Until he arrived at Green Sea Floyds High School, Wasim Elhozayel knew nothing of football.
Well, almost nothing. He had watched “The Blind Side,” the 2009 film about an impoverished athlete from inner city Memphis who is taken in by a wealthy suburban family.
The story highlights the differences between rich and poor, and the lessons learned when foreign worlds meet.
In some ways, the 16-year-old Wasim can relate. As an Arab whose home is in Israel, he comes from a country where his demographic comprises just 20 percent of the population. And here, in the farm country of northwestern Horry County, the exchange student’s minority status is even more obvious.
No one looks like him. No one sounds like him. No one worships like him.
But no one kicks like him, either.
Wasim is a champion kickboxer, a five-time title winner in Israel who expects to earn a black belt upon returning to his home country in June.
He’d hoped to continue kickboxing in America, but there is no such program at Green Sea.
There is football, though, and the Green Sea Trojans needed a kicker.
‘They gave me a ball and told me to kick it’
Tony Sullivan never turns a player away.
He can’t really afford to.
Green Sea Floyds is Horry County’s smallest high school, holding just 333 students in grades 9-12. The football team is packed with kids who are accustomed to playing both-sides-of-the-ball, get-in-there-every-down kind of football.
Some of the schools the Trojans play suit up 20 seniors. Sullivan has nine, playing on a sparse roster that barely tops 30.
So when Wasim’s host family called in August and asked if he could try out, Sullivan invited him to the field.
“He’s like, ‘I’m a kickboxer,’” Sullivan recalled. “[I thought] ‘Well, he’s got to have some power in his legs, you know, hips and all.’ I asked him if he’s ever played football, of course Americana football, and he hadn’t. He’d played soccer.”
Wasim had to learn everything about the game.
“I didn’t know anything about football,” he said. “Anything at all. … Just came here and they gave me a ball and told me to kick it.”
Sullivan brought out the tee and showed Wasim how to set up the ball. Then came lessons on how to drive the pigskin.
“He’s been a real asset to us,” Sullivan said. “He can squib it. He can kick it deep. He’s understanding. I think he really loves it.”
For Wasim, football is an integral part of the American high school experience. He knows this is his lone chance to play.
“We don’t have football in Israel,” he said. “It’s, like, a special thing here.”
During a game against Waccamaw earlier this year, Wasim booted the ball into the Warriors’ end zone. Sullivan couldn’t remember the last time the Trojans had forced a touchback.
“Kicking is not a natural thing here,” the coach said.
He’s right. The school has no soccer team. And most farm kids just aren’t into kicking, anyway. So the team typically goes for two points rather than attempt a PAT (point after attempt). Even with Wasim improving, the Trojans haven’t changed their strategy.
“It’s not necessarily because of him,” Sullivan said. “Heck, you’ve got to score to take PATs.”
After Friday’s loss, the team is 0-8 on the season. Last year, they were 1-9.
Despite the cultural differences, Sullivan said his new kicker blends well.
“It’s just like he’s been here,” he said. “He’s in my weight-lifting class first block, and he gets in here and he lifts hard. It’s amazing. He just fits in.”
Wasim’s teammates agree. They talk sports, ask questions about each other’s countries and kickboxing has obviously come up.
Occasionally, some guys chide Wasim about his accent, which carries the lilt of the Middle East. But the jokes go both ways.
“Being Southern, people make fun of us … for how we talk,” the coach said. “So I guess when somebody comes around here, you know, we’ve got to have fun with him a little bit, too.”
In other words, No. 85 is just that, another number on the roster.
“He’s just like us,” said senior guard Matt Rabon.
‘The Lord picks our children’
Turn left off of S.C. 917. Worley Lane is a lightly graveled road runs beside a cotton field and weaves through a pecan grove. Cindy Worley Howell’s ancestors purchased the property in the early 1880s. The white farmhouse holds small porches on the first and second stories. Fireplaces frame the left and right sides of the house.
Worley Lane Farms spans 365 acres of pastures, crops and swampland. It also holds about 20 goats that are part of a small dairy operation. The Howells sell cheese and soap at local farmers markets. They got into the goat business in 2011 as a way to continue the place’s legacy as a working farm.
And heritage is important to the Howells. It’s why they began hosting exchange students in 2006.
The couple adopted three Russian siblings 11 years ago and wanted to preserve their traditions. For Nadia, their oldest, the goal was to keep her native tongue.
“We didn’t want her to lose the language,” Howell said. “We wanted them to learn about their culture.”
But they soon expanded their geographic horizons. The first year they agreed to host, they committed to a Russian girl and then learned of a Filipino boy named RJ whose placement family had fallen through. They offered to serve as a welcoming family, which meant keeping the boy for a few weeks until another host could be found. They ended up with two students instead.
“We went to pick him up at the airport,” Howell recalled. “RJ got off the plane, and he showed me his tag and he looked at me and he said, ‘My mom?’ So in the car on the way home from the Florence airport I looked at my husband and said, ‘We’re keeping him.’”
Over the years, the Howells have welcomed four Russian girls and three boys from the Philippines. Last fall, they hosted a boy from Kazakhstan. He was a soccer player too, and also kicked for the Trojans.
“The Lord picks our children for us,” Howell said. “He touches our hearts with what he needs us to see.”
