Rain was falling, and the fog was just settling onto the field on a recent cool night at Robinson High in Fairfax. As the Mount Vernon boys’ soccer team hustled to one end of the field for the customary halftime speech from its coaching staff, Simond Kargbo jogged to the bench instead.
He grabbed a sweater and a knit cap from his bag, paused to collect himself and began walking to join his team.
Halftime has become the hardest part of Kargbo’s soccer games this season. The break is designed as a time to rest and reflect on the game, and that is exactly the problem for Mount Vernon’s senior captain; he is playing the game, in large part, to forget about his past.
“Being next to a soccer field makes me feel much better and happy, and then I avoid all my pain and sorrows,” Kargbo said.
When the perpetual motion stops, the 19-year-old striker often ruminates about the civil war in his native Sierra Leone that fractured his family. He thinks about his father, who died in 2008. But the heaviest weight on his mind also is the most recent life-altering event: the death of his mother in February.
Sometimes, those flashes will all lead to a single question for Kargbo: “Where am I going?”
The struggle is in the internal wiring of Kargbo, but one thing he does not do is solicit pity. That is not how his mother, Meferah Kamara, raised him.
“He’s still shocked,” said Kadiatu Jalloh, Kargbo’s 20-year-old cousin who grew up with him across Africa and now lives in Fredericksburg. “The only time he lets it out is when he goes to [soccer]. That’s how he lets his feelings out. . . he never misses a practice, never misses a game.”
The civil strife between Sierra Leone’s democratic socialist government and the Revolution United Front was already three years old by the time Kargbo was born in the country in 1994, and the 11-year conflict that killed tens of thousands of people set the tone for Kargbo’s upbringing. His home was burned down. His cousin was shot in the ribs. As a 5-year-old, he saw dead bodies in the streets of Freetown.
“It just seemed like my whole childhood burned down right before my eyes,” Kargbo said. Throughout his youth, he would wake up in the middle of the night screaming from nightmares.
“In my time, it was okay,” said 42-year-old Ahmad Sasso, a Sierra Leone native who left the country prior to the civil war starting in 1991 and now coaches youth soccer in the Washington area. “Simond’s time. . . the rebels would cut hands off the kids, kill and kill, rape the women. . . it was really bad.”
Eventually, Kargbo was forced to leave the country with his mother and other family members, and their refugee journey led them to Senegal, Ivory Coast and Guinea before they arrived in Northern Virginia in 2003. Along the way, soccer was the one constant in Kargbo’s life.The game broke down borders in Senegal, when Kargbo was struggling to learn French at school, and it helped him acclimate to American culture.
When Kargbo’s father, Sori, died in Sierra Leone in 2008, his mother became his pillar. She always stretched Kargbo out at home after games and practices. She taught him how to cook African dishes, so he could take care of himself when she had to work late hours.
He was quickly becoming one of the area’s best players by the time he enrolled at Mount Vernon as a freshman in 2009, and he scored his first career goal on his birthday that year. Kamara brought cake and ice cream to celebrate at the school, and they laughed and ate in the locker room after the game.
Last spring, Kargbo established himself as an elite area talent, scoring 11 goals with eight assists and earning first-team All-Met honors — and he considered skipping his senior season to pursue a path to professional soccer domestically or abroad. Kamara advised him not to leave. She wanted him to finish high school. Like always, she wanted to protect him.
“I wasn't mad at her. I was like, ‘Yeah, I understand why she is doing this,’ ” Kargbo said. “Your only son, you don't want him to leave. As a parent, your husband is dead. . . you need someone to stand strong and help the family out.”
After giving birth to another child this past winter, Kamara, 44, became ill and had a stroke, Kargbo said. She returned to Sierra Leone shortly thereafter to visit her family, but died just days later, on Feb. 19. Word traveled back that day from an uncle to Kargbo, who was in class at Mount Vernon.
First-year Majors Coach Anthony Garza was sitting at home that night when he received a text message: “My mom died.” Kargbo called a moment later.
“After about five minutes on the phone of being upset,” Garza said, “for some reason, his voice just became calm and he just started talking normal about the upcoming season.”
In the two-plus months since, Kargbo’s grades have dropped. When he can’t be on the soccer field, he impulsively draws pictures in a sketchbook. And on the field, his team has struggled. He has scored just three goals this season and the Majors are 3-7-2 one year after winning their first Virginia AAA National District title since 2004.
It was instinctual for Kargbo to obsess about soccer following his mother’s death. He knows it can bring him peace.
Kargbo remains one of the area’s most skilled players, a cat-quick forward with a unique feel on the ball. He has continued a strict training regimen this spring, often splitting time between Mount Vernon and his club team. He lives with his uncle, Alhassan Kamara (his mother’s twin brother), Karbgo’s younger sister and Kamara’s two children in Alexandria.
Kargbo is either playing in or watching a live game every day.And he’s writing to college coaches. His recruitment has been relatively quiet this spring, but Kargbo has still expressed his interest to coaching staffs at the UMBC, the University of the District of Columbia, any school that will listen, really.
A former youth coach, Tony Damiani, said that it’s possible that Kargbo could land at William Peace University in North Carolina, a Division III school that has strong ties to the coaching staff at Mount Vernon. Robinson Coach Bobby Garza, Anthony Garza’s brother, who coached Kargbo for three years at Mount Vernon before joining the Rams last spring, has also been trying to win exposure for Kargbo with area programs such as George Washington. And Kargbo remains close with Oliver Weiss, the former Virginia Tech head coach who is a prominent academy coach in the area and has talked with Kargbo about pursuing a contract overseas.
“He’s one of those kids that truly lives the game. Always looking to play,” said Damiani, who coached Kargbo as a youth in Alexandria and is still one of his most trusted mentors.
Kargbo has been having more and more dreams about his mom since she passed. He no longer has nightmares about the war. He has dreamed about her sitting next to him and teaching him how to cook, sharing her recipes and showing him how to be a man that takes care of himself. Like the soccer field, his dreams are a portal.
“I just dream about back then, and other things we used to do,” Kargbo said. “And then I’m happy.”