In the early 1990s, Andy Najar’s father was living in a small town near Santa Cruz. After a short professional-soccer career, he’d become a well-known player on the amateur circuit. When the Santa Cruz players learned of him, they invited him to the village to beef up their roster for an upcoming match. After the game, Andy’s father approached the house closest to the field, where he asked a young woman for a glass of water. The two began a courtship and married soon after. Andy was born in the family’s dirt-floor house in 1993. Within four years, he had two brothers.
Like many villagers, Andy’s father worked at the nearby sugar factory. The $6 a day he earned was barely enough to live on, and the work ended when the harvest was over.
Andy spent much of his childhood on the soccer field studying his father’s dribbling techniques, practicing shooting with his brothers, and playing pickup games with friends. When the rainy season flooded the field, he took the ball to the dry patches. Even back then, some villagers saw a spark. “You are going to feed your family with your feet,” Ismael Reyes, a family friend, told Andy.
Andy’s house was adjacent to his grandmother’s and his uncle’s. A towering mango tree tossed shade onto the interior courtyard, where the family shared meals of beans and rice with fish, chicken, or beef. They scraped by. When Andy’s father’s wages fell short, his mother sold tortillas. “We were poor, but we were together,” says Rafael Rodriguez, Andy’s uncle.
When Andy was five, a storm ripped through Santa Cruz, submerging the village in chest-high water. Hurricane Mitch, as it came to be known, maintained Category 5 intensity for 33 hours. Wind gusts exceeded 200 miles an hour. Along with his parents and brothers, Andy fled to higher ground at the sugar-cane factory and stayed there several days. “We didn’t have anything to eat,” Andy recalls. His grandmother and uncle were stranded on the roof of a car.
Hurricane Mitch was the deadliest storm to hit the Atlantic coast in 200 years, leaving more than 17,000 Hondurans dead or missing, a fifth of the population homeless, and 70 percent of the crops destroyed. When it was finally safe to return to Santa Cruz, the family found the village in ruins. Both Andy’s and his uncle’s homes were leveled. Because only Andy’s grandmother’s house—which was made of concrete—remained standing, the family crammed in with her. A nongovernmental organization later agreed to finance the reconstruction of Andy’s house as long as the family provided the labor.
Andy’s parents could feed and shelter their children, but Santa Cruz offered little hope for advancement. For a better life, villagers headed north. From 2000 to 2009, the Honduran-born population in the United States grew by 65 percent, to 468,000. The cash these emigrants send home is a vital source of income for many families. In 2009, Hondurans living abroad remitted $3 billion to their native land—20 percent of the country’s economy.
Emigration was nothing new to Andy’s family; his grandmother had left El Salvador for Honduras in the 1950s to find work. Andy’s mother left for the United States in 2002 and settled with family in Dallas. She landed a job at a car wash and began sending money home. Eventually she earned enough to bring her husband to the States. They moved to Northern Virginia to be close to other family members. Andy’s father worked in construction; his mother cleaned houses.
With their parents away, Andy and his brothers were under the care of their grandmother. Andy made sure his brothers stayed out of trouble and took them to the soccer field. “It was always those three with the ball,” Andy’s uncle says. Although he occasionally fought with his brothers, Andy was a respectful child who listened to his grandmother—and that may have saved his life.
The sugar harvest had always been an exciting time for children in Santa Cruz. When workers set the fields ablaze to separate the weeds from the crops, all sorts of critters—rabbits, raccoons, rats—scurried out. The animals raced onto the paved road in front of Santa Cruz, where village children lay in wait to catch them.
In November 2004, the kids headed over to the road to get in position. Andy, then 11, wanted to join them, but his grandmother told him to stay home.
As the children got in place, a freak wind picked up the fire from the sugar fields. In a flash of panic, at least 14 villagers ages 5 to 17—including several of Andy’s cousins—burned and suffocated. In the following days, photos of their charred remains appeared in newspapers across the country. “It is a neighborhood of tragedy,” Ricardo Maduro, then the president of Honduras, told La Tribuna newspaper.
For months, players refused to retrieve soccer balls that landed near the site of the tragedy. They believed the sugar fields were haunted.
As Andy grew older, his uncle, a former professional soccer player, noticed that the boy could run at blinding speed while maintaining control of the ball. “He was like a bullet,” his uncle says.
After sixth grade—the final year of compulsory education in Honduras—Andy took a job at a drinking-water company near his house. He went to church on Sundays and played soccer whenever he could. At 13, he joined a Santa Cruz team that competed against clubs from nearby villages; some of his opponents were in their twenties. His elusiveness enraged the older players, and the men went after him with elbows. “It didn’t matter how hard they hit him,” says Andy’s former coach. “He never got scared.”
Despite Andy’s ability, a professional career seemed unlikely. Honduran national-team officials were focused on finding bigger players to match up with teams in the United States and Canada. Andy tried out for Honduras’s best-known professional team but was turned away.