Getting the chance to play a sport in college is an accomplishment for any athlete, but for Covenant's Girma Fekadu-Baker, it's just another step in his incredible journey.
Fekadu-Baker learned to play soccer on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he grew up. "I remember probably just playing a lot and playing barefoot and just having fun with friends," he says. "Sometimes we couldn't even tell the night and the day, we played way too much."
Soccer gave him an escape, but his childhood was filled with challenges. He never knew his birth parents and had to work just so he could pay his way through elementary school.
"My math teacher found me. I was asleep in the road and she took me to the school and told all the staff at the school," he explains. "The staff would bring me lunch and clothing, and started supporting me."
Three years ago, his life was changed when he found a new support system.
"He told us a little bit about his life story and it's a very compelling story so we started spending more and more time with him," says Covenant English teacher Julie Baker. She and her family met Girma while doing service work at a school in Ethiopia in 2011.
"As we got to know him, we realized we didn't just want to sponsor him to come to America, be we wanted him to be our son," she says. "We started the process of getting him a visa to come to America and be part of our family."
"I couldn't sleep. I was just dreaming," Fekadu-Baker says of the weeks leading up to his move to Charlottesville. "I couldn't believe it until I got on the plane, then it was a miracle."
Fekadu-Baker left his home and many of his challenges behind, but he brought his love for soccer with him to his new home. Shortly after arriving, he joined the soccer team at Covenant.
"We knew early on that he was something special," says Covenant soccer coach Bryan Verbrugge. "He came in with a lot of individual skill, and has grown tremendously in his ability to play as a team and to lead a team and to trust his teammates."
In his senior season, Baker was named the Division-II state player of the year. He led the Eagles in goals and assists, and he also led them to the state championship game last fall against Carlisle. With the game scoreless in the second half, he stepped up to take a free kick and converted the only goal of the game. The Eagles won 1-0, earning a boy's soccer state championship for the first time in school history.
"We made history with the team," Fekadu-Baker said. "I've never felt that way. I've never held a trophy with anyone before. That was my first time holding a trophy and I felt like I was blessed with the team, just being part of this team."
"I've had wonderful experiences with my children, but I have to say winning the state championship was one of the most amazing moments of my life," adds Julie Baker. "I think it was because of the story that we knew."
Scoring the winning goal in the state title game may sound like the perfect ending to that story, but Baker's soccer career isn't over. He will start a new chapter, when he heads to play for Christopher Newport this fall.
"I can chase my dream wherever I am," he says. "I know it's going to be challenging and it's a lot of commitment. I just can't give up."
Throughout Girma Fekadu-Baker's incredible journey, there has always been soccer, and there will always be soccer. It has been the one constant in his life, there in the toughest times and the best times.
"All I think about playing soccer is happiness. I never think about the sadness. Even if I lose, I had a good time in the game. I will never stop playing, I will just keep going."