For the last month or so, in the field of yellowed grass next to Eagle River Elementary School, a young man appears in the afternoons, toeing a soccer ball, doing solitary jumping-jacks and taking shots on the empty goal. His name is Yeniel Bermudez. He is 25. Few people know him in Alaska, but not long ago, his image was a symbol of national pride thousands of miles away -- in Cuba.
Now he couldn't be further from that.
In 2008, Bermudez was the captain of Cuba's under-23 national soccer team. Cuba is a communist country that doesn't allow citizens to travel to the United States, but Bermudez's team was allowed special permission to visit the U.S. for an Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa, Fla. Cubans who reach U.S. soil can be granted permanent residency. For a year before the match, Bermudez said he considered the idea of defecting. His head filled with stories of professional athletes in Cuba, including a good number of baseball players, who had gone to the U.S. and become successful. His salary in Cuba was $10 a month. In the U.S. he could make money to improve life for his family back home. But leaving would mean never seeing them again.
Late on an evening in March of that year, Bermudez sneaked out the side door of a Doubletree Hotel with four teammates. As he rode away from the hotel, Bermudez felt reborn, he said. The sight of the city, the huge stores with their parking lots full of newer cars, amazed him. Media swarmed in to tell the story of him and his teammates. Offers of help poured in from the Cuban community. It seemed he was destined to fulfill his dreams.
But, in the end, it was harder than he imagined.
Fast-forward two years. Bermudez finds himself here in Alaska with his fiancee, Stephanie Magestro. She is a middle school guidance counselor. They met two years ago at a bar while she was on vacation in Los Angeles, and began their courtship on MySpace. Last month he finished playing a season with the Charleston Battery, a lower division team in South Carolina, where he felt like an outsider. He has no soccer contract.
His search for a job in Anchorage hasn't yielded anything permanent. He passed on a part-time job at Costco in favor of a night job at a housing facility for sex offenders. But he was fired when his boss discovered he can't write in English. He now spends several hours a day training. He plays in a men's indoor soccer league. He volunteers at Magestro's daughters' schools.
"And then there's a lot of sitting around and him freaking out," Magestro told me.
I went to Eagle River on Wednesday to watch him practice. When I got there he was dressed out in his Cuban team practice suit, bouncing the ball off his knees. He smiled when he saw me and passed me the ball. I passed it back. He has no one to practice with, he said. I said that sounded lonely. He shrugged.
Bermudez can't remember when he didn't know the feel of a soccer ball between his feet, he told me. As a kid, he played without shoes. He used to hobble to school with black toenails.
"But when I get home afterward, my mother (was) happy because she saw me playing," he said.
His father was also a national team player, but he quit playing and took a job in a port to provide for his children. His younger brother also played for a national team. He was fired after Bermudez's defection.
I asked him to describe Cuba, and how it compared to the U.S. He told me he could talk about that for a week.
He grew up with rationed food and electricity. Cars, ancient relics from the '50s, were held together with makeshift parts. All the media is controlled by the government. People can be jailed for no reason.
As a kid, he told me, he learned not to talk to his playmates about what he ate for dinner. If it had been purchased on the black market, his parents could have been punished. As teenagers trying to impress girls, he said, he and a brother shared a rotation of three shirts. His mother, a doctor, made about $10 a month.
Since he defected, his family has become a target, he said. His stepfather and brother were detained and jailed almost a year ago. Police called them "traitors," Bermudez said. Only recently, they were told that they had been charged with smuggling, which carries a sentence of as much as 10 years. His mother has a lawyer and is trying to fight the charge. But there have been no hearings.
"They don't respect lawyers. I told you, Cuba is crazy," he said.
After the initial burst of attention from news media, offers of help dried up. Bermudez went to Los Angeles to try out for the Galaxy, a major league soccer team He didn't land a spot on the team, in part, he said, because he didn't yet have his immigration paperwork that would allow him to work and travel outside the U.S.
He ended up playing briefly for a lower division team in Puerto Rico. He had a tryout for another major league team, Chivas USA, based in Southern California, but a torn hamstring took him out of the competition, he said. He took a spot with Charleston Battery, another lower division team, and sent all his earnings back home. Now that contract is up.
He speaks to his family by phone, he said, but it is often hard to get through. He suspects the government listens to his calls. I asked him if there were times when he regretted leaving Cuba. He said no. He is glad for the family he has become a part of here, he said. But I could also see the guilt on his face.
We sat on a bench near the elementary school playground, where a couple kids played on the swings. Snow dusted the top of the mountain. He's never been through a real winter.
All he needs is a break, he told me, another tryout in the U.S. or Europe, an opportunity to show someone that he can play at the highest level. Then it will make everything worth it. When he left the hotel that night, he imagined a Hollywood ending. He never imagined he would end up here.