Alexandria native Nate Burkey had contemplated one day playing for the U.S. National soccer team. Now the 26-year-old is competing on the international stage, just not the way he expected.
Burkey went from teaching at Mary McLeod Bethune Public Charter School in Washington to greeting adoring fans as a member of the Azkals, the Philippines national soccer squad, in a span of weeks.
Its unreal, Burkey said in an interview via Skype while waiting to catch a flight to Germany. Growing up in the States, you see and hear about the [soccer] fans in Europe or South America, but you dont see it in the U.S. Here, its ridiculous.
Burkey got his start on the pitch at four years old, following his older brother, Jonathan, into the sport. Jon was a natural athlete, recalled their mother, Manilena Payos, but Burkey couldnt be kept from the field.
Nate just tagged along during games and [practices], Payos said via email. At first he would play with the younger siblings of the players and next thing I know he was kicking balls and doing the same drills that Jon was learning.
Burkey stayed with the sport, playing for T.C. Williams before heading to Louisburg College in North Carolina where he was named an Adidas All-American in 2004. He finished his undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University and hoped for a professional contract but it didnt pan out.
A tryout for a Belgium team went nowhere and a later chance at a spot on a second division Bulgarian team also ended in rejection.
Despite the setbacks, Burkey remained committed to soccer.
I did do showcases my senior year and had some tryouts and was planning to go overseas but that didnt work out at that time, he said. Whether I was going to play professionally or not I kept playing.
Payos admits being more concerned about her son finding a stable job after graduation than pursuing his soccer career. She had introduced her young sons to the sport after the death of their father and saw it as a way to return the family to normalcy rather than leading to a career.
But Burkey, splitting time playing for local teams, coaching kids and teaching, kept thinking about the Azkals translated, it means street dogs a team hed heard accepted American and English athletes with Filipino heritage. Hed known about them since 2005, but hadnt been able to stay in contact with the international squad half a world away.
That changed when Payos went home in February. With some family help, she was able to get Burkey the right contact information. After sending a few emails, Burkey traded in his frequent flyer miles and headed to a country hed visited just a handful of times for training camp.
Fast forward a few weeks and Burkey had resigned his teaching position, trading in the chalkboards and textbooks for cleats and shin pads. Whenever the squad arrives in a new town, the red carpet is rolled out. Fans come to cheer, local officials shake their hands and they get a police escort.
Its been a whirlwind, he admitted.
Its a complete life change, he said. Its not really something I wanted or dreamed of doing, but now that its here, its a dream come true.
Still, his recent success came with sacrifice though Burkey would be loath to phrase it as such. He gave up his job, moved away from his family and friends and is getting by with a stipend provided by the national squad. While he signed a contract with a local professional team, its not what he would be making back in the U.S.
You cant pass on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, Burkey said.
I was living in the U.S. and making money, but spending a lot more money, he said. Out here, its not as much money, but Im doing what I love. Im making money and Im living very comfortably and its like Im working, but it doesnt feel like Im working.