A Knoxville high school soccer team's title-winning season helped a community affected by gun violence

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Jon Netherland strides into the conference room at Austin-East Magnet High School, a light blue suitcase (complete with Jessica Simpson logo) in tow. One by one, he pulls out the spoils of the previous year's boys' soccer season. There are the plaques commemorating the district, regional and Division I/Class A State titles. Then there are the proclamations from Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and the Tennessee State Senate.

"These are my children," he says.

The trophies or his players?

"Both," he says with a gentle laugh, "I guess I can give them back now."

Netherland shouts to the school's principal, Tammi Campbell, who is in an adjoining room. "We're going to have to get a new trophy case! It's completely full, and that's a good problem to have."

But Netherland's cheerfulness masks the tragedy he and the school endured amid the team's championship run. During the first part of 2021, when the soccer team's dreams were fulfilled, five Austin-East students died from gun violence. One of the deaths was an officer-related shooting that happened on campus.

"These were their friends, their classmates, people they went to school with since elementary," says Netherland about those victims and their relationships with his players. "As a coach and as teachers, I think seeing that grief, and in the end, and not really knowing in real time how to alleviate it because it was continuous for a second. That was the most hurtful. These kids here are strong, and they're resilient."

'Good things come out of here'

There is a comfortable, small city feel to Knoxville. The rolling hills are lush, and on this October day, the fall colors are just beginning to peek through. There is seemingly a church on every other street corner, be they made of stone, brick or wood. The Sunsphere, a lollipop-shaped tower that remains from the 1982 World's Fair, is prominent on the city's skyline, as are the buildings that comprise the University of Tennessee.

Austin-East High School in many ways is an island within a series of islands, and the city of Knoxville is by no means immune to issues relating to poverty and crime. The bulk of this economic suffering is evident in the section known as East Knoxville. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit minority communities hardest, has only increased the level of hardship.

According to U.S. Census data from 2019, the poverty rate -- defined that year as an annual income of just under $26,000 for a family of four -- in the city of Knoxville was 24.3%, a rate more than double the national average. A report from the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee stated that the percentage of Black residents in Knoxville living at or below the poverty line was 43% in 2019, despite making up just 17% of the population.

Violence increased as well. In Knoxville, there were 37 homicides in 2020 -- up from 22 in 2019 -- with 35 as of Dec. 2021.

Within East Knoxville sits the school, which doubles as a beacon within the community, its arts and science programs the primary draw. There are distinguished alumni too, including the McKenzie twins, Raleigh and Reggie, who excelled in the NFL, as well as WWE star Bianca Belair.

A walk around campus reveals a school that is maintained with great care. When I visit, the entrance is decked out in fall decorations of pumpkins and cornstalks tied together with red and pale blue ribbons, the school's colors. Inspirational messages from Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and author Helen Exley line the hallways. Marble tablets preserve memories of past sporting glories. It's why Campbell, during a tour of the campus, turns to me and says, "Good things do come out of here."

Campbell's words are said with total conviction and they're backed up by history. But there is also doubt that what happens at A-E will be seen and acknowledged by the broader community. Will the doors of opportunity be open for the school's students?

'I think we could be good'

Not only do good things come out of Austin-East, but sometimes great things do too, even if they happen in relative obscurity. Netherland and assistant coach Malaika Guthrie are two examples. Guthrie also leads the school's dance programs, and is set to retire at the end of the year, having spent 23 years at A-E. Up until this year, when she passed the reins to Netherland, she coached the girls' soccer team. Her leadership of the dance program led her to a unique recruiting strategy: Her dancers had to play soccer, too.

As for Netherland, he is a man who lives to coach. An A-E graduate, Class of 2006, Netherland played football and was part of Guthrie's dance program. He also played soccer for the Roadrunners.

"It was kickball back then," he notes. "Our coach here used to just make sure I stayed with the most talented player on the other team, and chase them around and foul them all the time."

