By Jody Steinberg

”I’m going to come here a lot and be proud to say ‘that’s my jersey,’” said a smiling Abu Bangura, Cross Keys High’s 2009 soccer MVP.

He turned to Cross Keys’ soccer coach and athletics director Bryan Wallace, whom Abu considers more of a parent than a coach, telling him, “I’ll be back in three more years as your assistant.”

Bangura was honored in a ceremony at the Brookhaven Waffle House on Sept,. 26; his framed No. 15 jersey will now be displayed on the wall.

The ceremony might have set a record for how many people you can squeeze into a Waffle House. The Cross Keys marching band, teachers, teammates, Principal Dr. LaShawn McMillan, DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader and others crowded into the restaurant as the skies opened up and heavy rain pelted the parking lot.

Since emigrating with his family from a Sierra Leone refugee camp in 2003, Bangura has earned the respect of his friends and teachers as a gifted athlete and singer, hard-working student and role model to his peers.

The former team captain gave teammates the same advice he took from his coaches: academics before soccer.

His hard work paid off. He attends Piedmont College, where his soccer prowess and academic success earned him a four-year scholarship and he became a U.S. citizen in June.

“America is the land of opportunity,” he said. “Keep trying hard. Look past the problems and success will come your way.”

In addition to honoring Bangura, the ceremony was a chance for community to help the soccer team by donating much-needed athletic equipment, said organizer Kim Gokce, self-appointed Cross Keys booster. The team has received two pop-up goals and a full set of team balls, said a grateful Wallace. Soccer is the most popular program in his department, with as many as 80 players on the field during practice. More equipment is still needed for the underequipped soccer program. For information or to donate soccer equipment, readers can visit www.crosskeyssoccer.com.

“All I can say is how useful this equipment will be,” Gokce said. “It will be used every day.”