'MY KIDS ARE HAPPY. EVERY DAY, THEY PLAY SOCCER '

Omaha South's Abdi Adan holds his nephew, Dadir, in his living room at Southside Terrace.

SOCCER

That was the humble beginning of the soccer academy. Back then, Sal was playing defense, just trying to keep kids too busy and too tired to get in trouble.

At the time, Osuman Issaka, now 43, was attending Trinity University in Deerfield, Illinois. When his bid to make an NFL team didn't work out, he went back to school, earning a master's in management information systems from Bellevue University.

Sal ran an OHA baseball program, too, with financial help from Pacesetter Corp. President Harley Schrager. When Osuman moved back to Omaha, he started helping Sal with soccer and baseball. They helped out longtime Heavy Hitters coach Gannie Clark with football.

At some point, they started running a track program, too. Osuman said 85 kids from OHA track have qualified for national youth meets.

The brothers eventually narrowed their focus to soccer. It's what they know best. And if you're just practicing and playing among yourselves, it's relatively cheap.

But it didn't stay small for long. In the early 2000s, then-Creighton coach Bob Warming did a soccer camp for the OHA kids. When many of the kids showed up without good soccer shoes, Warming's daughter Audrey started what became Audrey's Shoes for Kids. One of the first kids in line for cleats: Noor Hamadi.

"Then when I came back to coach UNO last year, who was on my team?" Warming said. "Noor."

After the Creighton camp, donors bought 1,000 soccer balls and gave them to kids at Spencer Homes and Southside, Sal said.

"It didn't take off. … Then two weeks later, I came back. Kids were kicking balls off the wall at Southside. I said, 'Oh, maybe we've got something.' "

That's when he decided to have the cookout at Miguel Keith Park, at 30th and Y Streets.

"When those 600 people came, it was the scariest thing I ever saw," Sal said. "I had no idea what we were going to do with all those kids."

Sal and Osuman found friends to help coach. They organized OHA teams to play each other as an internal recreational league.

Soon, the OHA teams were competing with the best of them, and often winning. Coaches from clubs began asking to borrow OHA players to play secondarily for their teams. Sal would let them, because it meant more games, more practice.

The Housing Authority pitched in some. But back then Sal and Osuman spent a lot of their own money on fees and equipment, giving kids rides and other costs. OHA vans helped get kids to practices and games.

Noor Hamadi remembers those days well. His first taste of organized soccer came on the scruffy field at Miguel Keith Park. His first instruction was at the feet of men who, like him, were from Africa. It was intense, but he loved it.

"He's demanding," Hamadi said. "He tells you. When you are doing bad, he tells you. He doesn't filter anything. He tells you straight up."

Hamadi is one of many, but his story exemplifies the challenges and opportunities the Issakas offer. In those early days, Hamadi was the youngest player on a really good team. He played defense and came off the bench, but he wanted to start at striker, the top offensive position reserved for the fastest players with the best skills.

"He was like, 'No, you're not good enough. Go train.' "

That lit a fire under Hamadi. "I remembered he found me training by myself, so I went back to training by myself, running, juggling, dribbling, doing situps and pushups," he said.

Sal and Osuman teach the kids the skills. They drill them in practices, and then they push them to practice on their own. At a practice on a hot June night, you could watch the magic unfold on the new artificial turf soccer field at Miguel Keith Park. In the middle, little kids went through footwork drills under a coach's watchful eye. They were learning the 42 skills all OHA players have to know.

At the other end, an older group of kids practiced complicated passing and dribbling pattern drills. If they did it wrong, Sal stopped them and deftly demonstrated how to do it right. If they took their time or lost the ball, look out.

"NOOOOO," Sal roared at one point. "Too slow! Keep your heads up! And you gotta possess! Possess!"

At the other end, high school age boys engaged each other in a scrimmage, using goals made by two orange cones spread a few feet apart. The point was keeping possession of the ball through teamwork, precise footwork, crisp passing, good decisions and quick movement. They had to complete at least three passes before they could take the ball through the goal.

