GETTING TO KNOW MEN’S SOCCER STAR CJ SAPONG
CJ Sapong is a senior midfielder on the JMU men's soccer team. He was selected the 2010 Colonial Athletic Association preseason Player of the Year and is among 39 players on the watch list for the Hermann Trophy for national player of the year. He ranks among the national scoring leaders and will finish his career ranked among JMU's all-time scoring leaders. Sapong is considered likely to be drafted in the Major Soccer League SuperDraft in January, joining former JMU players Kurt Morsink (JMU '07, DC United) and Nick Zimmerman (JMU '09, Philadelphia Union) in that league.
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Q. How did your career in sports begin?
A. When I was six years old, in elementary school they handed out the registration forms, and I grabbed basketball, baseball and soccer, a handful of sheets, just took them home. I ended up playing all three sports. It's funny, I'd play a half (of soccer), and my baseball game would be just across the street and I'd go play a couple of innings there, and (then) I'd make it just in time for my basketball game. I remember wearing my basketball jersey underneath my baseball jersey sometimes, just hop in the car and go straight to the (basketball) court, play a couple of quarters and then straight to the soccer game. .
I'm the type of person who always has to have something to do. If I don't have something to do I won't do anything. (I leaned toward) soccer, being that my parents are from Ghana, that's what they knew, and that's what my dad could help me with when I got home. Then I started playing select and travel soccer and playing more competitively with soccer. I still played basketball up to my sophomore year in high school, (but) that's when I realized soccer was my full passion. I love my parents for it; they obviously would have had better things to do on Saturday and Sunday than to drive me all over the place.
Q. You traveled to Ghana for winter break last year. What was that like?
A. I had the greatest time. I went by myself, and I got to meet lots of family and saw where my parents grew up. My mom grew up in the capital city and my dad is from a small village, and I got the best of both worlds, experiencing both the city life and the secluded village life in the mountains. I took a whole bunch of my old soccer balls (with me). That's their life; when they're playing soccer, nothing else bothers them. They're out there in bare feet, sandals, playing on sand and dirt, makeshift goals and they're still so happy. (Giving them the soccer balls) was like giving a lollipop to a two-year-old. It was a great feeling going there, realizing how good I have it here, and (also) realizing that I could make a difference. It felt really good to be able to make someone happy.
Q. Why did you choose JMU?
A. My goal was to get a soccer scholarship to get into college and to get a degree. I was getting looked at by pretty good academic schools, Georgetown, Virginia, St. John's, and that (academics) was what my first look was. I liked coach (Tom) Martin, which was the only reason JMU was really even in the running. He told me I would have a great opportunity to get a good degree and a have a good shot at playing. I came here on an official visit and fell in love with the campus. Coach Martin is an awesome recruiter, he's just a great guy all-around. When I left (after my official visit) I knew I was coming here.
Q. You've had a great career from the start. As you look back, what have been the highlights?A. Freshman year, getting (CAA) Rookie of the Year, that put everything in perspective for me. I've always been really hard on myself, and to accomplish something like that just gave me a lot of confidence. (After four years, though), the highlights are from last year and this year. Everything is just coming together, and I feel like now is just the perfect time. Everything leading up to now is just buffing, scraping the edges, making sure everything is nice for this year. I'm extra confident with myself. I know my abilities, I played well in the summer. I made all-conference in the PDL (Premier Development League, where Sapong was the leading scorer for Reading United); that's over 1,000 players.
Now it's just about bringing it all together with the people who are here, being a leader, just playing. The soccer team this year, we call it "swag." When we walk on the field we feel really loose, we know we can play with any team. It's just a matter of us working together, everybody working with each other, and I really love that. That's when I'm feeling the best, when I'm just loose. When you see me before a game, I'm dancing. I don't even need to stretch when I get to the field, I just jump right in, just play. The skill is there, it's just the mental part, keeping our heads, so it should be a good year.
Q. As a high scorer, you're a marked man, but that doesn't seem to bother you.
A. It's a compliment, if anything, to me, especially this year. If any team is going to waste a man to put him on me, we have Markus (Bjorkheim), we have Paul (Wyatt), we have players on the bench that will hurt them. If they're going to put an (extra) man on me, that's just opening it up for somebody else, because our attack is just so potent this year. And I'm the kind of person who needs to be pushed around; it keeps me in the game.
Q. You've occasionally done a back flip after scoring.
A. (Doing the back flip) just depends on how I'm feeling. This year, people were asking me, when are we going to see the back flip? I have to do it when I'm feeling it. (On Sept. 12 vs. Longwood) I felt like that was the opportune moment, scoring the third goal and getting the hat trick, I thought, I think I'll add a back flip to it.
Q. You're a team captain. How would you describe that responsibility?
A. I've always been someone on the team who's been in good standing with everybody. I'm just that type of person. Since my sophomore year I've always tried to be a leader but I just never had the actual (captain's) armband on. I have the respect of my teammates and they know I respect all of them too. The way we have it set up is me and Smitty (Jonathan Smithgall) are captains but (David) Meiklejohn is also a captain. Meiklejohn hasn't been fortunate to see the field as much. He's been here for five years, and every day he brings it. All the other players who don't get to see the field that much get to see that too, and it makes for a better all-round effort at practice, working out the little kinks.
I'm excited because everybody's on the same page. We had a team meeting after a little incident in practice, and we got everybody's perspective on how they felt, what they wanted to accomplish and how they felt we could do that. (The captains) asked (for input from) players from different classes on the team to make sure we reached every inch of the team. We took it in, we talked to the coaches, and now it's even better. Now it's just JMU men's soccer, just working together to find the best possible combination to make this work. It's never been like that in my four years here, that's why I'm just so ready, so excited.
Q. Talk about your career aspirations.
A. My dream is to play soccer as long as possible and to continue to get better. With everything I do, I just want to make sure I'm getting better. Hopefully I'll be playing for some type of of professional team when I leave here. Over the summer (playing in the PDL) I drew a lot of interest from a lot of coaches and they told me they're following my season, and that come draft time to be prepared. I know the interest is there, (now) I just gotta play my game. It's all about gearing up right now. I'm trying to work it out that maybe I can do my internship with whatever team I'm playing with, because if I get drafted it would take me out (of school) a semester early. I really want to get my degree. If I'm not playing soccer, I'd love to be a coach, I'd love to coach a team from age 9 to 18. That's what my (youth) coach did. I'd love to watch a player develop, watch a person develop.
Q. Do you have a favorite professional soccer player, someone you admire?
A. There's more than one, and it definitely goes by how they're playing at a certain time. Right now I'd have to say Thierry Henry is my favorite player. Now he's in the U.S., playing for New York Red Bulls and seeing him in America, just chillin' but still being such a beast (on the field). I can't pick one player because I take so many things from players. All of them combined make me as a player. I try to give credit to everybody who's had an influence on me, but Thierry Henry is definitely leading the pack.
Q. So we hear you can dance, what's your favorite Michael Jackson move?
A. It's not even the moon walk, I don't even know what's it's called. It's from the "Smooth Criminal" video, and I just love this one move that is a testament to how smooth he is and just silky.