Before she agrees to accept a student, Howell reads the letter the boy or girl submits to the exchange program. Howell was touched by Wasim’s message, which described his desire to do volunteer work, to be a help at his temporary home. She also thought that, as an athlete, he’d fit in with her family. She runs half-marathons. Her three children at home have all run cross country at one time or another.
Howell knew pretty quickly that Wasim would be happy on the farm. On his first afternoon there, he insisted on milking goats.
Later, he talked about his grandfather, a sheik who once amassed a large amount of land. “The land is not ours,” his grandfather told him. “It belongs to our children.”
Those words resonated with Howell. They reminded her of her father.
“To me, that’s just one of the ways that the Lord’s saying, ‘Yep, I picked this one for you,’” she said. “It was interesting, but it happens like that.”
Most afternoons, Wasim finishes football practice and returns to the farm. He feeds the dogs. He busts up alfalfa cubes with a hammer for the goats. If needed, he’s always ready to sample some fresh cheese.
“It’s perfect,” he said of his new abode. “We had some goats where I came from, and I was doing chores and stuff like that.”
Wasim does get homesick sometimes. He misses the olive trees, falafels and shawarma, but he’s getting used to pecan orchards and Southern fried chicken.
Although it may sound strange, coming to a Green Sea goat farm is Wasim’s reward for winning a scholarship from the U.S. Department of State. The program provides a 10-month educational experience for international students who are considered potential leaders. The year-long application process seeks to find the best representatives from each participating country.
“The kids teach us and we teach them the same in return,” said Dina Berg, a local grants coordinator with Academic Year in America, an organization that works the Department of State to place the scholarship students. Berg’s family also hosts international students.
“When I was a teenager, the only thing I ever knew was South Carolina,” Berg said. “I lived in Florence, I went to the beach and that was about it. I didn’t know much outside of the town or the state. Now my children growing up know about the world.”
This fall, Berg has placed 19 students from 16 countries, including Turkey, Lebanon, Bosnia, Albania and Indonesia.
The program often shreds stereotypes, she said. American students tend to find common ground with their international peers, dispelling fears and creating mutual understanding.
“That is the whole point of the program,” she said. “Our government started this program after [Sept. 11, 2001,] to bring students over here so they learn that we are not terrorists and we learn that they are not terrorists. Because someday, those kids are going to lead their country because they are the best that that country has to offer. … Someday they will be leaders and they’re going to know that they have family in South Carolina and South Carolina people are super nice.”
For Wasim, his experience has been just that. Yes, he’s heard a few insensitive or ignorant remarks, but he combats them with sarcasm and a grin.
When a student asked him if he knew Osama bin Laden, he replied “Yeah, he’s my cousin.” When another questioned how he “got here,” Wasim said, “on a camel.”
The Israeli teen insists the questions don’t bother him and are far outweighed by the kindness shown by the Howells and other families. He also sees a calm, humorous response to those questions as part of his reason for coming here.
“I want to leave a good impression of me, for me and my people,” he said. “Some people think Muslims are bad. ... I want to be nice to all people. I want them to remember me as a nice kid and the cool boy that wanted to help everybody.”
With the exception of some kickboxing training in Germany, Wasim hasn’t traveled much beyond Israel. He’s part of the bedouin community, a traditionally nomadic people though not so much anymore (“We’re more evolved,” he said. “We don’t live in tents.”). The country, of course, has its challenges. An app on Wasim’s iPhone notifies him if missiles are heading near his city.
The sixth of nine children, Wasim is the son of a teacher and a government purchasing manager. His grandfather, the sheik, was well known in his community. He had 39 wives, owned the first car there and the first house, a place so vast neighborhood kids called it “the castle.”
Back home, Wasim studies at a private school that concentrates on science. Although he plays soccer – he’s a huge Barcelona fan – kickboxing is his first love. He followed his cousin into the sport more than eight years ago. He liked the technical skills required, the discipline. He also found kickboxers more respectful of their opponents than MMA fighters.
And, of course, he kept winning national titles.
Apart from his athletic prowess, Wasim distinguished himself academically. He’s fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English. He hopes to learn Russian, German and Spanish. Since he was 8 years old, Wasim has wanted to be a physician. Doctors help people, he said, but, and perhaps more importantly, they’re respected.
Strip away the scholarship, the kickboxing titles and the academic accolades, though, and Wasim is a teenager with many of the same interests as his Green Sea peers.
He listens to Eminem. He’s a fan of Kevin Hart’s standup.
“I love comedians,” he said. “I don’t love this drama stuff.”
And, of course, there are movies, like “The Blind Side.”
When Wasim discusses his American experience, it’s usually in terms of film and how the silver screen U.S. compares to the reality he’s living.
Green Sea people, he said, are more religious than the movie characters he’s watched. They talk to him about Christianity. They ask about Islam. His own coach is planning a youth revival next month on the school’s football field.
“That’s a good thing,” he said of the religiosity. “Not a bad thing.”
But high school football, that’s cinematic.
It didn’t matter that the announcer initially butchered his name. Or that his teammates had to help set the tee up for him at first. The hits, the cheers, the carnival atmosphere, they bring those celluloid concepts to life.
There’s one more similarity, too.
“How we’re all like family,” he said. “Exactly like the movies.”