Youth Soccer to The Bundesliga: Catching Up With Jackie Cruz
Each year hundreds of thousands of kids play youth soccer under the Cal North banner. Since its establishment in northern California in 1969 as the first youth soccer organization of its kind, the number of kids that have played on a Cal North youth soccer team easily surpasses the millions mark. These young athletes end up in all parts of the world doing amazing things, and every now and then we hear back from them.
It has been one decade since Jacqueline “Jackie” Cruz had the opportunity to play under the guise of youth soccer. Jackie is a Cal North alum who earlier this year started a new website, Jackie Cruz: Kicks and Chronicles. She’s an avid writer that explores her life experiences in Germany as she continues her soccer career playing for FF USV Jena in the Bundesliga, Germany’s elite professional soccer league.
At the age of 12 and thankfully against the wishes of her mother (sorry Mom!), she gave up ice skating to pursue soccer full time. However a successful soccer career is not by any stretch of the imagination the only thing she’s accomplished. Sure, we can sit here and reflect on the hundreds of channels across Europe that broadcast her games, or the fact that Bundesliga games have the second highest average stadium attendance worldwide, second only to the NFL, but we would be missing out on who Jackie really is. She is unarguably part of the <1% that continues playing soccer at an elite level, but she is also an excellent reflection of the values youth soccer tries so hard to establish in the hearts and minds of young athletes.
Recently we caught up with Jackie and learned what she’s been up to and how she got there.
Friendships formed on the pitch aren’t just for the weekends.
Ask a youth soccer team what they enjoy most about playing soccer and the common response you’ll hear is playing with my friends. Often times, we forget just how powerful the bonds formed between teammates really are. Like all young women in sports, Jackie has had her share of challenges and sad times. Nonetheless, with the help of life long friends and coaches, which include friendships formed from her very first soccer team in 1989, the Stingers, she’s faced the challenges head on and writes “we grew into young women together… I could not have imagined going through life without them.”
Trophies have come and gone, rankings have risen and fallen, but what remains are the bonds formed. Jackie is an example of that. She played soccer with 3 best friend throughout club soccer and high school (Notre Dame High School Belmont).
Your team is not just the players you play with, but also the coaching staff. The words of Jackie’s first soccer coach, Barbara Nappi, instilled a passion that continues to burn to this day. She recalls her saying before every game, “In order to play the game of soccer, you must know how to RUN!!” and how the team would enthusiastically shout RUN along with her. The words and mentorship received from coaches can go a very long way and linger much more than the sting of a tough loss.
Her coaches — Tony Igwe, Paul McCallion, Derry Vaughan, Don Williams, Jair Fory, David de Martini, Mike Becker and countless others — didn’t just teach the game of soccer. With a wealth of experience, e.g. Tony Igwe member of the Nigerian National Team played against Pele, they helped physically, mentally, and most importantly, emotionally prepare and inspire young people. She writes endearingly about her memories of Tony as a coach and father figure,
“Tony taught me ‘practice makes permanent’… When he coached, he coached with passion. When he taught us moves, he did them with the same intensity as if Pele was standing right there on the field next to us…”
Youth soccer is not just a game.
The beautiful game of soccer unites people with a common purpose. It creates bonds that persist through time and space, and inspires young people to strive for more and to help each other in their efforts. Jackie and Tony’s families met because of soccer. They have grown close over the years and remain very close to this day. In fact Jackie and Tony’s daughter (also Jackie’s former teammate), have been best friends and sisters for the last 18 years.
“I think many people put ceilings on their lives, ambitions, goals and dreams. If we do not set dreams and strive for more than we think we can achieve, we will only be settling for what our minds believe we can achieve.”
While in college and with trainings increasing in difficulty by the day, Jackie reminisces on the 15 jerseys from various countries hanging in her dorm room and recalls how everyday she looked at them. Unlike some of her peers, who may not have had the same burning passion, Jackie knew that she was exactly where she wanted to be. Despite the rigour of academic life, the exhaustion from regular before-the-sun-is-up morning training and Friday and Sunday games, Jackie continued working.
The stress of being an athlete at the collegiate level was something she was well prepared for, and ceilings were nowhere in sight. As an undergrad, she pursued her interest in business and obtained a degree in Finance. Before moving to Germany, Jackie also played semi-professional soccer in the WPSL with the San Francisco Nighthawks and the California Storm with Yang Zhou, Sissi and Brandi Chastain, as well as on the Puerto Rico National Team.
While in Germany as a professional athlete, she woke up in the middle of the night 2-3 times weekly to participate in Google Hangouts with other graduate students working on assignments. She continued her education, earning a MBA from Arizona State University, and is now working on her German fluency certificate. Jackie has been meticulously putting the pieces in place in preparation for life after soccer and we fully expect to see her continue doing great things outside of soccer.
Her message to young collegiate athletes is simple and precise:
“Keep track of how you perform, know your goals, enjoy the ride of discovering who you are — as a person and a player!”
College is after all a place and time for self exploration.
If you read Jackie’s blog you’ll come across a quote, “Travel far enough until you find yourself”. Jackie has travelled across oceans, but her moment of self exploration really began after college. After college, Jackie embarked on a new adventure through a process of deep self-reflection. This allowed her to embrace her identity, and not shy away from who she really is. Comfortable in her own skin, she challenges everyone to just be, without the constant distraction of everyday life ringing on your cell phone, or popping up in your email.
“When we really stop, smell the roses and give an honest effort to reflect on who we are and what we want to accomplish, only then can we really figure out what we want in life.”
Challenges are a major cornerstone to her success. She believes forcing yourself into tough situations as a way to explore capabilities and talents you otherwise may have never discovered. Removing herself from the comfort of a familiar world and travelling across the atlantic allowed her to discover herself.
If there is one thing you can take away from Jackie’s experience it is that whether you are travelling the world and struggling to understand a different language, or working on a project in your backyard, always strive to be the best you can. You’ll never know what you’re capable of, unless you give it your best effort.
“To be able to present your best effort, we all have to prepare. Fitting this theme, the motto on my website is ‘preparation meets opportunity.’ As such, luck can play a role once or twice; however, consistency and practice are what truly make success.” – Jackie Cruz