When I first saw 21-year-old Girish, he immediately flashed a genuine, honest smile. We started our conversation at 11:00 PM in his time zone in the United States. I apologised for having this conversation late in the night – he just smiled humbly and thanked me for interviewing him.
One could easily assume that Girish is always in a calm state of mind and moves through life with ease. Of course, this was far from the truth. Girish found his way through a tough financial background to reach for his accomplishments. His father was a gardener and his mother, a maid. Behind that smile lies a dogged determination that has helped him fight for every one of his achievements. His first fight, however, was the fight for his life.
The protected child
“When I was three years old, I contracted tuberculosis.” At that age, the disease can prove fatal. “For the next 2-3 years, I was constantly undergoing treatment and it was a difficult time for the family.”
The incident shook Girish’s parents so much that they would do everything in their power to protect him. “They stopped me from pursuing outdoor activities. I would just go to school and stay at home. That was my life for many years.”
No one knew then that this boy was never destined to be cooped up.
The love for football
Girish transferred to another school after the seventh grade. His new school was more conducive for outdoor activities. “There was a big ground, and I would see many children play football there. I would just watch them and had no idea how the game worked! I just enjoyed watching them pass the ball.” Girish, however, would not enter the field – the thought of his parents reprimanding him for partaking in any such activities left him with conflicting emotions.
A year later though, he made his decision. “I finally approached them and asked if I could join them.” His very first role on the field was to be the goalkeeper. “I was the new kid on the block, and would get bullied. They would hit the ball extremely hard and I stood my ground.” At one point of time, the ball struck Girish so hard that it left a mark for his parents to notice – a bleeding lower lip. “When I went home, I was immediately scolded by my mother. She would relive the fight for my life with tuberculosis. I would try to explain to her that it had been almost seven years since I dealt with the disease! In her mind, it was like it happened yesterday.”
These weren’t the only challenges – financial concerns loomed over the family. “My parents were in dire need of money. We were living rather modestly.” There were days when Girish would play on the field with torn shoes that were, in any other circumstance, unusable. “The kids would tease me for not buying new shoes. They would wear all the popular brands available in the market. Initially I would feel quite sad. Soon after, I realised that I would not stop playing football even if I had no shoes. If anyone bothered me, I would just say ‘I will be better than all of you, even if I can’t afford shoes.’”
Girish lived up to the promise, and he would go on to outshine his fellow players. This roused jealousy amongst the kids and they would often resort to foul play to discourage Girish. “There would be many fights and I would be fouled very often. Whenever this happened, I just smiled and told them that I like being hit! I didn’t want to just score goals, I wanted a challenge. It was more fun and that’s how I grew up.” The words fool you into thinking that Girish took an aggressive stance; instead, he shares this incident with a smile that almost displayed a quiet sense of confidence.
“I still really wanted to help my family with money. I pleaded with them to let me contribute in some way as we were facing extremely difficult times, even though I was just 16. They did relent, and I finally took on the job of washing cars outside of where my mother would work as a maid.” However, this didn’t stop Girish from pursuing his passion – every day after washing cars, he would secretly play football.
Girish was not blinded or selfish in his pursuit of the sport, though. He still wasn’t sure of his direction in life but he did know that he had to work on himself to eventually support his family. “I started going to Makkala Jaagriti, a learning centre that would conduct workshops on learning English and other useful skills for the underprivileged. It was a great experience.”
It was then that he found a sense of direction for his passion – Dream a Dream, an organisation in Bangalore that works with underprivileged children, connected with Makkala Jaagriti and wanted to form a football team. “They were building a team with a growth plan charted out. This was my chance! The minute I heard about this, I jumped at the opportunity and joined the programme!”
Once he was selected, he attended practice sessions thrice a week. Girish was clear – If he wanted to become an incredible player, he’d have to work much harder. “A very good friend of mine was also a part of the team and would deliver papers in the morning. After I finished washing the cars, we would head to the local ground to play with others to practice more.” They faced a different set of circumstances, however – they were sixteen years old and the boys in the field were in their early twenties and much stronger!