Netherland started out as a volunteer as a middle school football assistant, and then helped Guthrie as her assistant with the girls' team. When the boys' team head-coaching job opened up in 2016, he jumped at the chance, and he and Guthrie became a tag team. Guthrie coached the girls in the fall with Netherland as her assistant, their roles reversed for the boys' team in the spring. He also has slowly been acquiring his U.S. Soccer Federation coaching licenses.

"It turned into a weeklong thing, then it turned into a season-long thing, and seven years later I'm still here," he says about he fell into coaching. "It's amazing how God works and how the journey of life take you places that you wouldn't have foreseen, and that's the honest to God truth. I don't know how I ended up here, but I am."

Netherland and Guthrie both work nights at a local Holiday Inn. Netherland takes some Instacart shifts, too. Not only does that help make ends meet, but it leaves their days free for coaching.

Netherland's role model was Sam Anderson, a legendary football and track coach at A-E who won state championships in both sports. Anderson's example provided inspiration and motivation, but so did Guthrie; she was the one who opened the coaching door for Netherland.

Soon he had the Roadrunners on the up. In Netherland's first year, the team won two games, but then seven the next year, nine the year after that, and A-E kept climbing.

"I knew I had to change the culture, wanted to do that," he says. "I didn't want to come and just roll the ball out and pretty much let the other team kick our butts every time. As success came around you have more and more optimism and more and more buy-in when it comes to, 'Hey I think coach knows what he's doing.' I think we could be good and successful. We kind of just developed every year."

'Beautiful blend of cultures'

For some of Austin-East's players, getting to the podium at the state tournament in Murfreesboro involved traveling thousands of miles to come to a new country and a new life.

Cheikhna Sadibou Seck -- just Sadibou to his coaches and teammates -- sits in the same conference room on the A-E campus where the trophies were laid out. He wears a necklace with the pan-African colors of red, black, green and yellow, but also a blue and white trinket of a geometric shape given to him by one of his teachers. The two items are a nod to Seck's past and present.

Born in Dakar, Senegal, his father moved to Europe when Seck was 8. His mother, Fatou Lame, moved to the U.S. when he was 10, leaving Seck to be raised by friends of his family. It wasn't a happy existence.

"I wasn't their kid, so they would treat me different."

Seck recalls making numerous trips to the U.S. embassy in a bid to rejoin his mother, finally succeeding in 2019. The only languages he spoke upon his arrival were French and Wolof, a language common in West Africa, including Senegal. He says that within two months he was speaking English. But he also spoke soccer, and as a lanky, skillful forward, that helped him fit in.

"I've been watching soccer and playing soccer since I was 5," he says. "It's always been my No. 1 sport."

When asked what grabs him about the game, he lists dribbling, scoring goals, making assists, and "winning the title"-- in that order.

Netherland estimates that the majority of the 25 players of last year's 2021 team are refugees, representing six countries. Defender Marius Irankunda was born in Tanzania after his parents fled the civil war in neighboring Burundi. Then there are brothers Ezekiel Nsabiyunva and team captain Esloni Hakizimana, who arrived from Tanzania. There are players from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Iraq.

The transition to a new country is never easy, but for refugees, personal circumstances make the move even more fraught. Irankunda recalls how his father passed away in Tanzania back in 2010. Traumatic experiences like the ones Seck encountered are not left at the border.

The impact of the pandemic has not helped matters, and it can lead to isolation. But the common experiences of so many A-E players helped form an ever-strengthening bond. Their differences and similarities celebrated in equal measure.

"It's a beautiful blend of cultures on their end, being from overseas, to African American, white American, Hispanic American," says Netherland. "It is wonderful to see. It's is almost a World Cup of a team. I've come to find out that mix of culture is the highest driver of good spirit, good passion."

'Trauma, trauma, trauma'

The area around Austin-East is referred to in some quarters as "The Gun Zone." It's a moniker that weighs heavily on area residents, because like most labels, it doesn't tell the whole story of a community, obscuring the good that has emerged from East Knoxville. But during the first four months of 2021, the level of violence escalated.