They zipped passes and flashed the kind of fancy footwork that elicits oohs and aahs in soccer stadiums. In a way, it was like the Issaka brothers and their buddies on that dirt road back in Lagos Town.

The kids in the scrimmage hailed from Togo, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Myanmar, Mexico, South Omaha and north Omaha. Nobody was goofing. Nobody was arguing. Just hard work, and the joy of playing a sport they love.

Nobody was standing still. Nobody was without cleats, thanks to the donors of Simple Foundation, which pays for nearly all the program's costs.

"Everybody's like family in OHA soccer," said Mumin Aden, Omaha Central's co-captain last year. He's played at OHA since age 4. "It's a safe environment for the little kids, and a comfortable place for us. 'O' and Sal make it a safe place."

Hamadi says kids want to come to practice and take it seriously because they're "fun, demanding and very beneficial. To be on the OHA soccer team is a privilege, and they make sure we know that. It's a privilege."

Sal and Osuman stress discipline, and not just in soccer. As liaisons between the Omaha Public Schools and OHA families, they keep in touch with teachers and the kids' families — and they keep on the kids.

The families appreciate it. Sitting in the living room of their Southside Terrace apartment one evening this spring, Mahadi Sheikh and Amina Mohamed talked about how much the OHA soccer program has meant to their family.

The couple were between work shifts. Sheikh, who works in maintenance for OHA, had just come home from work. Mohamed had yet to go to work at her evening job sorting recyclables.

They are the parents of Abdi Adan, from South High. Their oldest son played with Hamadi for OHA back in the day. Their daughter Binto and two younger sons play as well.

The family fled civil war and hunger in Somalia. The parents lived for 12 years in Kenyan refugee camps. That's where Abdi was born.

"Life is good here," Sheikh said. "My kids are happy. Every day, they play soccer. They have practice, they have games. If they weren't doing that, they might be getting into trouble, getting into drugs."

Adan, sitting on the floor with a nephew crawling over his legs, said the atmosphere that Sal and Osuman create with soccer gives kids like him a safe environment and a positive path.

"There's a lot of bad influences around here," Adan said. "The program is really good. It turns a lot of kids' lives around, even if they're not good at soccer. They care about all the kids, and they don't want them going down the wrong path."

When players make the honor roll, they get a shoutout in the end-of-practice huddle, and a little reward. When they mess up, they get pulled aside for a talk, and might get called out at midfield.

Hamadi had both experiences. In middle school at Lewis and Clark, he got in enough fights that he got suspended from school.

"Sal called us out, right there in the practice, he was like, this is how he starts it — 'Some of you are getting suspended from your schools. NOOR.' … Everybody around was laughing, I was hanging my head."

That was the end of the fights. Hamadi worked his way up to striker on his OHA team. Like several of his teammates, he played for other clubs, too. He won a spot on an increasingly talented South High School team, and helped bring the school its first state soccer championship in 2013. He kept working.

Sal worked on UNO coach Jason Mims to take a serious look at Hamadi for a soccer scholarship. Again, Hamadi made it. He took the skills, the work ethic, the belief in himself, the joy in the game, and applied it at UNO.

In a brilliant moment for the Mavs, Hamadi scored the tying goal with three minutes left in regulation. He drilled the ball into the back of the net, just like he used to pound the ball into a garage door during late-night pickup games at Southside Terrace. Then he did a celebratory flip on the field, just like he used to flip off the jungle gym at Southside.

This spring, when Hamadi got his degree, Sal and Osuman had him come to OHA soccer practice in his cap and gown. The kids applauded and posed for pictures with Hamadi.

Coach Sal told the kids this is what you can do if you work at it.

"He's a really good guy," Hamadi said. "He looks at others with hope. He and 'O' make us feel like we're very capable, like we're up there with anybody else. Even more — we're capable of even more. He pushes us. That's the crazy thing. He pushes us, each and every one of us."

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