“They would tell us that we should play with children our age. We said that if we have to learn, we have to get hit hard! Only if we face difficulties during practice will we be ready for reality.” This attitude impressed the other players on the field and they took the two boys in their fold. “We played with them whenever we got the chance. This is how we became much stronger players.”
The Big Break
When Girish was in the tenth grade, he was appointed as the captain of his team. After several matches, his coaches would tell him that he had great skills and must keep playing. “It was only then I decided that I should look at this sport very seriously, and there could be something bigger in it for me.”
As luck would have it, he was about to get a chance to work his decision. Dream a Dream had just been selected to represent India in the state-level championships. “We were told that if we played well, we could represent India in the community world cup to be held in France. This became my dream. I always thought of it as far-off, so I continued focussing on my game.” Girish played his heart out in this tournament with the team but they lost to West Bengal in the finals. Disheartened and upset, the boys returned home.
Barely a few days later, the coaches received a call – Girish and his friend, Johnson, had been chosen for the final selection round to represent India. “I couldn’t believe it! It was an incredible feeling! Out of so many amazing players, they chose me!”
Three days later, the boys found themselves on the selection field. “I knew that if I made it, my life could change. I gave it my everything.” They were told that they would get a call in three days. For almost three weeks, there was no call.
“I would keep dreaming about the call. This would be a turning point for me. I have never even seen the inside of a flight. None of my family members have. That by itself would be such a big experience.” In all of this, Girish still felt conflicted. “I began to wonder if it was okay for someone with my financial background to dream so big. Was I fooling myself? Is this right?” It was only when he spoke to his mother that these questions were set to rest. “She said that if I have the confidence, passion and willingness to work hard, I can achieve anything I want. These words comforted me and I was now impatiently waiting and praying for a call.”
Three weeks later, the call came. Girish had been selected. “I couldn’t believe my ears! I was overjoyed. It felt like a dream!” I remind him that, indeed, it was.
Sadly for Girish, the road to Paris was longer than most.
The woes of bureaucracy
Girish did not have a passport, and getting one was proving to be a monumental task. “My parents were uneducated so we did not have the proper documents. I was sent back repeatedly to get several documents in place. I had to get a letter from my college, and initially I wasn’t given any support. Finally some professors helped me and I was very thankful for that.” Samrat, a person for whom his mother worked for, had been of immense help in assisting Girish to get the documents in place.
The harder task was getting through the police verification. Every single day Girish would go to the local police station and beg them to speed up the process. At one point, he decided to stay in the police station till he saw some sign of progress. The local police officer started him with some typing work to finish, which he would diligently do. Day after day, Girish would return to the station and express the urgency of the situation. “No matter what, I had to go play in Paris.” Finally the policeman decided to take Girish with him to the Commissioner’s office.
Fortunately, the Commissioner of Police was very helpful. Girish was promised that the passport would arrive the very next day and lauded him for representing the country. As Girish stepped out with the policeman, he couldn’t help but smile – that smile was, temporarily, set to dissipate.
The officer who brought him to the commissioner’s office now asked for a ‘payment’. “I was taken aback. I told him that I am very poor and I don’t have the money, and that I was representing our country. All I had is a fifty rupee note that I need to use for bus fare to get home.” The policeman took the money anyway. Girish was left on his own and had to walk several kilometres to reach home.
Football on an international stage
After intense practice sessions at Nagpur with the Indian team, Girish was finally set for Paris. The time had come for the Indian team to prove their mettle.
“When we saw the other players, we were terrified. They looked bigger, stronger and seemed like they had more stamina. We suddenly felt so much smaller and our confidence was shaken!” For the first four matches, the Indian team was humiliated on the field. “We were trailing by several goals. We felt so terrible and dejected.”
