“I found so many Episcopals on Google — I didn’t know which one it was,” Toure recalls. “It took me a while to do some research. And every night I would just wonder, ‘What is this going to be like?’ ”
As he thinks back, Toure unlaces a pair of bright red cleats. Episcopal’s afternoon practice has just ended, and the Maroon’s leading scorer — called “Papa” by most friends and teammates — is soaked in sweat. He has been on campus for almost nine months and appears at ease as he lounges on the bottom row of the bleachers next to the empty soccer field.
This fall season has included thousands of high school athletes across the D.C. area returning to sports with newfound gratitude. For most of them, the journey to get to this, a semi-normal season, has been long and complicated. For Toure, making it this far — to this practice, to Episcopal, to America — was exponentially more complex.
“Everything Papa has done has happened in such a short period of time, getting adjusted to one thing after another,” Episcopal assistant coach Schillo Tshuma says. “And we’re all so happy he did. We’re all so happy he made it here.”
Lost in a phone
Toure says he wouldn’t be here without his former neighbor, Babacar Niang. A few years older than Toure, Niang had left Dakar to go to a boarding school in New Jersey. When he came back to visit, Niang told Toure all about it. In America, he could play high-level soccer and get a good education. A college scholarship was a real possibility.
Going to America wasn’t something Toure had ever thought about. He grew up watching American movies and had a few relatives who lived there, but he never had much desire to join them. But now, hearing his friend talk about college soccer teams flying from school to school — and the possibility of one day going pro — he was convinced he should discuss the idea with his parents.
They agreed it could be good for him, and a family friend helped them apply to boarding schools on the East Coast. He was offered a scholarship to Episcopal, one of the D.C. area’s most celebrated, and expensive, high schools. Founded in 1839, the private boarding school, located on a 130-acre campus in Alexandria, is a picturesque bastion of education.
But Toure couldn’t go just yet. His trip across the Atlantic Ocean would have to wait until pandemic-driven restrictions were lifted. So he started his time at Episcopal with the headache that plagued most students last school year: virtual learning.
That spawned two problems: He didn’t have a computer, and he didn’t speak English. Toure, who is fluent in Wolof, French and Spanish, started learning English just months earlier, when he decided to apply to American schools. Usually a standout student, he was still mastering conversational basics, let alone academic jargon. After his first virtual chemistry class, attended on an iPhone as he waited for a month for his laptop to arrive, he called his sister in a panic.
“I just finished class, and I had no idea what the teacher was saying,” he told her. “People were speaking so fast, I picked up nothing.”
He would try to log on to video calls but often had trouble seeing the teacher’s screen. He would just see his own face. It was in moments like that, as he stared back at himself while struggling to be part of a class being taught 4,000 miles away in a language he didn’t understand, when Toure wondered whether this would be worth it.
“Sometimes I’d think to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ ” Toure says.
With time, things got better. He steadily improved his English, finding it easier to learn than French. He slowly got more confident in his classes and hopeful he would be able to join them in person soon.
By January, he had completed his first semester, chemistry had become his favorite class, and he was ready to board a plane for Washington.
Stuck in a bubble
Rick Wilcox had a feeling his newest player was good, but it was hard to say how good exactly. The longtime soccer coach could recognize that Toure was skilled, but he was facing the same competition every day. Episcopal operated most of last school year in a bubble, meaning the soccer team was limited to training sessions and intrasquad scrimmages.
“There was no way to validate this feeling that the kid had some talent and was a big-time prospect,” Wilcox says. “But as soon as I saw him in the first training session playing with college players, I thought: ‘Okay, yep. He’s the real deal.’ ”
That was in June, when Toure got a trial run with Alexandria Soccer’s under-23 team. In four matches, he had three goals and two assists.
Thus began a whirlwind recruiting process. Many of the best local soccer prospects begin thinking about college when they’re in middle school, attending camps and making lists of contenders as they reach high school. By sophomore year, they have scholarship offers in hand and can research accordingly. Many commit well before their senior season, secure in the knowledge that their life-changing decision had been thoroughly deliberated.
Toure went through that process in a single summer. He received early interest from American and Virginia Commonwealth, and he decided to visit both. He traveled to VCU with his uncle and liked that downtown Richmond reminded him of downtown Dakar. He told his parents that it felt right, and he committed to the Rams in August.
Tshuma, a former MLS player and University of Maryland star who was born in Zimbabwe, believes Toure has the potential to play the game for a long time.
“The qualities he has, he can adapt to a new level and get better,” Tshuma says. “None of us would be surprised to see him playing pro here in America or somewhere else.”
Running toward a goal
The sun has begun to set as the Episcopal players drag the two goals closer together for a seven-on-seven scrimmage to end practice. Toure, primarily a left winger, quickly asserts himself as the most dangerous player on the pitch. He elicits respect from the defense and makes it pay with a few blistering goals.
Late in the scrimmage, he gets another scoring opportunity, and instead of putting his laces through the ball, he chips it softly, just over the goalkeeper’s head and into the back of the net. It’s a beautiful shot, one that elicits a groan from the netminder. Toure laughs at his own audacity.
“Get away from me, Papa!” the goalkeeper says through a smile as Toure, still cracking up, gives him a hug.
Toure’s autumn has been filled with goals: 11 in Episcopal’s first 10 games. Three days after that Monday practice, he opens the Maroon’s conference schedule with a hat trick against Bullis.
When he’s not on the soccer field, he’s often in study hall, steadily trying to push his grades higher or chatting with his parents on a WhatsApp video call. American food has required an adjustment, but he has surprised himself by developing a love of cheeseburgers. His uncle warned him not to eat too many.
He also has been surprised by his teammates and friends, how kind they have been to him. In those first few months, when he was stuck in Senegal, how America might look wasn’t the only mystery that concerned him.
“I wondered in my mind how people were going to be with me,” Toure says. “But Babacar told me that people would be nice, so I tried not to be too worried. And he told me: ‘You’re a good player. If you start to ball out, people will be even nicer.’ ”
He laughs at this memory, leaning back in the bleachers and looking out over Episcopal’s pristine playing fields. It’s dinnertime, and most athletes have gone inside to eat. The fields sit empty and quiet, marked only by the orange beams of a setting sun. It’s late September, and it’s beautiful.
Toure will join his classmates soon, grabbing food before late-night studying. There is homework to be done, sleep to be gotten, more to be accomplished. He has a soccer game the following day, and many more after that.
“It’s nice here,” Toure says with a smile. “It’s kind of like I hoped it would be.”