LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Kicking around a soccer ball in dusty back-alleys of Cameroon set the stage for a child prodigy.
Senior Airman Jonathan Gwei, 47th Medical Support Squadron travel and referral technician had dreams of being the best and getting selected to play for some professional team. But fate had different plans for him.
Throughout his career in soccer that has taken him around the world, he never imagined playing for the United States Air Force. Now, he’s made that happen for the second time.
“When I was a baby, my dad would roll the ball down the hallway for me to kick,” Gwei said. “’Again,’ he would tell me over and over. Then we would switch legs and start over.”
His father pushed him to be the best, encouraging Gwei as he got older to only play with older, stronger, faster opponents.
Rough gravel lots were his proving grounds and his cousins served as tough competition, pushing him to better himself.
“Since I only got to play with the older kids, it made me want to be a better player, and that’s what drove me,” said Gwei. “That’s where the fire started; that’s what pushed me to be better. It got to the point to where when I played with people my age, it was like there was no competition. I didn’t really like playing without the challenge, so I wanted more.”
As Gwei got older, he joined a church-based soccer team that he played with during his teen years.
At the age of 17, Gwei, confident in his skills, made his way to England to follow his dreams with his team. His family put together all they could to send him on his way. For a year, Gwei was able to focus exclusively on the sport at Chelsea Football Club’s own training grounds.
“In Europe, soccer is life,” Gwei said. “Americans watch football Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday. In Europe, they watch soccer every single day!”
During his stay, he noticed that the European players he competed against were missing something that he had -- hunger to be the best.
“For them, they play to have fun, make friends and kill some time,” he said. “I took it more seriously; I came to win. I came to get picked by a scout; I came to make it big.”
“Playing in Europe, it was harder for my team to get noticed because of our skin color. Being black meant we had to try twice as hard compared to the Europeans.”
As his year in Europe neared its end, Gwei knew his visit would not last forever. While staying longer could present an opportunity to be selected, he ran the risk of staying with an expired visa and being an illegal resident.
“Where would I sleep? In the snow? I would have no job, no food and no roof over my head,” said Gwei. “No. I had a bed in Cameroon that I could sleep in, so I went home.”
For the following years, he honed his skills in his native country hungry, for success.
“I remember seeing American players, and I thought to myself: ‘I can beat these guys,’” he said. “At the time, I was doing things on the field that the American players couldn’t. The only thing was that they were getting paid, and I wasn’t.”
Gwei soon found himself on a 7,080 mile flight headed for Texas to try out for the Houston Dynamo.
“I knew I was going to get picked,” Gwei said, his chest puffing with pride. “I knew that this was my chance. I felt great.”
Fate intervened with different plans.
A sudden partial tear in his ACL during tryouts cost him his opportunity to rise above the competition.
“In the second week of tryouts, I hurt my knee, and I thought I could just shake it off. I thought that after a few days of rest, I would be back in it, but the doctors told me that it was no use,” said Gwei. “When I spoke to my father, he said that my health was more important and that going back home is my best option, so that’s what I did.”
When he made it back to Cameroon, Gwei did everything in his power to avoid surgery and make a full recovery.
“I knew that if I got the surgery, I would be out for even longer, so I did all the physical therapy I could to try to rebuild my strength,” he said.
During his hiatus, Gwei said he slowly lost focus on what he wanted. Soccer lost its place as a priority for Gwei, and he felt it was time to try something new.
“With all that time being away from the sport, the fire started to die down. It was hard for me to stay motivated, and I didn’t really know what I wanted.”
He left Cameroon again, this time not for soccer but for school.
Gwei attended University of Bellevue in order to secure a stable career.
“This is about when I spoke to a recruiter for the first time,” said Gwei. “I remember going just to help a friend who needed a ride, but the more I heard what the recruiter had to say, the more interested I became. Really, I joined for the education because that’s one thing my father stressed to me. Soccer was pretty much the last thing on my mind. In fact, I didn’t even know that the Air Force had a soccer team.”
After he chose to enlist, he picked up the ball again.
“I missed the sport, and I played a lot: clubs on base, teams in town, pickup games at the park. If they were playing, so was I,” Gwei laughed.
When he made his way to Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, in 2013 it wasn’t long before he began to make a name for himself.
“The players here in Del Rio call me ‘Chucho’ after the pro,” Gwei said with a smirk. “They don’t call me Jonathan or Gwei. They only know me by Chucho.”
Gwei said that the real Chucho is the only dark-skinned player on his team, as Gwei is the only dark-skinned player on his own.
Gwei took the name and ran with it, and a year after arriving on station, Gwei and the Laughlin soccer team went to San Antonio for a tournament.
“We actually had just lost our game and I was pretty upset,” he said. “I just wanted to go home and sleep.”
This time fate had a surprise for him.
“I remember one of my teammates ran up to me saying that some man wanted to speak with me, but he didn’t know what for,” said Gwei. “I went up to this man, and he said ‘You looked good out there. Wanna play for me?’”
Happy to be hand-picked by someone, he didn’t ask too many questions.
“I agreed to come out and play, but I didn’t really know what that meant,” Gwei said, laughing. “When I got back to the locker room, my team was going crazy: ‘Do you know what just happened? You just made the Air Force team! That was the Air Force coach,’ they told me.”
“That’s when I realized: ‘Wow, I really made the Air Force team!’” he said, looking back at that moment. “I had no idea that it was an option, and I could barely believe that it was happening.”
Gwei said that first season was a successful one.
“We had a great team, and that was my favorite part of all,” Gwei said. “Even though the practices were a beat down (three times a day), the friends I made during the process made [the hard work] worth it.”
Now, in what is scheduled for the Spring of 2017, Gwei will be reunited again with the Air Force team.
“I’m excited to be a part of the team,” Gwei said with a grin. “I know what we can do, and we will go out there for a win. I can’t wait to see what this season has to offer.”
Fate has seemingly thrown trials and tribulations at Gwei for his entire soccer career.
After not being picked in England, after not being picked and being injured in Houston, and even after giving up to try something new, fate finally stepped in when he was least expecting to be picked. Now in his second season with the Air Force soccer team, Gwei is content with his fateful offer to play ball.