A text sent from WhatsApp that reads "Hey, how are things?" goes unanswered. Another one a few days later: "How's it going over there?" The same fate. A few more sent in the next couple of days don't even get the confirmation of the second check, the confirmation that they were read. Then in the middle days of July 2014, I decide to search his name to see his progress for myself. Even if he wouldn't answer from a couple thousand miles away, he still had a cheerleader and a friend in this part of the world.
"... Former NC State Captain Farouk Bseiso dies of carbon monoxide poisoning."
I read these words in the same manner that one reads a fantasy novel. Process the words, understand the plot, the themes, the tone and even the background of the characters. The story transports you into a mythical world, which you embrace but your mind never forgets that it is just fantasy. It isn't true. At any moment, you can put the book down, walk away and return to the real world once again.
But to run away from reality is delusion. My friend had died.
Carbon monoxide? How? Television says that carbon monoxide poisoning is the chosen suicide method of depressed middle-aged husbands. Farouk was neither an old man nor was he depressed, at least not while I had known him during the summer of 2013. Maybe I had missed the cracks behind the radiant smile? Was there a shaky ache in the positive voice that was enamored with future riches? Maybe the signs had been there and I and everyone else had been too oblivious to notice. But it was too surreal. Too improbable to be true.
It wasn't suicide. A sinister relief. The stories I find say that he was vacationing with family and his girlfriend in Prague at the time my messages went unchecked. He had rented out a small apartment near the Palladium shopping center in Prague 1. They were to meet up with other family members there. In only the second night, he was showering while his girlfriend, Megan Rowell, was at the sink when he suddenly collapsed and died. They said that poor ventilation and the water heater worked in tandem in the murder.
We met in August of 2013 in Danbury, Connecticut. We are two in a group of players that had gone through tryouts for the New England Force and had made the cut. The coach promised that the team would either be joining the USL or NASL in the near future. His words were ambitious and he showed us pictures and plans of stadiums, and promised potential opponents in friendlies that included Benfica of Portugal and several CONCACAF teams. We were excited.
Each player who was in the lobby of that Danbury hotel that summer day had gone through his fair share of trials or tribulations. We had all applied and paid for the initial open-call tryouts in March that year after seeing the announcement for a new team on Facebook and numerous soccer websites. All of us played played well through three rounds of fat-trimming auditions. We passed those tests and even survived the scrimmages against numerous mid-season NPSL teams. This was the vindication.
We shared the same experience of receiving an email from the coach congratulating us on making the team and instructions on when to arrive at the hotel. Each of us paid for his own individual flight. And we arrived with the same hope of living out our childhood dreams.
The optimism quickly turned into skepticism that night. Several of the players had done research into the background of the coach and had uncovered a disagreeable past and truths that were not in line with his various claims. Teams that he said he had coached listed no evidence of him online. False licenses that he told us he had acquired turned out to be nothing more than fairy tales. And scattered posts on the internet labeled him a fraud, his teams and ambitions as nothing more than scams.
We exchanged texts that night with all of this information and before the next morning, a group that was constituted of more than twenty players whittled down to just four. It was me, Farouk, Mike Garzi and a striker from El Salvador who had an infant daughter back home and spoke frequently of this opportunity being his last chance. We wanted the dream so badly that we believed in a lie.
I stuck around because like many who were there in the first place, I felt like this was not only a golden opportunity but a last chance. My past had been littered with injuries, surgeries and false dawns. The hope smothered the logic of the situation.
We had become quick friends. There's a saying that goes, "there are two ways of spreading light: be the candle or the mirror that reflects it." Farouk was the light and I wanted to be the mirror. I enjoyed being around his aura; he was an eternal optimist. Regardless of how destitute our situation had grown, from guerrilla marketing non-existent games to practicing in abandoned soccer fields with only four people, he remained hopeful.
