OVIEDO, Fla. — One afternoon 4½ years ago, Rob Kammel was in the one-story bungalow he rents for his graphic design firm when Hue Menzies — a former soccer player, financial analyst and math teacher — led him to the tree-canopied gravel lot out back.
That thing, decorated with sketches of Usain Bolt and other island track stars, carried jerk chicken, rice and peas, and plantains for 20-some girls and women.
The Jamaican national women’s soccer team had just practiced on a nearby municipal field, and they were hungry.
“Make them feel at home,” Menzies, the unpaid head coach, recalled before releasing a deep chuckle.
He, too, works in the building. At no charge, Kammel allows Menzies to run his youth soccer club, Florida Kraze Krush, and oversee the Jamaicans, better known as the Reggae Girlz.
On this quiet corner in an Orlando suburb, framed by an elementary school and cross-county trail, a Women’s World Cup team was born.
It would take four years to realize the unfathomable, but thanks to Menzies’s guidance and desperately needed financial aid from Bob and Rita Marley’s eldest offspring, the Reggae Girlz last fall became the first Caribbean side to qualify for their sport’s premier competition.
Starting June 7, Jamaica will join 23 other countries competing in the month-long tournament in nine French cities. The lowest-ranked team in the field, the Reggae Girlz might not earn a point in group-stage matches against Brazil, Italy and Australia.
That is beside the point. Their journey proved what a little support and a lot of belief could accomplish.
“It wasn’t about football,” Menzies explained one spring day while sitting in the shade where the food truck used to visit. “It was about changing the mind-set of people in Jamaica that females can play football. The kids did it, man. We created the environment, but they believed, and they did it.”
Between 2010 and 2014, the Jamaican women’s program was dormant, abandoned by the Jamaica Football Federation, which poured its limited resources into the men’s team, the Reggae Boyz. Support was yanked again in 2016.
Cedella Marley, a Miami-based executive and performer, appreciated soccer’s importance to Jamaican culture. Her famous father, the late reggae superstar, had loved the sport, arranging pickup matches in public parks during concert tours and in the walled courtyard of his Kingston home on Hope Road.
“Football is part of I,” he said. “When I play, the world wakes up around me.”
Until her son brought home a flier asking parents to consider helping the Reggae Girlz, Cedella Marley was not familiar with the women’s program.
When she learned of its plight, she took action. She became a global ambassador, raising money and awareness through a nonprofit foundation, and recorded a song, “Strike Hard,” with her brothers Stephen and Damian.
“Aside from my own family’s personal love for the game, I was raised to believe everyone has their right to fulfill their destiny and pursue their dreams, especially when you have a God-given talent,” said Cedella Marley, chief executive of her father’s Tuff Gong brand. “It was really unfair the girls were being treated this way just because some people believe soccer is a men’s-only game.”
With Marley’s support, the program was restarted in short order for the 2015 Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament. Not surprisingly, the Reggae Girlz failed to qualify.
The federation president, the late Horace Burrell, turned to Marley for a path forward.
“I am not sure if it was because he was interested or disinterested,” Marley said, laughing. “He gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted to do.”
Menzies had served as an assistant on the previous qualifying squad.
“Hue is such a calm person until you see him on the field, and then he turns into a little chihuahua,” Marley said. “He is lovely. He cares about the girls and cares about the program. And he cares about football.”
Adios, Merrill Lynch
Menzies was born in London to Jamaican parents and grew up in the rough Mountain View section of Kingston.
“I am hanging out with some ruffians,” he said. “Mom didn’t want me to play soccer. She wanted me to study. In Jamaica, soccer is a poor man’s sport. I used the game to give me a platform.”
For a better future, his mother sent him to live with family in New York, then Galveston, Tex. He was a high school soccer standout in Houston and played wing back at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Tex., in the mid-1980s.
A semipro career did not amount to much, so he used his finance degree to land a job in New York with Merrill Lynch.
After seven years, he said: “I was doing really well, but I just felt like it is not my calling. I got my bonus check and said, ‘Adios!’ My mom didn’t talk to me for a while.”