On Jan. 27, 2021, 15-year-old Justin Taylor was shot and killed. On Feb. 12, Stanley Freeman Jr. suffered the same fate; he was 16. That was followed up four days later when Janaria Muhammad was shot and killed in the front yard of her East Knoxville home. A former student, 15-year-old Jamarion "Lil Dada" Gillette, succumbed to a gunshot wound on March 9.

Cutting even deeper was the seeming randomness of the killings. There have been reports that Freeman's shooting was the result of mistaken identity.

Even before the season started, the team was dealing with trauma, as it got word that a former teammate, Venuste Mbonwanayo, had been shot and killed outside of Atlanta.

It was against this backdrop that the season began. The Roadrunners were quick out of the gate, winning three of their first four games, riding the goal scoring of Seck and Lavie Ushindi along with the defending of Irankunda and Hakizimana.

But on April 12, another heavy blow struck the A-E community. Anthony Thompson Jr. was shot and killed in one of the school's bathrooms during a confrontation with four Knoxville police officers. He was 17. A gun in Thompson's possession went off while one of the officers fired two shots, striking another officer and Thompson. The district attorney's office said that no officers would face charges for the incident. (On Feb. 4, a 22-year-old man pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for buying and providing the gun to Thompson.)

The killing of Thompson meant another loss of life to mourn, and it also shook the school's aura of being a safe haven.

Tanika Harper, president of the Shora Foundation, which runs youth and entrepreneur programs in East Knoxville, recalled how a therapist told her that while the grief process has no specific timeframe, it usually takes about three months to process one incident.

"It was just like trauma, trauma, trauma. We couldn't get through the first before the second and the third," says Harper. "So it's just hard to process your emotions and your feelings. Kids, they haven't learned -- and sometimes adults haven't either -- the skills of how to process all that stuff."

Nsabiyunva says he was friends with both Freeman and Thompson, and that the amount of grief was almost overwhelming.

"The night that Stanley died, I sat in a car, and I was bawling my eyes out for 30 minutes straight," he says. "I called a friend, and she helped me through it. She talked to me like, 'It's going to be OK. Just focus on what you got to do and put it behind you.' I couldn't quite [do that], it hurt so bad, knowing that that can happen to people that I love and care about."

Seck recalled how back in Senegal he knew people who had died of poverty or when a house burned down. Yet the impact of the violence in East Knoxville still hit hard.

"It's messed up. Nobody should be dying at that age," he says.

Spreading a message of support

In the aftermath of Thompson's death, Austin-East closed for a week and a half. Rallies and protests calling for an investigation into the death of Thompson were held.

"We just needed a chance to breathe," says Campbell, who was working in the district office at the time before becoming the principal. A memorial to Thompson -- since taken down -- was set up outside the bathroom where he died.

Campbell is an Austin-East graduate herself -- Class of 1987 -- and a Knoxville native. She is at a loss to explain the level of violence, or what should be done.

"This is where I grew up, this is where I have been, and it's a part of who I am," she says. "And it concerns me beyond the school part of it, the loss of lives in our community. And a lot of it is, it's us. I mean it's people killing young people, and I don't understand. I'm trying to understand how can we, as a community that surrounds them as a village, can help make sure that [violence is] not the only option that the kids feel."

It was left to Netherland to step in and lead the team, help with the grieving process, and urge his players forward. Austin-East took the field just a day after Thompson died, beating Carter 8-0, but then stumbled 3-0 in a district clash against Gatlinburg-Pittman two days later. The game could only provide so much solace. Netherland realized he had some grieving of his own to do, too.

"I felt a little helpless," he says. "I had to take some time for myself. Luckily my mother instilled faith in times where things are swirling around like crazy. The hands that I was holding were the people that I loved the most. My players, people that I cared about the most we're still here, just looking at each other for that next step. As the coach, you've got to kind of shake that off eventually, and get back to the role of leader. I was helped by the mentality of how everybody on our team was, 'OK. We've had enough time. Let's do something about this.'"

Netherland's positive energy and steady leadership had a cascade effect through the entire team. Hakizimana, now a student at Johnson University in Knoxville and member of the soccer team there, said it was Netherland's example that inspired him.

