Inspiration walked into Encina Preparatory High School on Tuesday, drawing a crowd of inner city students excited by the appearance of a notable visitor who overcame the kind of hardships they face.
Miguel Aguilar was an Encina Bulldog who graduated in 2011 as a soccer star and got a full ride to the University of San Francisco. Now 21, Aguilar made it out of an early life marked by emotional despair.
Last week, Aguilar was selected by DC United, one of two Sacramento-area players chosen in the first round of the Major League Soccer amateur draft. The other player, Connor Hallisey, went to UC Berkeley via Granite Bay High School and is also a success.
Aguilar’s story has added poignancy because no one could have expected him to be a budding professional soccer player, let alone someone who just graduated with honors from USF with a degree in finance.
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Aguilar was an immigrant kid raised by his mom in a single-parent household who, by his own count, had moved nine times by the age of 11. His parents divorced when he was 9, and his dad was not present in his life. His mother and older sister worked menial jobs so the family could survive. Aguilar, meanwhile, spent countless hours with a soccer ball as his only companion.
“I was pretty much depressed,” Aguilar told me in 2010. “I missed my brother, who was like my father. It became kind of hopeless as I came home every day to an empty refrigerator. I would cry every day at home. I gave up on school for a while.”
Soccer became his salvation. Aguilar was befriended by a Sacramento youth coach named Tibor Pelle, who became part of a support network of people who kept him from dropping out of school. After struggling academically his first two years at Encina, Aguilar bought into his dream fully as a junior and never looked back.
“When you see him, you know there is hope,” said Carmen Bohannon, a counselor at Encina.
Aguilar does not represent the false hope of a gifted athlete passed onto the masses as an everyman – a myth promoted by all the major sports leagues. Aguilar’s message that most resonated on Tuesday was how he obtained his undergraduate degree in 31/2 years – with a 3.7 GPA – at an academically rigorous university.
“We’re trying to instill grit in our students and let the kids know that this is attainable,” said Encina Principal Richard Judge.
When Aguilar spoke to Barry Roth’s Advanced Placement English class on Tuesday, he fielded some soccer questions. But what meant more to students were his words on how he budgeted his time in college, how he chose his friends wisely, and how he stayed on top of the challenging curriculum. He reminded them that he had sat in the same classroom they used on Tuesday. He told them that future success preached by their teachers doesn’t require that they forget their roots.
“I haven’t forgotten where I came from,” he said.
There probably isn’t a kid at Encina – or maybe in all of Sacramento – with Aguilar’s soccer ability. But the kids he spoke to on Tuesday can go to college if they believe they can and make it so.
“What made (Aguilar) special is that he took advantage of every opportunity he got,” said John Buchmiller, his former coach at Encina.
When crowds of kids swarmed around Aguilar on Tuesday, Encina teachers hoped the inspiration would rub off. It was a moment to savor at a school where signs are posted in English, Spanish, Arabic and Russian – and where gang suppression officers routinely roam the halls.
Brought to the U.S. without documentation when he was a small child, Aguilar is now legally in the U.S. through the immigration policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. He might have joined the ranks of uneducated laborers in Sacramento.
Wednesday he flies to Washington, D.C., for the beginning of his professional soccer career. What did he hope to achieve by visiting Encina?
“I hope the kids listened,” he said.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.