Men’s soccer’s Umar has emerged as one of Villanova’s top players since arriving on campus

Kristian Stefanides

“The soccer ball has transformed my life,” twenty-two-year-old Oscar Umar says as he smiled, thinking about how many opportunities the sport of soccer has given him that he didn’t realize he could have.  After heading back home to Tamale, Ghana from the United States of America this past summer for three weeks, Umar realized while being around some of his childhood friends how blessed he truly is to have the opportunity to earn a college degree at Villanova by combining his dedication to soccer and academics. 

“Looking back, it’s just shown me that soccer has transformed my life,” Umar says. “Here I am using soccer to get a better education, to accomplish something unique.”

For Umar, his life forever changed when he was selected to leave his hometown on a scholarship to a soccer academy 11 hours from home. When he was just 11 years old, he left his three sisters, seven brothers and parents whom he is very close with, after he had earned a spot in the Right to Dream Academy, a nonprofit organization. The European based academy in Ghana seeks out talented kids who not only have potential on the soccer field, but also in the classroom. Well-rounded children like Umar had the opportunity of a lifetime at an early age to earn a four-year scholarship to a solid academic school in Africa, as well as the chance to become a better soccer player in hopes of turning professional someday. 

“It was fun,” Umar says. “I learned a lot there and I got better as a soccer player and as a student, I improved a lot too. It was a good experience.”

Although Umar knew that he was passionate about soccer, his older brother knew even more the potential that Umar could have as a soccer player.

“My older brother, he’s the one who actually motivated me to play soccer,” Umar says. 

When Umar’s older brother, Rabi, was 15, a U20 Ghana men’s soccer team competed and performed well at the World Cup. Because of the team’s performance, European academies sought out talented players in Ghana to give them an opportunity to become professional soccer players later in life. When Rabi was selected to attend one of the European soccer academies and left home, it gave Umar something to think about. 

“It encouraged me to take soccer more seriously,” Umar says. 

Taking soccer seriously meant Umar heading to the Right to Dream Academy. But after his four years there, he had a decision to make about what his next academic and soccer experience would be. Umar found himself about to gain the experience of a lifetime when he headed to the Kent school, a private, co-educational college preparatory school in Kent, Connecticut. Umar entered as a sophomore and lived in a dorm on campus.

But beyond the peers, dorm parents and teachers that Umar gained when he arrived at Kent, he also found himself apart of another family while in the United States—a host family. Having had close-knit families in both Ghana and now the United States to call his own, Umar notes that the family cultures in both countries are very different. 

According to Umar, family members are more independent in Africa. Having dinner or walking to school alone in Ghana are common practices. However in the United States, Umar notices how American families do many activities together like sitting down at the table a couple times a week for meals or going to and from school with all of your siblings.  

“I like the family aspect [in the United States],” Umar says. “It makes such a big difference. I feel so close to my family here.”

Umar has two older host sisters, one older host brother and two loving, supporting host parents in his Connecticut family. 

“They are very nice people,” Umar says. “They treat me like their own. My sisters and brother treat me like I am a part of the family. I feel so connected. Every holiday I am with them. They drive and come watch my games and they know what I like.” 

Umar whole-heartedly described the bond that he shares with his host siblings. They are always laughing, joking and having a lot of fun. It was his host family who helped him in his college search and who would eventually be moving him into Villanova for his freshman year thanks to their support and guidance throughout the entire process. For Umar, choosing to spend his next four years at Villanova was an easy decision. 

“I decided to come to Villanova because it was the perfect fit for me in terms of my college search,” Umar says. “I was looking for a small/medium sized school that has smaller classes. Going to a really good soccer school was one of the important things I was looking for.”

Although he had other offers at Georgetown University and the University of Michigan, Umar knew once he stepped onto Villanova’s campus during a visit that it was the right place for him.

“Visiting [Villanova] gave me a good perspective of what I wanted,” Umar says. “I got introduced to the team. The guys were very nice. They were welcoming. They accepted me.”

But it wasn’t just the players who influenced Umar’s decision in choosing Villanova. Coach Thomas Carlin also had a lot to do with it.

“In terms of my coach getting me here, he actually did a really good job in the recruiting process,” Umar says. “He got me to come visit and then he personally monitored me through everything and showed me this was the best opportunity for me and I haven’t regretted any single bit of it.” 

And Umar was certainly right when he knew that coach Carlin and the squad at Villanova would be the right fit for him. Carlin is grateful for having had Umar a part of the team over the past four seasons.

“Oscar made a tremendous impact on the field immediately,” Carlin says. “He is one of the most talented players that I coached at Villanova. In the classroom, he was a hard working student who exceeded all expectations.”

But it was beyond the typical soccer skills and academic potential that Carlin noticed about Umar during the recruiting process. Umar had much more than that.

“Oscar is genuinely a great person,” Carlin says. “His smile and infectious laugh says everything that you need to know about his character.  He is a young man with a fun-loving yet determined personality.”

Not only is Carlin proud of Umar, but is also proud to have been the coach to connect Umar with his best friend at Villanova.

“Since Oscar’s first day on campus, he naturally gravitated to his BFF (best friend forever) Aaron Dennis,” Carlin says. “The two of them have been inseparable friends and I am proud to be the coach who introduced them.”

With just one year left on his student visa to figure out what he wants to do after he graduates in May, Umar has  several plans in mind to help him stay in the United States. The determined, focused student-athlete hopes to play professional soccer. Although the Major League Soccer draft for the senior class was this past January, Umar decided not to pursue the draft, part of the reason being he would have to leave Villanova. Umar would have been able to take distance learning courses or classes in the summer to finish his degree, but giving up the on-campus experience during his last few months wasn’t something he wanted to miss out on after spending nearly four years at Villanova. 

Umar also suffered an injury and had surgery to help him heal after the soccer season ended, which is another reason that delayed him in trying out for a professional team already. The senior has been doing physical therapy and hopes to get back on the field full-time by next week to prepare for some professional tryouts after graduation. Even if the professional soccer venture doesn’t work out right away, Umar has some other plans in mind. 

“If I have to choose, I will choose professional soccer, but at the same time, you have to plan your life,” Umar says. 

Umar, who is an economics major with minors in sociology and communication, is currently applying for jobs in New York City so that he can be close to his home in Greenwich, Connecticut and can commute to the city each day. And maybe so he can eat his favorite food from home—a hot order of jollof rice, at the Ghanaian restaurant in the Bronx. 

But no matter what job that Umar will end up taking on in his life, whether it’s through soccer or economics, he knows for certain that giving back to the community is undoubtedly in his life plan.

“The valuable lesson I’ve learned in all my years and what I’ve been through is giving back and helping people,” Umar says. “My whole life I’ve been given opportunity to be who I am today. If I didn’t have the opportunities that have been given to me I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be getting a college degree. I’ve been given lots of opportunity. I have to give back.”

Just as Umar’s older brother had inspired him when he was just a young boy to pursue soccer, it is still his family today who motivates him to work hard and do his best as an athlete and as a student. His seven siblings and parents are the driving force behind his work ethic in the United States. 

“When I always look back, there is always some kind of motivation to do this for my family,” Umar says. “I feel so lucky for so many things. Just knowing that my family is back there, not having the same opportunity that I have, it just motivates me to be successful and make some difference not only in their lives, but other people’s lives.” 

If Umar could have just one perfect day sometime in his life, it would be playing in the World Cup Finals in front of the entire world. He envisions himself sporting a Ghanaian jersey on his back and beating Team USA on a warm, sunny day.

“You can bury me after that day,” Umar says. “I’m done. I’ve completed everything.”