‘Soccer saved my life’: Gabe Gissie is Republic FC’s driven teen

Video: Gabe Gissie is Republic FC's driven teen

Mawolo "Gabe" Gissie immigrated from Liberia during the country's civil war, which took the lives of members of his family, before settling in Massachusetts at age 10. Now 18, Gissie is a rising star with the Sacramento Republic FC.
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Mawolo "Gabe" Gissie immigrated from Liberia during the country's civil war, which took the lives of members of his family, before settling in Massachusetts at age 10. Now 18, Gissie is a rising star with the Sacramento Republic FC.

Gabe Gissie knows he has 23 older brothers on Republic FC watching his back and rooting him on.

The teenager with the infectious smile, friendly demeanor and solid-oak physique is the team’s youngest player – and perhaps most remarkable talent. The 18-year-old forward is a popular figure among teammates who offer a guiding hand from time to time and marvel at the challenges he has overcome.

“I tell him I’m his dad away from home,” veteran midfielder Rodrigo Lopez said. “I tend to baby him, and at times I’m really hard on him. But Gabe is the kind of guy who can take it. He’s so young and yet so mature.”

Gissie knows how to command the big stage. His first professional goal June 20 was the game winner in Republic FC’s 2-1 win over the OKC Energy FC at Bonney Field.

Lately, the 6-foot, 175-pound Gissie has developed into a dangerous late-match substitute as Republic FC bids for a second consecutive USL title. Republic FC plays LA Galaxy II in a playoff opener Saturday at Bonney Field.

“He brings everything he has every day in training, and when he comes into a match, he brings that spark, that energy that is so good to see,” Lopez said. “Getting to know him on a personal level and learning about all that he’s been through, I can see why he is so driven.”

I’ve been given a great opportunity to have a different life. So I push myself all the more.

Gabe Gissie, Republic FC forward

Mawolo “Gabe” Gissie wants to make his family and friends in Worcester, Mass., proud.

He wants to continue to honor the memory of his older sister, Mitta, whom he watched die when he was 7 years old.

He yearns to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way in his new homeland since surviving the horrors of the Liberian civil war as a youth.

“I’ve been given a great opportunity to have a different life,” Gissie said. “So I push myself all the more.”

He survived attack that killed sister

When Gissie’s mother, Sanoe Yeawolo, immigrated to the United States, seeking a pathway for her children, Gissie was left in the care of relatives in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, until they also could come to the United States.

But when a second civil war broke out in the west African country in 2003, Gissie, his guardians and thousands of civilians got caught in the middle of the chaotic battles that raged between two bloodthirsty factions. One of those encounters left Gissie scarred emotionally and physically.

“There were 50 persons in one room when a rocket (exploded) and everybody got hit,” he said.

Gissie survived – he still has scars from the wounds on his back – but his sister, 18, and uncle were among those killed.

“I think about my sister every day,” Gissie said. “Sometimes I cry when I’m alone in my room because I remember all the things she used to tell me. To watch her die right in front of me, that’s the worst feeling.”

Gissie spent months after his sister’s death trying to escape to the United States. He said he heeded his mother’s warnings to stay out of the civil war when they were able to communicate. Both sides were infamous for recruiting child soldiers.

“It was tough when I was on my own, and I had no one to take care of me,” Gissie said. “I pretty much lived on the streets and kept moving around. When I was tired, I’d find somewhere here or there to sleep. Sometimes I felt like I was losing my mind.”

His escape: He’d take a soccer ball and juggle it, improvise moves and play pickup games in his bare feet with friends on makeshift dirt pitches.

“Soccer saved my life,” Gissie said. “I should’ve been dead by now.”

Defender Emrah Klimenta, who roomed with Gissie last year, said you’d never know from his upbeat attitude and playful ways the horrors Gissie witnessed. But sometimes he will open up to his teammates.

