Americans love a good underdog story, especially when it comes to sports.
In 1999, a talented, but unproven, backup NFL quarterback made his debut. Kurt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to three consecutive Super Bowl victories; their record breaking offense earned the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
In 1980, a hockey team made up of amateurs and college players beat a Soviet powerhouse squad on the world stage, a game that went down in history as “The Miracle on Ice”.
And who can forget the undersized, yet unrelenting, Notre Dame football walk-on? Daniel Ruettiger persevered through personal challenges and naysayers to achieve his dream of playing football for the Fighting Irish. His collegiate career summed up to a single on-field appearance, a mere just 27 seconds. It culminated in Ruettiger sacking the opponent’s quarterback on the final play. Fighting Irish teammates triumphantly carried Daniel Ruettiger off the field while the crowd chanted his nickname, “Rudy.”
Those are just a few favorites, but every hometown has a beloved underdog player or team of their own, including the city of Clarkston.
Wesley Etienne rattles off a list of country names from memory.
“We have Somalia, Rwanda, Cameroon, Congo, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Eritrea,” he says, trying not to miss a name. “We don’t really care what country you’re from. We’re just rocking and rolling.”
Etienne is the head coach of Clarkston High School’s cross country program. The team is made up of athletes representing nearly a dozen countries, which is just a slice of city’s multiculturalism.
Current census data shows that 44 percent of Clarkston’s residents are foreign-born. The city’s affordable housing and access to public transit made it an ideal location for incoming families placed by refugee resettlement programs.
For the Clarkston High team, diversity is not divisive.
Many of the athletes came to the US as refugees, escaping the violence or extreme poverty occurring in the home countries; others are American citizens, but have parents and siblings who are not.
Htoo Say is a sophomore who relocated to the US in 2008. Htoo was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his parents fled their home country of Burma. His answer as to why his family came to America is simple: “To have a better life.”
Griselda Gonzalez’s sister was born in Mexico, but recently graduated from Clarkston High. Now, as a freshman runner, Griselda is planning to follow her sister’s example.
“I know that I have the opportunity to study and do things not many other people can do, so I’m very appreciative of that.”
“We try to reach to the top by working hard,” Mohammad Karim says. He’s a junior on the team, originally from Burma. “We run as a group; work as a family.”
Coach Etienne has spent years fostering a culture of community within the running program, which has cultivated a budding cross country dynasty at the school.
The 2014 season put Clarkston’s team on the map. The varsity boys team, many of whom were running in donated shoes, won the state title. It was an against-the-odds, underdog moment, but it wasn’t a fluke. They repeated the victory in 2015 and 2016, making the team back-to-back-to-back state champions.
But their 2016 state title came just a few days before another landmark victory of a different sort--the election of Donald Trump as president.
Between last season and now, President Trump’s administration enacted three travel bans on mostly Muslim countries, vowed to ramp up deportations of undocumented people and rescinded the DACA policy temporarily protecting undocumented minors from deportation. Most of the athletes on the team aren’t old enough to vote even if they wanted to, but these policies felt personal nonetheless.
From the beginning, Trump’s travel ban has included Somalia. It’s also the place sophomore Abdimalik Hersi called home, until he came to the US to escape civil war when he was 13-years-old.
“If at the time I was coming, he was the President, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. "It feels like, just get educated and get out of this country, because of him.”
Abdimalik says he often thinks about what it would be like if he wasn’t allowed to live here, a concern that's shared among classmates and teammates.
“In this school, for sure they do talk about it,” says Ayemin Tsu, a sophomore runner originally from Burma. “We were feeling bad that we were going to get kicked out of the country.”
Coach Etienne, along with the rest of the Clarkston High staff, try to make the school a safe haven for their students. They’ve created a theme for the 2017 season: “Clarkston United.” It goes along with the team’s motto: “We matter.”
Etienne is a Haitian-American and knows the struggle many of his athletes face. He understands the challenge of trying to fit in to American culture, while staying true to one’s roots. Entienne remembers answering the home phone in English for his Creole-speaking grandmother and helping her navigate through the citizenship process. But Etienne knows that making it in America requires more than language fluency or even citizenship status.
Part of Etienne’s coaching style involves teaching his kids “how to be cautious in America,” which he says is a requirement for success if you’re a minority in this country. He doesn’t want his students to be fearful, but experience has taught him that it’s not always easy to bounce back from mistakes. The advice he gives his students is a balance between “you mess up, it’s blown up” and “if you don’t give up in America, you will be very happy.”
Coach Etienne gathers his team before practice begins and rallies them with a challenge.
“We’ve had a taste of holding a trophy,” he says. “The question is, are you willing to do what it takes to get there again?”
He believes the 2017 season will be a rebuilding year, but they’re still going to make a run for another state title.
In a way, the story of Clarkston High’s cross country team shares similar themes of some of the good ol’ American underdog sports stories.
In 2014, a talented but unproven cross country team makes their mark. Coach Wesley Etienne led the Clarkston High School cross country team to three consecutive state titles.
The team, though underrated, beat a powerhouse squads on a statewide stage.
The runners were unrelenting in their pursuit to reach their goal, overcoming personal challenges and naysayers along the way.
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