Soon after, the coach and the manager decided to give them a verbal thrashing for their performance to spur them on. “They said that if we just want to see Paris, we can withdraw from the league now. This was the World Cup and there is no messing around!” They also learnt a few things in the dressing room “They also told us that this was not about skills, but about the mind. If we are prepared in our head, we can take the cup home!”
In the next match, they walked into the field with a renewed sense of optimism. “We decided to win. We realised it was all in our mind because we thought that we were much smaller than the other well-known footballing nations.”
Girish set the bar high by scoring the first goal. “All my confidence came rushing back and I was ready to take on anything.” India’s first win was in beating Spain by a large margin- 11 to 4. “It was a massive win for us. It changed everything”. From that point on, there was no stopping this team. Not every match was an easy win – the semi-finals against Australia was gruelling and moved to extra time before India scored the winning goal.
Sadly, Girish could not play in the finals. “One of the players from the Australian team was upset with me. He hit me in the ankle and left me with an injury. I still regret not being able to play in the finals.” Girish’s only solace was that India took the community world cup home.
The memory that he feels the most emotional about, however, was far more poignant. “One of the players in the Australian squad, Peter, was like a brother to me. At the end of the match, he removed his jersey and gave it to me out of respect, telling me that I deserve it. I simply cried. This gesture meant so much.”
It was time for the team to return. “We were greeted with garlands at the airport when we reached India! It was amazing!” Girish says, with a big smile plastered across his face.
In the company of the best minds across the world
Upon his return, the time had come for Girish to think about his next move. “My dream is to play football for the official Indian team, but I also had an education to complete and I was very excited to learn new things.” In his search for the next step, he heard of the Fulbright program in the United States – For those not in the know, the Fulbright program is the most competitive exchange-student program in the world. Over 50 Nobel Prize winners and 70 Pulitzer Prize winners were at one point a part of this programme.
“I was really supported by Dream a Dream in cracking this.” To qualify, Girish had to answer several questions pertaining to future ambitions, how he’d contribute to society, what he’s most passionate about, etc. To Girish’s dismay, his first application was cancelled and he didn’t know why. “It was very upsetting and I felt like I lost out.” The competitive nature of this program did not deter Girish in any way, though. “I decided to not give up. I’d make it through the next time.”
In the second attempt, his application was accepted and he had to get on interview calls with the program coordinators and with the US ambassador. “They were surprised to see that all my answers were about football! I told them that football is what matters to me the most and everything revolves around it.” After a few more questions, Girish told them something that seemed to seal the deal. “I said that if they give me the chance, I would be the best student in the program. All they had to do was give it to me. I was worried if I sounded too egoistic, but they said they liked my tone of confidence.” Soon after, he got a call – he was selected for the program. “I was so happy. I can’t even express it.”
Girish is currently pursuing his business management course in Arizona and learning from the best minds around the world. “It’s a great experience, and I know it will be another turning point in my life. I’m working very hard here.”
What the future holds
“I still have to complete my under graduate degree back home and support my family. I took a sabbatical for this course and for football. Once I complete that, there are only two things on my mind. I want to play for the Indian football team. I already play for a club here, and I want to contribute to India and possibly start playing for Bengaluru FC.”
“As for my other plans – I want to continue contributing to Dream a Dream and teach the next generation the sport. “I used to do that before I came here; nothing gave me more joy.”
“When I was younger, I would write ‘Ronaldinho’ on my school bag. In Dream a Dream, the children started writing my name! I would urge them to keep the bigger football players as role models. They would say ‘We don’t know them, we only know you.’ This was such an emotional moment for me – I am clear that one of the things that I will do is contribute to the next generation of players.”
The greatness of an individual isn’t always measured in his own success, but in the legacy that he leaves behind – At the age of 21, Girish has already started leaving a mark.
Soon after our conversation, I received a message from Girish. “It was great to speak with you! I’m motivated all over again and I’m going to go play now.” It was well past midnight in the United States and he had a retreat to go to at 6:00 AM.
“You know you’ve found your dream when you can’t sleep”, someone once said. It sure shows.