"Maybe this is just his way of testing if we're really dedicated," he said to me in the back of the car as I peppered him with questions of the team's legitimacy while crossing state lines. "Just stick around, we'll make it."
I was also drawn to Farouk because he understood the most important aspect of soccer: embarrassing defenders. I'm a winger and he was a defensive midfielder, so naturally we should have clashed. Instead, as we played two-on-two games in small spaces outside decrepit hotels, he revealed that he was also of the same righteous mind. Bamboozling opponents is the ultimate goal. We would spend hours outside trying every trick in the book on our teammates and the poor local children who would gleefully join in on our games.
On one particular afternoon, all four of us were tasked with talking to and helping to teach skills to children at a local soccer camp. We introduced ourselves, spoke of the determination that it takes to become professional athletes and encouraged above all that the kids most not be afraid to try new things. Always be uncomfortable. Continue to break from the mold. Keeping growing and be courageous in the face of challenges.
After that, the children forced us into a tricks competition against each other.
Each of us pulled out our best around-the-worlds, heel flicks and stalls. Farouk was chosen as the winner after doing numerous ATWs with both feet and then catching the ball under his shirt. To be fair, I had on jeans. Not an excuse, just saying. It's hard to do much in denim but hey, credit where credit is due. He "won."
After that, we played a game of teachers vs. students where four of us, along with the instructors played against thirty kids at a time. Farouk and I spent the entire time nutmegging and making the kids fall. That was the entire purpose of the game. We'd gently nudge the kids off the ball when they had possession and then dribble up to 10 of them at a time before passing to the other so he could do the same. It was one of the most wonderful and enjoyable things I've ever experienced. The kids loved it as well and were excited to take pictures and request that we return soon afterwards.
We were having lunch in a particular Hispanic community in Rhode Island after marketing another bogus game when I told Farouk that I would be leaving soon. He asked me if I was sure several times and though I admittedly was not, I answered yes. I tried to convince him to leave as well. He told me that he would stick it out for a bit more and if it wasn't successful, that he had other ventures and avenues that he could pursue.
The next morning I had decided to go. The coach and I got into a heated argument over the phone as I accused him of lying to us and preying on hopeful young athletes. He stated that he would not refund the money I had paid for the tryouts nor the money spent on my initial plane trip. It was Farouk who went to him for me and talked him into at least giving me enough money for a bus trip back home. Farouk and I talked in that small hotel room as the last three members of our sham team were departing for another city. We swore to keep in touch and promised that one way or another, we would each achieve our dreams and fulfill the evident potential. Best wishes were exchanged and we went our separate ways.
With any experience, it's always less of what you do than who you do it with that makes it memorable. Farouk managed to turn what should have been a terrible chapter in my life into a rose-colored wacky, fun and crazy footnote in my soccer journey. He made it a story.
After returning home, I texted him frequently to keep up with his situation. Before long, he had also returned home and was trying to figure out his next step. One day he replied to me that a friend of his knew a scout from Finland who had asked him to send his highlight video and that he would take the chance if the scout offered a contract. A few months later, he was signed to FC Espoo and loaned out to FC Vikkingit.
I kept up with his games and his performances and was rejoiced when I read that he was winning Man of the Match awards and dominating in his first few games last year. He deserved it. Good things finally happening to good people. All the idealism, the hope and the hard work was finally paying off. If anyone of us had to make it, it had to be him. The tricky defensive midfielder who always had a smile for anyone who needed it.
Then he died. And things were bleak again. Memories are said to be a way keep the dead alive, but those moments are not just bittersweet; remembering how his light kept hope alive in the days of constant travel and false promises feels like running your fingers over a deep gash that never heals. It doesn't get better. It's never easier to deal with.
I knew Farouk Bseiso for a short time and in that small span, he taught me that doubt and obstacles are things to be overcome. They should never defeat you. He was a candle in an increasingly dark world and he deserved all the good things the earth had to offer. He was my friend and I miss him.