teaching them not to be selfish."

Nze realizes soccer allowed him to discover an American dream.

He hopes his integral part with Work to Play helps elementary school students on the South Side do the same.