Upon landing in Minnesota on a frosty early January day in 2012, after a long journey from West Africa, Ramzi Ouro-Akondo was, strangely, hot.
Only 9 years old, he was being reunited with the rest of his immediate family for the first time in more than half a decade and he was prepared: extra clothes, warm jacket zipped all the way to the top.
The car ride from the airport, heat blasting, was making him uncomfortable, however.
“I was getting hot, so I cranked down the window,” recalled Ouro-Akondo, now a Minneapolis Southwest sophomore and a budding force on the Lakers’ boys’ soccer team. “The blast [of cold air] hit my face. My uncle said, ‘That’s why we don’t open the windows now.’ I never felt anything like it.”
Welcome to Minnesota.
It was his first time outside of his home country of Togo, a sliver of a nation wedged between Ghana and Benin on the west African coast. In 2005, his family had won a visa lottery in Togo and was set to emigrate to Minneapolis when a document foul-up forced them to leave behind 3-year-old Ramzi with relatives. It took more than six years to work through the bureaucratic muck and obtain a visa for him.
LEILA NAVIDI • LEILA.NAVIDI@STARTRIBUNE.COM
Once unable to speak or understand English, Ouro-Akondo now speaks with assurance as he coaxes and cajoles the best from his teammates.
Six years later, on his first trip out of Togo, he was coming to his new home, reunited with his father, Alassani; mother, Nafissatou; brother, Faydane, and sister Oubeida.
“It was the blink of an eye, to be honest,” Ouro-Akondo said. “I just remember being on the plane and the next second, I was in [my father’s] arms.”
His father has a far clearer recollection.
“Before he came, I never felt very good, not very good at all,” said Alassani, who works at the Hennepin County Government Center. “Sometimes people would see me at work, feeling so bad. I was thinking always about him.”
Seeing Ramzi emerge onto the airport concourse, he shouted his name.
“He didn’t recognize me until I called his name,” Alassani said. “When he went into my arms, it was a great joy, with tears and everything.”
The importance of soccer
Getting here was only the beginning. Ramzi’s family had a six-year head start on adapting to life in America. The official language of Togo is French, and he didn’t speak a word of English.
“The language was hard,” he said. “I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.”
He had arrived in the middle of his third-grade year, thrown into American life right away. How would he make friends? On that front, Ouro-Akondo had a leg up.
Back in Lome, the capital of Togo, soccer was his passion. He and friends in his neighborhood played soccer so much that they formed a loosely knit team.
“We were outside all day, playing soccer,” he said. “I was a decent player, but I wouldn’t call myself one of the best. The competition there was very, very good.”
Alassani heard about his son’s exploits on the sandy patch they called a field. Alassani had played soccer into college in Togo before an injury ended his career. Here was a chance to affect his son’s life despite being more than 6,000 miles apart.
“He sent me cleats,” Ramzi said. “Everyone else was wearing regular tennis shoes.”
Alassani remembers it with pride.
“I think he was the only one on that team using cleats at that time.”
A quick learner, Ramzi solved the English dilemma quickly and began to develop friendships in school. When he was in fifth grade, a buddy noticed his abundant athletic abilities and invited him to join a local club team.
“I was 11, but I started at U12 and I was still the biggest kid out there,” he recalled.
After a failed experiment as a goalkeeper, he was moved to forward to take advantage of his skills with the ball at his feet.
“Almost every game, I’d have two or three goals,” he said.
He quickly made a name for himself in the local soccer community, playing up an age group level. He was invited to join Keliix Soccer Club, one of the metro’s top clubs.
Ramzi’s brother Faydane is also an accomplished player who played for two years at Minneapolis Southwest before joining the Minnesota Thunder Academy. Faydane now plays for Luther College in Iowa.
Maximizing his talents
Ramzi followed Faydane to Southwest and started his high school career as a forward. Southwest coach Jamie Plaisance saw qualities in Ouro-Akondo that he needed for his defense: a physical presence and a confidence in himself that comes from years of organic development on the dusty fields in Togo.
Plaisance moved him to center back, a position vital to the soundness of a defense. Despite having not played defense before, Ramzi smoothly transitioned into the position. Last year, in his first varsity season, he was the only freshman named to the Class 2A all-state second team.
“That’s pretty unheard of,” Plaisance said.
This season, Southwest — a program with a strong soccer tradition — is hovering a few games above .500 (5-3-3).
It’s a senior-laden squad, but its vocal leader is Ouro-Akondo. Once unable to speak, or understand, English, he speaks with assurance and no hint of an accent. He is known to use that voice to coax, cajole, implore and even demand accountability from his teammates.
“That’s him being himself,” Plaisance said. “You don’t want to dump water on somebody’s fire. To maximize what a kid can do, you have to let them be who they are.”
Southwest teammate and close friend Andrew Ellis is the only other sophomore on the Lakers’ roster. A midfielder, Ellis said having a player of Ouro-Akondo’s abilities on the back line is comforting.
“He’s physical and strong in every game,” Ellis said. “There are times when another team will play the ball in and you think they’ll be off to the races, but all of sudden you see Ramzi catching up and making a big tackle. It’s like, ‘Wow, that can be useful.’ ”
The lengthy separation from his family now a distant memory, Ramzi considers himself fortunate for the opportunities that have come his way. His family members are naturalized U.S. citizens.
Club administrators and parents of friends have come to his aid to solve financial and transportation issues. The father of the friend who first coaxed him to play organized soccer paid his fees for his first year at Keliix. Another stepped up to provide rides for him during his club season when Alassani found it difficult to coordinate his schedule with those of his three children.
“I’m very lucky,” he said. “The schooling is a bit better …”
“Way better,” Alassani interjects with laughter.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Ramzi continued. “And there’s pizza. I just love all pizza.”