When Stefan Raicevic arrived in Parsons, Ks., last fall, he had never played the game of football. To him, football meant soccer. But the high school exchange student from Montenegro soon learned that in this small Midwestern town, football was quite a different sport.
It didn’t take long for the high school football coach to “encourage” Stefan to join the team. At home in Bar, Montenegro, Stefan was a swimmer and played waterpolo in the summer. But at 6-foot 4-inches tall this strong, 15-year-old sophomore was eager to give American football a try, much to the coach’s delight.
The Vikings had had some pretty rough seasons over the last several years. They had fallen into a losing streak and lost more games than they won. The team hadn’t advanced to district play-offs in a very long time. This didn’t matter much to Stefan. He just welcomed the opportunity to learn something new and to make new friends in his “temporary” American hometown.
Fortunately, he already had a basic grasp of the English language, and spoke a little Russian and Italian in addition to his own Serbian. So learning the plays on the field and following the coach’s instructions weren’t quite as difficult as they might have been otherwise. Still, it was an entirely new game to him. The coach decided to put him in on the varsity team as a defensive linesman.
Stefan took his place among the other players on the line. His was an intimidating presence on the Viking defense. Standing alongside the other players on the sidelines, Stefan towered above most of them. And he was smart academically.
Besides football, Stefan earned a place on the high school forensic team, and the math club and in robotics. He wound up with the school’s other top students on the honor roll. Not bad for a kid on his first time in the United States.
During a family visit to Kansas, I met Stefan who was living with my brother and his family. He was like a big puppy dog in nature. Fun-loving and good-natured yet gentle and well-mannered. And, judging by his academic record, obviously very disciplined. His good grades didn’t come easily but he worked and studied hard to understand the material.
Football season was just ending when I visited. My brother asked if I would take Stefan’s portrait in his football gear as a gift to his parents back home in Montenegro. Stefan had just turned his uniform in earlier in the week but retrieved it for one last time. I picked him up at the high school and together we headed over to the football stadium across town.
It was late in the afternoon, a perfect time for the portrait. The light was a golden autumn color that soaked the trees and field in a rich palette of fall’s tones. We arrived at the stadium only to discover that the gates were locked and that we would be unable to get onto the field. I knew the light would fade soon so I quickly looked around for an alternative spot and settled on a place just outside the fence but with the goalpost and scoreboard in the background.
His portrait turned out full of mood and fall color. And Stefan stood big and proud in his Viking uniform. Later, I learned that his mother loved the images. And now that he’s back in Montenegro, he and his family have them as a visual memory of his days on the gridiron.
Oh, and yes, Vikings that season had one of the best seasons in recent memory winning seven games and losing only two. They went on to play at the district level and became district champs in their division for the first time, as Stefan puts it, “in a long time.”
“I enjoyed it,” Stefan recalls now. “It’s a great memory. I miss it now and I wish I can be with my team this season and help them.”
I’ll bet they do too, Stefan.