“Tears came to my eyes when he first told me about all he went through in Liberia,” Klimenta said. “He’s been through all this, and he’s still managing to do the right thing, live the right way, and there’s no bitterness. Coming myself from a civil war country in Yugoslavia, I feel for him. I know what my people went through. While there are differences, there are similarities as far as the killings and the tragedies.”

Republic FC coach and technical director Paul Buckle calls Gissie’s story “amazing.”

“I have admiration for him, and his peers have admiration for him,” Buckle said. “We did a bit of team bonding when I first came here and had the boys tell each other about their lives. I think some were quite shocked when they heard what he had been through.”

Gissie passed on college, signed with Republic

After Gissie was reunited with his mother in 2008, he and his family settled in Worcester, home to a number of Liberian expatriates.

Gissie played three years with the New England Revolution Academy before deciding to pass on college and sign with Republic FC. But being away from his family and friends while not playing much during the first half of the 2014 season was a tough adjustment.

“For the first couple of months, I started to worry,” Gissie said. “It was my first time away from home. I’d call my mom sometimes and tell her I want to come home, that I missed her.”

Preki, then Republic FC’s coach, allowed Gissie to go home for two weeks midway in the season to participate in his high school graduation.

Not only did Gissie cross the stage with his friends and classmates, he received his diploma from President Barack Obama, who was the commencement speaker at Worcester Technical High School.

“He told me, ‘Great job,’ and I told him, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Gissie, who is taking online college courses. “It was like a dream to be right there and to shake his hand and see the president of the United States face to face. That was a great feeling.”

Midfielder Ivan Mirkovic noticed a big change when his young roommate returned to Sacramento.

“In those two weeks, he cleared his mind and came back a new man,” Mirkovic said. “You could see that while he still missed his family, he wanted to be with our team and on the field. For the rest of the season, we called him our super-sub.”

Gissie played 418 minutes in 14 games and had an assist last season while earning a championship ring and learning from Preki, a former Major League Soccer star and coach.

“He was the baby of the group when we brought him aboard,” says Graham Smith, Republic FC’s director of football who was then the team’s technical director. “He was nowhere ready for the first team, and we knew it was a bit of a risk considering his youth and the cultural differences. But we saw the physical prowess, the positive attitude, the work ethic. Gabe is well-liked, has never given us a moment’s problem and proved that he belonged.”

Though Gissie remains in a supporting role, he has played 507 minutes in 18 matches and has a goal and three assists.

Teammates, coach want him back next season

Gissie’s contract expires at the end of the season, but Smith and Buckle want him to return.

“I like his honesty, and by that I mean his willingness to work really hard,” Buckle said. “He’s showed he can help us in the attack; he’s got good touch on the ball and good awareness for someone so young. There’s room for improvement in his game, but he’s willing to learn, and those are the type of players we want.”

If Republic ever moves on to MLS, he should be the first to sign with the club because he’s the future of Sacramento Republic.

Republic FC midfielder Ivan Mirkovic on teammate Gabe Gissie

His teammates have no doubt Gissie is a next-level player.

“At the age of 18, I don’t think I was that complete in my game,” said Lopez, who played as a teen for Chivas USA. “I’m sure he’s going to be a top-level player.”

Klimenta, an impressive athlete, marvels at Gissie’s natural physical ability.

“He’s arguably the strongest guy on the team,” Klimenta said. “He’s made of rocks. He’s fast. He goes hard 100 percent. He needs to learn some parts of the game, but that comes with maturity.”

Adds Mirkovic: “If Republic ever moves on to MLS, he should be the first to sign with the club because he’s the future of Sacramento Republic.”

Gissie said while he’s learned a lot during his two seasons with Republic FC, it’s the bonds he has formed with his older “brothers” that have made his time in Sacramento so special.

“I’ve always got experienced guys pushing me, like Rodrigo Lopez and Justin (Braun),” Gissie said. “To be 18 years old and on a professional team as great as this team is … it’s awesome.”

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP