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Breaking Away Off the Field, Around the Globe

Richard C. Knight

By Julio R. Varela

When Richard C. Knight '90 was 16 years old and living in Northern England, he was signed by the Carlisle United Football Club to play professional soccer. Not unlike other young men his age, he had committed himself to a two-year apprentice program that would prepare him for the world of British football.

Carlisle is still waiting. And waiting. It might as well wait for Godot because Knight, an economics major from Kirkland House, doesn't see himself as just a soccer player anymore. He's about to graduate from Harvard and he's no longer 16.

"When I tell my friends in England now [about my attitude towards soccer], they say, 'You're crazy,'" Knight says. "Where I want to be in the future doesn't include soccer.

For his friends in England, soccer was a way of life. But for Knight, who has lived in many places, soccer had always meant something else: a way of adjusting, a means of fitting in.

But after two years at Harvard, Knight found that he no longer needed soccer to define himself.

After playing his first two seasons for a Harvard men's soccer team that made consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances, Knight opted to take a break from the sport his junior year--the same year the Crimson was expected to capture the elusive national championship, And it was the year that Knight--a fast, creative player--was expected to replace All-America Nick Hotchkin '88 at midfield.

The immediate reasons for Knight's departure seem obvious. The pressure to play for a rising national power could have been too much--forcing Knight to make a full, not -stop commitment to the team. The arrival of a new corps of recruits--many from California and the Northeast--hinted that the team might be headed in a different direction.

No longer would the Crimson look overseas for the bulk of its talent, a policy ex-Coach Jape Shattuck had espoused during his tenure from 1981 to 1986. Now, with current Coach Mike Getman at the helm, the team was changing. Instead of the fast and physical game Knight had grown used to in England, Harvard was gradually beginning to emphasize the skill and patience which characterize the American school of play.

"Here we are [the returning members of the Final Four teams], trying to play a European style, while others are trying to play another style," Knight says, "Before, we were a lot faster and a lot more physical."

But the changes in Harvard's game alone do not present a full picture of Richard Knight's decision to give up a sport he loved. If this had happened at soccer temples such as Indiana and Hartwick, Knight's action would have been sacrilegious. Remember, however, that this is Harvard, where the athletic fields are isolated across the Charles River. Here, Knight found that he no longer had to cross Longfellow Bridge to find his center.

"This is like my third continent," says Knight. For a brief moment, you think he's kidding. Knight finds comfort in his sense of humor. And others find comfort in him.

"He's got a great sense of humor," says Sengal M. Selassie '90, Knight's friend and future Manhattan roommate. "That humor allows him to adjust really well to all types of situations."

No kidding. Knight has been adjusting and adapting all his life. This isn't like his third continent. It is his third continent. Born in Ugandan to an English father and an Ugandan mother, the young Knight left his birthplace in 1972 and moved to Northern England to live with his father. The environment was anything but familiar.

"I lived there for 12 years and I never saw a Black person in my county," Knight says.

Sports, however, became knight's way of adjusting. If he proved he could share some of the experiences prized by others, then maybe others would accept him. It was effective--so much so that by the time he turned 16, Knight had earned the respect of his teammates and a contract with the Carlisle club. Life for the teenager was set. Or so it appeared.

Then came the trip to the States to visit his brother, Tony, in Guilford, Conn. The trip was the starting point of the rest of his life--literally. After spending the summer painting houses ("As all high school students do," Knight says), Knight's uncle--his mother's brother--and his aunt invited him to stay with their family in Connecticut.

The way knight tells the story, it sounds as if he did not hesitate in accepting their offer ("Sure!" he says, beaming, as if it was an obvious answer). His brother had made the same decision earlier, and besides, Connecticut wasn't really a bad breeding ground for soccer players.

There were problems, of course. The usual American confusion with English customs, and vice-versa, played a role. Knight was once again adjusting.

"I could sort of figure out what people were saying," says Knight, who still retains his British accent. "I would say one thing and people wouldn't know what I was saying."

Enter soccer, and the transitions into a new environment seemed a little easier. before attending Guilford High School, Knight tried out for the school's soccer team and played in a few scrimmages. Unlike in England, Knight didn't have to worry about, professional clubs knocking on his door, drawing his attention away from school. And Guilford had something his English school had lacked--sprit.

"Sports are an excellent way to develop friendships and meet new people," Knight says. "In England, however, sports are not just associated with the schools. Professional teams take away from the spirit. Here, everything is sort of built through the school."

Knight says he has no regrets over his decision to stay in the States. He knows that he never would have had the opportunity to attend Harvard without staying in America or without the help of his aunt and uncle, who have supported him since he left England.

"They're just incredible people," says Knight. "They didn't even play for this. They didn't even think twice about my going to college."

Perhaps that is why Knight intends to stay in the States for now. The atmosphere is different Much different.

"Americans are a lot more outgoing and friendly," Knight says. "In England, it seems a lot more close."

It is this type of open setting that makes Knight feel comfortable. And he feels he has discovered this open setting that makes Knight feel comfortable. And he feels he has discovered this openness at Harvard.

"He likes it here much better," Selassie says, "because it's a much more expressive society."

Knight strongly believes that his experiences at Harvard, and in the States, have presented him with opportunities he never would have encountered if he had remained in England.

In the summer after his sophomore year, for example, Knight worked at computer firm with his brother. He liked it so much that when soccer pre-season was nearing, and he still had several projects that required his presence, he decided that soccer would just have to wait.

In his junior year, Knight stayed away from the soccer team, even though the Crimson still wanted him to be part of the squad and maybe even attend some practices. But, as Knight himself says, he did not want to give soccer just "a half-commitment."

And so, while playing intramurals ("It's almost non-soccer," he says, smiling once again), Knight became actively involved with the AIDS Benefit Committee and the African Students Association. Soccer was indeed waiting.

His involvment with ASA was the main reason why he returned to Uganda during his junior year for the first time in 18 years.

"I didn't have a Black experience until I came to Harvard," Knight says. "First, it was sort of difficult. I didn't really realize this side of me."

His previous experiences never really challenged him. " I have sort of lived this mainstream life," Knight says. Until he arrived at Harvard, Knight was searching, but not coming up with many answers. Once he left the "mainstream," the answers soon started to appear.

"Of all the people I've known here, he's probably the one who's gotten the most out of Harvard," Selassie says.

"He's just really into a lot of stuff," says Sean D. Keller '90, one of Knight's four roomates. "He's in a lot more stuff than I am."

Last fall, Knight returned to the soccer field to play one last season. He was out of shape. The team didn't do very well. But Knight Knew the pressure on him had lessened, and soccer turned out to be hard to ignore after all.

"I miss, and I'm always going to miss, soccer in the future," Knight says.

But soccer doesn't have to take center stage any longer for Knight. The days of tackles and goals are dwindling. Knight no longer needs to keep on searching. He's found his own definitions.

Sorry, Carlisle.

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