She said, “Is this true, Leon?”
“Yes, my grandma.”
Courtesy of Leon Balogun
I was amazed. I hadn’t thought about my grandma that much since she passed when I was 16 years old. But, this lady was right. My grandma’s death had a huge effect on me, and I had never even met my grandma, who lived in Nigeria. That’s the part that was wild to me. My sister didn’t know anything about my reaction to grandma’s passing. This woman, though, she saw it. She told me I had to heal my soul, my heart, before I could become the player I wanted to be.
After we left, I didn’t completely understand if my experience with her was successful. The most important thing that came out of that day was that it got me thinking about my grandma. When I got home, my mind went straight back to the day my dad told me the news.
Because I had never met her, my dad didn’t tell me right when it happened. He actually waited a few days — that’s how distant my relationship was from her. She only spoke Yoruba. So when we talked on the phone when I was little, my dad would try to translate for us. He had never taken me to Nigeria, for reasons he didn’t make clear to me, and I only ever saw photos of my grandma.
When my dad told me, he pulled me aside in our home. I have this vivid memory of the feeling — like, this terrible, terrible feeling of sadness. I crawled up the stairs, sobbing my eyes out. I cried for an hour. My mom had to come to my room and ask me what was wrong … she couldn’t understand why I was so sad, either.
I think, what I knew at a young age was that my grandma represented a part of my life that I didn’t completely understand. I was mixed race. My mom was a German, my dad Nigerian. I was different than the other kids. And I knew that my grandma, and Nigeria, had a lot do with it.
I now wanted to understand more about that part of my life. And because of a witch, I knew how important that part of me truly was.
My dad used to walk three miles every day before school when he was growing up in Nigeria. I knew this because he never let me forget it. It was one of a handful of stories he would tell me about his childhood. He moved to Germany in 1966, learned the language, got his diploma and met my mother. He was the blueprint for immigrants. He made it sound easy — being a foreigner who looked different — but I knew it wasn’t. Because even though Germany is a progressive country, there is that group of people, especially in sport, who still lurk around waiting to knock you down if you’re different.
I met one of them when I was playing U-16 in Berlin, in 2003. I had given up on my dreams of being Thierry Henry or Ronaldinho, so I was playing at center back. The other team had this huge striker. He was bad news. I played really well, and I kept him in my pocket. We were up 1–0 at halftime, and as I was walking to the locker room, the striker kicked the ball at my head. It missed me by about an inch. Woosh. I turned, and he was yelling at me. He was calling me the n-word, using other racial slurs.
Nobody did anything. There were people all around us, and nobody did anything. After the game, while we were still at the park, I told my dad about him kicking the ball at me.
“Leon, you must always be calm. You’re smarter than they are. You’re better than they are.”
Then I told him what the boy said to me. And that, for the first time in my life, was when I saw my dad lose his cool. He had this look on his face. I told him I wanted to go home because Mom said she was making a nice dinner.
“No, we have to fix something.”
Courtesy of Leon Balogun
So we waited in the parking lot for the boy to come out with his parents. They did. And my dad let them have it.
“Hey, how can you raise your kid like this? Do you know what he said to my boy? We all come here to play football, and you lost, and that’s the game. But your son is 15 — he’s 15! — and he acts like this. I hope that you can one day fill his heart with love, instead of hate.”
Their back-and-forth went on for awhile, and the other parents weren’t very nice. But I will remember what my dad said forever: Love, instead of hate. He was very upset in that moment, but he used empathy over rage. And I began to understand, little by little, how he made being an immigrant look so easy. I think because my dad worked so hard to integrate into society in Germany, it gave me the opportunity to do the opposite and connect with my Nigerian roots.
I never supported the German national team, mostly because I thought they were arrogant and their football was boring to watch. Even in 2006, when Germany hosted and the whole country had World Cup mania — I secretly cheered for them to lose. Because I was a kid, and I was rebellious. And because, even though I felt in my mind that I was just as German as all the other kids, a lot of people didn’t see me like that.
I was always asked, “Where are you from?” Or, “How long have have you been here?”
I would think to myself sometimes, Maybe I was meant to be Nigerian.