"I was like, 'I'm just I'm just going to try and be like coach and just mentally focus on myself,'" says Hakizimana on the NAIA school's campus, a pair of black crucifix earrings serving as subtle reminders of his faith. "Before I say anything to my teammates, I've got to make sure that I'm good. If I'm OK, then that just assures my teammates that 'If Esloni can do this, so can we.' It got to the point where I talked to them every day, not even about soccer, just about their family problems, their well-being. Tell me anything. After that, that just brought us way closer than we used to be."

In an effort to make sure the lives lost weren't forgotten, A-E player Brian Carmona convinced his teammates and coaches to wear face paint in subsequent games. He drew inspiration from Juventus forward Paulo Dybala, who had worn face paint to protest violence against women. For A-E, there were three colors; red to protest violence against women, white to protest violence against children, and black to raise awareness against police brutality.

"It was just to say [to the community] that they're not alone," Carmona said. "That us as a team, we're supporting them as well and spreading a message."

'Response was incredible'

After Thompson's death, the boys' soccer team saw its final two matches scheduled on campus affected.

One team, Cosby High School, citing a lack of available players, chose not to play at A-E and forfeited the match. The final home game against Cumberland Gap, which was senior night for Austin-East, was also at risk of being canceled.

By this point in the season, Austin-East's spot in the postseason was secure. But the possibility of there being no senior night had the team bracing itself for another emotional blow. Just about everyone connected to East Knoxville admitted that there was a part of them that understood parents' fears about possible campus safety given what had taken place over the previous four months. But much like the tag of "The Gun Zone," the deaths of the five students didn't paint the full picture.

"It was very hurtful," says Harper. "I did try to put the shoe on the other foot. I was thinking, '[This is from] a community that knows nothing about the goodness and I'm just getting what I see on TV. I'm just getting what the media gives me. Not knowing anything else, then I guess I wouldn't want to go play over there, either.' But it was hurtful and frustrating because we knew that that was not the story of Austin-East."

Guthrie recalled how there have been instances where the A-E soccer team has traveled to schools where racial slurs have rained down from the stands.

"Have we ever turned down a game because we were afraid of the racial tone? No, we go," she says. "So that's kind of what I likened it to. But I mean, you know, people were afraid."

Despite its reputation as the world's game, the sport of soccer in the U.S. hasn't always wrapped its arms around minority communities, with the pay-to-play model often shutting them out of the sport. But in this instance, the Knoxville soccer community stepped up.

Cumberland Gap had stated that it would be willing to play the game at a neutral venue, at which point, local club One Knoxville, which will begin play in USL League Two this year in 2022, sprang into action. One Knoxville founder Drew McKenna along with director of growth Sam Weisbrod, had had been building connections with A-E all season, showing up to their first game when McKenna estimates "There were about 12 people there."

In a matter of just eight days, they arranged for the Cumberland Gap match to take place at the University of Tennessee's Regal Soccer Stadium. The UT athletic department received the necessary waivers to hold a high school event on campus. One Knoxville then got the word out over social media.

"The response was incredible," says Weisbrod over lunch in downtown Knoxville. "It was it was almost as if everybody knew this was something [A-E] needed. In the community, as soon as we put it out there, it just spread like wildfire."

It was a night where Knoxville showed the best of itself. More than 1,800 tickets were sold -- the maximum allowed given COVID-19 restrictions -- with Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon among those in attendance. UT rolled out the welcome mat for the teams as well, providing food and full run of the facilities.

"That moment was so beautiful. All of us were just smiling," says Hakizimana. "We were like little kids going on the playground."

Even Cumberland Gap got in on the act, providing the Austin-East players with gifts for senior night. Duly motivated, the Roadrunners proceeded to win 9-0. But the feel-good vibes went well beyond the result or even the venue. It was a night when all of Knoxville turned out; Black, white, rich, poor, young and old.

"For a second, it brought Knoxville together," says Harper, who was in attendance that night. "And that was the joy because I think for a moment, the pain that East Knoxville was experiencing, it went outside of Knoxville. It got to a point where people on the other side of the tracks couldn't ignore what was happening."

