The Chicago Fire's long-awaited return to full team training in June offered a sense of freshness and optimism for players, staff, and fans alike -- united in anticipation for healthier and brighter days.
Three months of virtual lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic provided ample time for stillness and reflection— time that CJ Sapong used to ensure when brighter days came, he'd be a better version of himself.
“I started a life coaching certification course at the brink of quarantine,” Sapong said. “It’s something that -- after soccer -- I feel like I can implement into various different things to bring value to people around me.”
When Major League Soccer put its 2020 season on hold in March, the ever-pensive Sapong sat down to envision his path forward not only in sport, but more importantly in life. The 31-year-old saw an opportunity to put his experience and education into action. And those internal conversations inspired him to stoke the same sense of constant personal growth in the next generation.
Through a series of group video calls, the Fire's 2019 Golden Boot winner began his own class of sorts, imparting veteran wisdom on the Fire’s five newest Homegrown signings: Brian Gutiérrez, Javier Casas Jr., Alex Monis, Chris Brady, and Allan Rodriguez.
“He wanted us to come up with goals on the business side, in life in general, and then some in soccer,” Casas said. “Then, we discussed them throughout the calls we had with him. He gave us more in-depth information about what’s behind those goals.”
“It was a good way for us to set up a vision for our future,” Brady added. “CJ talked a lot about players his age -- and even older -- not really having a direction in life after their football career. That’s the biggest thing from those calls, him helping us out with our future and trying to set us up for success.”
Sapong’s own emphasis on finding his off-the-field passions materialized in 2017, when his foundation -- Sacred Seeds -- launched in Philadelphia. The organization’s goal is to create healthier and more empowered communities through localized agriculture and food awareness endeavors in underserved areas.
It’s fitting, then, that an interest in planting the seeds of mindfulness in some of the Club’s youngest members would be a natural interest.
“My plan was to just start out from understanding where they were, and how often they thought about the concept of self-growth and longevity,” Sapong said. “My plan was -- by the end of each call -- to be able to have each of them visualize and feel what they were trying to accomplish. Then, to also have the specific, broken down objectives that they could utilize to get there.”
Sapong is someone who has long worn his introspective personality as a badge of pride. It’s something he shares regularly with fans across his social media platforms, and it’s evident in every interview he gives.
The five Homegrown players -- all aged 16 or 17 -- impressed the Fire forward with what they were able to bring to the discussion on their group calls.
“We have some of the brightest young adults that I’ve come across,” Sapong said. “To Chicago Fire’s credit, I think the Homegrowns come in from a pretty aware place, and are willing to grow. A lot of the concepts I brought up to them were things that they had seen before or were familiar with.”
Education is a cornerstone of the Fire Homegrown experience. Prior to signing for the first team, each player had taken part in the Fire Academy’s PASS Program (Performance, Advisory, & Support Services). It’s a program that aspires to go “beyond the traditional X's and O's of coaching and towards a 'broad based holistic approach' to educating young athletes.”
“The PASS Program, they’re really big on our future,” Rodriguez said. “One important thing for them is school and things that help you in your future, so we had knowledge on it already. I learned a lot from the PASS Program, so I brought that into CJ’s calls."
“I think the Club in general does a good job of not only focusing on the technical aspect of things, but also the mental side of the game,” Monis added. “It’s really important, especially being a young professional. We’re not used to a lot of these things -- football being a job now -- and I think they’ve done a good job of preparing us for that.”
With the team having returned to training ahead of July’s MLS is Back Tournament, the five Homegrowns’ rookie season is yet again underway. While playing time is no guarantee for any young player, Sapong is confident in the young group’s ability to handle themselves as professionals.
“A big concept I brought in was things you can control vs. things you can’t,” Sapong said. “Those are the concepts I think can permeate throughout your existence. You learn that -- even if you’re not on the field as much as you would like -- the only thing you can really control is your readiness when you get that opportunity.”
Sapong's formal sessions with the Fire youth will pause amid the league's return to play, but it's clear the 10-year veteran plans to continue his mentorship work— a passion that provides sustenance for an ever-evolving soul.
“I got to learn a lot about them,” He said. “That stuff helps on the field as much as it helps off the field. It brings fulfillment. It brings purpose.”