Andy dropped out of school when he turned pro, but his contract required D.C. United to pick up the tab for his continuing education. He now studies with a tutor and is on track to receive his high-school-equivalency degree by the time his former classmates graduate this spring.
Coach Racek was troubled by Andy’s decision. More than a dozen universities had expressed interest in Andy, and a college degree could have ensured his livelihood even if an injury cut his soccer career short. “He could have been the first one in his family to go to college,” Racek says. But for an immigrant family just barely getting by, D.C. United’s offer was hard to turn down.
D.C. United trumpeted Andy’s ascension as a validation of its academy system. “This is a great story about the importance of our academy teams and the ability those teams give us to find young players who in the past we might never have met,” D.C. United president Kevin Payne said in announcing Andy’s contract. Some club coaches snickered. “D.C. United did not develop Andy Najar—they picked him up for a year,” says coach Pete Mehlert.
In Santa Cruz, Andy’s family was thrilled. No one from the village had ever played professional soccer abroad. “The whole town was celebrating,” Andy’s uncle says.
When D.C. United’s coaching staff examined their roster for the 2010 season, they earmarked Andy as a backup who could come off the bench in certain situations. He was just 16, and they saw no reason to rush things.
But Andy’s preseason performance made them change plans. “Every day he continued to prove himself,” says head coach Ben Olsen. “The next thing you know, he is the last person you would take out of a game.”
Andy started 22 of 30 matches—mostly at midfield—scoring a team-leading five goals. He was named D.C. United’s most valuable player and was the team’s only bright spot in a season of 6 wins and 20 losses. After each game, his mother drove him home to Franconia. At their apartment, he shared a bedroom with his youngest brother, who had recently arrived from Honduras.
Andy became a fixation of the Honduran media. Web sites chronicled his every move, and journalists arrived in Santa Cruz to interview his family and friends. One news outlet even sent a reporter and photographer to his home in Franconia. The attention became too much; Andy changed his phone number and took his e-mail address off his Facebook page. Then the downside of his newfound visibility turned serious.
In Santa Cruz, Denis Najar—Andy’s middle brother, who was 16 at the time—was walking home from a village store in early summer. As he followed the dusty road, he noticed a vehicle behind him, his uncle says. It was dark, but he could make out a white pickup truck with no license plates. Three men were inside.
The truck trailed Denis to his house. When he stepped into his doorway, the driver stopped.
“Hey, can I use your cell phone?” one of the men asked.
“I don’t have one,” Denis said.
“I think you do,” the man said.
When Denis entered the house and locked the door, the vehicle drove off. Denis didn’t mention the incident to his family. But after the men reappeared two more times over the next several days, he decided to tell his grandmother.
When word reached D.C. United, team officials knew they had to act quickly. In the soccer-crazed nations of Central and South America, families of athletes make attractive targets for criminals. In 2007, gunmen kidnapped the younger brother of Wilson Palacios, a Honduran soccer star who plays for a premier English club. Though the family reportedly paid the ransom, the teenager’s body was found in the mountains nearly two years later.
D.C. United contacted a Guatemala-based private security firm. Within 24 hours, several men with machine guns arrived in the village and drove Denis to the Marriott in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Meanwhile, D.C. United officials worked to secure an American visa for Denis.
For more than two weeks, Denis waited at the Marriott for his paperwork. The hotel staff grew suspicious. Why didn’t this teenager ever leave the grounds? They became convinced that Denis was being held against his will by kidnappers, and they called the police. Authorities eventually realized he was already under the security firm’s protection.
When the visa came through, Denis boarded a flight for the United States. At Reagan National Airport, he embraced his mother. It had been eight years since he’d seen her.