Menzies returned to Abilene, taught math and coached youth soccer. He was hired as an assistant for the University of Texas women’s team and started Lonestar Soccer Club, an Austin youth operation.
His mother’s illness drew him close to her home in Florida. He coached in rec leagues and youth clubs, and eventually he became executive director of Kraze Krush, which has grown to about 1,600 players, ages 4 and up.
Kammel, the graphic designer, had met Menzies through soccer circles. His firm had handled Kraze Krush’s website. The club needed office space. A renovated garage was available.
“I was going to put a ping-pong table or something stupid in there,” Kammel said. Kraze Krush pays him a marketing fee but no rent. “We are kind of together in this weird way. I can’t explain it.”
Early in her involvement, Cedella Marley wanted to bring the national team to Florida for training camp. Menzies, then an assistant, helped arrange it. The program, though, was in bad shape.
“What a crap show, the whole thing,” Menzies said. “We called around to get the players shoes and sports bras.”
The players stayed at a hotel and rode vans to municipal fields for training. The players were athletic but unfit, Menzies said, so he brought in a fitness coach. The food truck helped nourish them.
After the failed campaign to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, Marley enlisted Menzies not just to build toward the next tournament but to provide life opportunities.
“These kids needed help and not just soccer help,” Menzies said. “The core of the team was a roughneck group.”
One who received help was forward Khadija “Bunny” Shaw, who played at a junior college in Florida and then starred at Tennessee. She told ESPNW that, while away, three of her seven brothers died in gang-related violence and a nephew was murdered.
“This program is about more than football,” Marley said. “It has parlayed their athletic talents into scholarships that can open doors to good careers.”
Through his connections, Menzies helped place others in U.S. schools, such as captain Konya Plummer, 21, a defender at the University of Central Florida, and forward Jody Brown, 17, who attends Montverde Academy near Orlando.
He also identified Americans with Jamaican lineage who were eligible to represent the country: Among them, New Jersey native Sydney Schneider, 19, is a goalkeeper at UNC Wilmington, and Washington Spirit forward Cheyna Matthews, 25, is from Georgia and starred at Florida State.
Menzies, who supports himself through his work with Kraze Krush, said he has signed a contract to coach the Reggae Girlz but has not yet been paid. Said Marley, “Like the majority of everyone behind the program, they are doing it for the love of the game and the love of their country.”
'They didn’t expect us to advance’
With the Jamaican federation offering little assistance, Marley enlisted help from Alacran Foundation, a philanthropic group that has supported causes in Jamaica.
As the 2019 World Cup qualifying campaign approached, Menzies said, “we started putting some pieces together."
The junior national teams had enjoyed improvement and success, and younger players were integrated into the senior squad. The Reggae Girlz played a home game for the first time in an estimated 12 years.
At the Concacaf qualifying tournament in the fall, Jamaica upset Costa Rica in the group stage in Edinburg, Tex., and advanced to the semifinals near Dallas.
Three teams would qualify, and paired with the superpower Americans in the semifinals, Menzies rested many regulars so they would be fresh for the critical third-place game.
During that week, cold and rain swept through the area. The Reggae Girlz did not have jackets, so Menzies and his assistants went to Costco.
“The federation didn’t send enough money,” he said, “because they didn’t expect us to advance.”
Even at full strength, the Reggae Girlz stood no chance against the top-ranked United States. They lost, 6-0.
Three days later, though, they defeated Panama in a penalty-kick shootout.
Suddenly, Jamaican soccer was not just about the Reggae Boyz but also the Reggae Girlz.
“We call them wagoners — everyone is jumping on the bandwagon,” Menzies said. The federation and government have come on board, he said, and sponsors are stepping forward.
The Reggae Girlz hosted a send-off match against Panama on May 19 at the national stadium. They made appearances in South Florida — primarily to raise money for the program — and played a tuneup in Scotland.
“Hue and I were reminiscing about how far it has come,” Kammel said. “You see that guy, and you just think this is the culmination of his life’s work. It’s very cool what this team has done.”