By Johnny Campos
Saturday February 20, 2021
Bradley soccer player Saadiq Mohammed plays during a game this season against Eastern Illinois. Josh Schwarn, Bradley Athletics
PEORIA — The phrase, “You can’t go home again,” is too much of a reality for Bradley soccer player Saadiq Mohammed.
The redshirt senior is listed as a midfielder from Somalia. But he actually has two home countries — Kenya, where he was born, and Somalia, where he was raised.
In his current situation, Mohammed would be in danger if he were to return to either one.
“I couldn’t go back because I was in a movie and I would be a target,” he said. “I talked about a lot of things that I wasn’t supposed to. My situation became complicated.”
Making a sacrifice
Mohammed was one of the primary subjects of the award-winning documentary “Men in the Arena,” a film that chronicles the hardships suffered by him and his teammates while growing up in a terrorist environment. It depicts how the players endured some unthinkable struggles in order to reach their dreams of a better life.
The 25-year-old has already experienced enough turmoil and adversity for several lifetimes.
Mohammed’s mother and one of his sisters still live in Somalia. He has another sister in Kenya, a brother in London and one on Malta. Mohammed has not seen his mother since 2013 or his brothers since 2012. He is now a legal asylee after a four-year process, and is waiting to receive his Green Card so he can become a permanent resident in the United States.
“If I got the Green Card, it would be easier to travel to see my mother and my brothers,” Mohammed said. “My mother would be able to meet me anywhere except Somalia or Kenya, which I can’t go back to.
“It hasn’t been easy, but it’s the sacrifice you make when you want to change your life to make your dreams come true.”
Saadiq Mohammed and Sa'ad Hussein stretch in Forest Park on April 7, 2016, in St. Louis, as they prepare to practice soccer. J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)
Mohammed took the proverbial long and winding road to end up at Bradley, with stops at St. Louis University, FC Dallas of the MLS, Nova Southeastern University in Florida, and on teams in Kenya and Somalia.
He was gifted on the soccer field as a youngster, and was tabbed to join the Somali U17 team, the Kenyan U17 team and then the Somali Senior National team.
In his youth, he had to endure living in a country that was being run by the terrorist organization al-Shabab, a violent Islamic extremist group with links to al-Qaida. And the group imposed its stringent rules with an iron fist.
“There was a time in Somalia when the internet was banned, so it was hard to even watch the World Cup,” Mohammed said. “If you were caught watching the World Cup, you could get in trouble.”
But soccer ended up being his ticket out of his home countries. And leaving them couldn’t come soon enough.
A filmmaker, J.R. Biersmith, followed the Somali team and produced “Men in the Arena." When Biersmith handed out questionnaires to get some background on the players, many of Mohammed’s teammates were not ready to speak openly about their situation as he was.
“Most people were scared that if they said something, things might not go well for them,” Mohammed said. “For me, I was going to tell my story. I had nothing to hide.”
So Biersmith decided to build the documentary around Mohammed and Sa’ad Hussein, one of his close friends on the team.
From Kenya to Peoria
Mohammed ended up playing for the AFC Leopards in the Kenyan Premier League, which is when things got considerably worse for him. In September of 2013, some masked gunmen attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 71 and wounding another 200. The al-Shabab group took credit for the incident.
That put a target on Mohammed and any other Somalis living in Kenya.
“Then Kenyan authorities went after all the Somalis,” Mohammed said. “There were a lot of rumors that some of the Somali people had to leave the country. The Kenyan authorities were labeling the Somalis as illegals.”
Mohammed was arrested so many times — just for being Somali — that he lost count.
In one instance, he had to spend 48 long hours in a small, crowded jail cell, along with men, women and children, just for not having proper documentation with him.
Mohammed also saw his playing time reduced by the Kenyan team, and he was eventually released.
Mohammed bounced around, next landing at Nova Southeastern University of Florida before eventually playing for the FC Dallas academy team while trying to complete his high school education.
Things weren’t going well with his studies in Dallas, so Mohammed, with the help of Biersmith, ended up in St. Louis, living with Biersmith’s sister, Jessica Herschend, and her family.
Herschend helped Mohammed complete his high school education and pass the ACT to become eligible to play college soccer. He then secured a spot on the St. Louis University soccer team, and was an immediate standout. He was on the Atlantic-10 Conference All-Rookie Team.
A shoulder injury made him miss most of his sophomore season, his coach got fired, and the new one was not going to fulfill the promise of a full scholarship there.
“Then I hurt my knee in practice, and was out for four months,” Mohammed said. “Then everything got worse. I just needed a change.”
How he landed at Bradley
Enter BU coach Jim DeRose, who had a connection with Biersmith.
“J.R. is a Bradley grad, and he was friends with some of my players from back in the early 2000s,” DeRose said. “I went to a premier of his documentary down at the Riverfront several years ago. I stayed in contact with him and wished him the best.
“And as they say, life turns full circle. He reached out to me to get some council on how things might work out for Saadiq from the NCAA perspective. One thing led to another, and it just worked out for him to come here.”
And Mohammed could not be happier about his current situation.
“They have been super nice to me here, and I appreciate everything that Bradley has done for me,” he said. “Coach DeRose is an amazing person and he’s a great coach. I have learned a lot from him.”
Mohammed already has an undergraduate degree in political science, and is currently working on his Masters. He could play with the Braves again next year, because this year does not count against his eligibility.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I know I want to help people who have gone through the things I went through, whether it’s education or sports. I want to help them either on a global scale or maybe locally.
“I just want to honor this opportunity and show people that anything is possible. You can dream and can reach your dreams if you work hard and if you had the ambition, diligence and the ability to dream.
“I would also love to maybe one day be a coach. I don’t know. We'll see what the future holds for me.”