Netherland adds, "The spirit of the event was exactly what it needed to be. It was full of love and healing, and I think that catapulted us the rest of the way through the state tournament."

'Come when we need you'

And yet for some, there was an undercurrent of unease attached to the senior night game. It felt that without Thompson's death, the suffering, as well as the resilience in East Knoxville would have been overlooked.

That's why, for Guthrie, the night was bittersweet. There was gratitude at how the community pulled together on Austin-East's behalf. Yet there was hurt that it only happened at UT, and not at Austin-East.

"I was super happy," she says. "But the bitter part was you never came to my school. You can come see us when we're at the University of Tennessee, but you never came to my school and you refuse to come to the school.

"I know sometimes crises allow people to react and respond in truly genuine and helpful ways, I know that. But why does it always have to be a crisis? Can't we just be good neighbors because we're neighbors? Like, invite us some time to come. Community, come see us."

It is at this point, that 10 months -- or is it years? -- of grief and pain and even anger come bubbling up to the surface for Guthrie, and begin pouring out of her 5-foot-3 frame with an energy that could power Knoxville itself. Her words go beyond the soccer team and could just as easily apply to everything that took place at Austin-East -- and in East Knoxville -- in 2021.

"Come when we need you! When we're losing, and we need to hear your voices!" she shouts. "Come when the other team brings busloads of people and we're not there!"

The emotion soon passes, and Guthrie calmly explains what she'd like to see going forward.

She says, "I'm speaking from a point of continued support. Like, I want you there all the time."

'Like winning the World Cup'

After the 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic, there was little in the way of expectations when the 2021 season began. But as the season progressed after some early struggles, Hakizimana sensed that from that pivotal senior night game -- and with the district playoffs approaching -- the team's potential became clear.

Hakizimana adds, "There's a moment that was like, 'You know what? We can have a pretty good season because of our teamwork, that we're just bonded very well.'

The postseason is structured in a manner in which the district and regional finals aren't knockout games. So throughout the season, A-E continued to face rivals Gatlinburg-Pittman Highlanders. G-P claimed the regular-season crown. A-E nicked the district title thanks to a victory via penalties, then claimed the regional title with a 1-0 victory on a free kick by Seck.

"It was one of those goals you score on FIFA," Netherland said of Seck's winner.

The state tournament beckoned. This was new territory for Austin-East. Where would the money come from for hotels and food? Fortunately the community stepped up. The Emerald Youth Foundation was among those who provided resources, in its case transportation.

A-E cruised to an 8-0 victory in the quarterfinal against Gibson County. That was followed by a tense 1-0 win over Merrol Hyde in the semifinal, a match where Seck scored the game winner after thinking that his leg had been broken on a tackle. (Five months later, the scar from the challenge is still visible.)

And in the final, A-E's old rival -- Gatlinburg-Pittman -- was waiting.

Hakizimana recalls "My teammates were looking at me like, 'Bro. G-P again?' I was like, 'Yep, can't do nothing about that.' They brought fear to us, and I'm pretty sure we did the same thing to them. They were good players, and there's no way we can let our guard down. It was just like going to a battle that either team can win."

As finals go, this one was an epic, with multiple lead changes and shifts in momentum, and then overtime to decide the matter. G-P took the lead in overtime, leaving a dejected A-E team trudging to the sideline during the break.

"You could see it in everybody's eyes. We were scared," says Irankunda. "We were like, 'Oh my god, is this really it?' I remember [the coach's] speech and Esloni's speech, our captain. He just put something into the team, and it's like everybody went crazy. Our midfielders, our strikers, they were like, 'We got to do something.'"

"My guys are dejected. My captain is crying," says Netherland. "I told the kids 'Hey, we've been in the situation before, Keep your heads up. The only reason we're here now is because we're believing. If you believe, something will happen."

Something happened. With under two minutes remaining in OT, Austin-East earned a penalty for a handball. Seck stepped up and converted the spot kick, forcing the match into penalties, with Austin-East carrying some precious momentum. In PKs, it was Seck again who stepped up to take the potential game winner.

