The smuggler treated Andy well during the 14-day journey, delivering him by car to the Texas border region. From there, he was on foot. With canned food and bottles of water in his backpack, Andy hiked through the desert for two days and two nights. At one point, he told the smuggler he couldn’t continue, but he pressed on, Diez reported. Finally, Andy reached the vehicle waiting for him on the American side, which took him to Houston. Andy’s family paid another $1,500 to transport him to Virginia. He moved into his parents’ apartment in Franconia, a Northern Virginia community that’s popular with immigrants because it’s affordable and safe.
Andy was ecstatic to have made it; he hadn’t seen his mother in five years. But no one was more relieved than his grandmother, who had been too worried to eat during the two weeks Andy had been traveling. “I thanked God,” she says.
In Franconia, Andy quickly made friends with other Honduran and Salvadoran teens. In the fall of 2007, he enrolled at Alexandria’s Thomas A. Edison High School, which draws a large immigrant population. Half of Edison’s 1,700 students are non-native English speakers, a quarter Hispanic.
When Andy arrived at school, he spoke almost no English. “Andy was pretty typical of the kind of guy we get from Central America,” says Jeffrey Pandin, who teaches history to students in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program. Pandin recalls Andy as a quiet student who blended in. He showed up on time, did his homework, and never caused trouble: “He wasn’t the best student in the world, but he made some basic progress.” A kid like Andy, Pandin figured, was headed for Northern Virginia Community College or straight into the workforce.
In the fall of 2007, Alejandro Macias watched a group of Edison students play pickup soccer in front of the school. Macias, a recent Edison graduate, was an assistant soccer coach. He tried to recruit fresh talent to the team, and he had organized the day’s scrimmage between Edison’s squad and a collection of mostly Spanish-speaking kids who had never tried out.
Many of Edison’s foreign-born students avoid extracurricular activities. Some have child-care duties or after-school jobs. Others don’t want to call attention to themselves. “Some have come to the country illegally, and they worry that they will be asked for their papers,” Macias says.
That afternoon, Macias’s attention turned to a rail-thin player in his early teens. The boy’s ability to change speeds while maintaining his dribble allowed him to slice through the varsity-level defense. “This kid is amazing,” Macias said to himself. Although Andy hadn’t played organized soccer since arriving here, he had practiced at a park near his house. Often he trained alone.
When the scrimmage ended, Macias asked Andy in Spanish if he’d be interested in playing for Edison’s team. Andy’s friends were against it, insisting the team was awful. But Andy agreed to join the team. “He just loved to play the game,” Macias says.
The soccer season didn’t start until the spring, but the team invited Andy to its early-morning workouts in the Edison gym that fall. Although high-school regulations prevented coaches from attending, players passed on enthusiastic reports about their new teammate—“You’ve got to see this kid play”—to head coach Scott Racek.
As Edison’s spring season neared, Andy’s enthusiasm impressed his coaches. “He would show up 30 minutes before practice and start kicking the ball around,” Macias says. “And he would be the last person to leave at the end of the day.”
Andy was a small but well-constructed athlete, Racek says. His frame was supported by long, wiry legs: “He was fast as a gazelle and had a nice touch on the ball.” Unable to communicate in English, Andy was quiet. “He wouldn’t even look me in the eye because his English was so limited,” Racek says. Macias was Andy’s translator.
Although only a freshman, Andy scored three goals in the varsity team’s opening game. “At that point, I knew we had something special,” Racek says. Andy earned a spot on the all-district team. The following year, he had a school-record 22 goals and five assists. Edison went 10-2-1 with Andy in the lineup. Without him, they were outscored 11-3 and lost three of four games. The Washington Post named Andy a first-team All-Met player in 2009, his sophomore year.