"I wasn't nervous," says Seck. "I was nervous in the district final. [This time], I was just confident."

Indeed. Seck delivered his penalty into the top corner. The state title belonged to A-E.

"When I saw the ball go into the goal, I just ran to our players, my teammates," says Seck. "Like, I still didn't feel like we just won state. I was celebrating, but I still didn't feel like we won anything."

Irankunda says he wanted to cry, but he kept his tears in. Hakizimana couldn't hold them back.

"Just disbelief," he says. "It was like, we just won that. We really just won."

Campbell had been principal at Austin-East all of three days and was in a drive-thru line at an Arby's when she got word of the victory. She made sure that word spread throughout East Knoxville, organizing a welcome committee on campus, despite the late hour. For the players, the ride back from Murfreesboro was one they'll never forget. The buzz of winning was off the charts for the entire two-hour ride.

"It's like all of us had a Monster drink, and just drank all of it up, and all of us just had a lot of energy," says Hakizimana. "And so all of us was still singing that song, 'Ole, ole, ole, ole,' like a World Cup song. It was like we just won the World Cup, basically.

"Some of us call our parents. Some of us call our friends. Personally, I call my friends. And Coach was just so excited because he turned to his whole family and [you] could see tears in his eyes."

The players were in for a surprise when they approached Knoxville. When the bus got off the highway, there was a police escort waiting. The players' reactions were laced with humor and poignancy, in that initially they thought they were in some sort of trouble.

"Seeing the police behind us. I was like, 'Oh, somebody did something stupid,'" says Nsabiyunva. "Then the coach told us it was a police escort, I was like, 'Whew, we're OK.'"

Hakizimana added, "That was the most amazing thing that ever happened. Honestly, it was like once we saw the police, it was like, 'What do we do? Are we getting caught? I mean we just won! What was happening?' But then we heard about a police escort. We were kind of in the traffic.

But once the police came, it was like, 'whoosh' and everyone was just laughing."

By the time the bus arrived on campus, more than 200 people were waiting.

"We felt like stars, celebrating," says Seck. "We weren't expecting that many people to show up in front of the school."

In the days that followed, the afterglow of Austin-East's victory spread through East Knoxville. A school year that had been soul-crushing was ending with a much-needed emotional boost.

"That was a light of hope, a light of love," says Campbell. "It's like [the team] helped open up the heavens, and we saw sunshine. And we had not been seeing that for a long time."

Everyone loves a winner, and it wasn't long before the Austin-East players were being showered with all manner of benefits. There was a trip to Dollywood, along with an overnight journey to the Smoky Mountains, where the team stayed in cabins. Financial support began to find its way to the Austin-East team.

Within the hallways of Austin-East, the players enjoyed a newfound celebrity. A sport that barely registered was now mentioned in the same breath as the school's football and basketball programs.

"Now everybody knows my name," says Seck.

Focus despite more tragedy

The battle between hope and despair is never-ending. In August 2021, just a day before the new school year was to start, another A-E student, 17-year-old Johnkelian 'John John' Mathis, a player on the school's football team, was shot and killed.

Meanwhile, some players have moved to the next level. Upon graduating, in addition to Hakizimana, teammate Edmond Mfisumukiza also made his way to Johnson University, where both are playing for the soccer team. Seck has made it through first team tryouts for USL side One Knoxville. Mekhi Stewart, one of the penalty kick heroes of the final, is now in the academy of Major League Soccer side Nashville SC. And the players received their championship rings in November.

For those players still at Austin-East, and Netherland as well, there is no shortage of motivation. There is a title to defend, and practice begins this month.

"I think [that winning mentality], it is in us now, because the conversations I've been having it's like, 'We got to do it again. They've done so much for us that we've got to win it again,'" says Netherland. "And my thing is like what do you do after you finally won? But honestly, the motivation now is to go undefeated. We're all on the same page. So I don't I don't feel like there's going to be any letdown in motivation. We are defending a state championship. That's all I have to say on the first day of practice."

Campbell is right. Even in the face of pain and loss, good things do come from Austin-East.