KICKING IT FORWARD by Donny Levit
On a bucolic, radiant weekend morning in June, a group of players haltingly steers its soccer balls across a swath of green grass in Maplecrest Park. Two of these athletes gently collide, sending their balls – and a small cloud of dust – in opposite directions. One footballer, who sports a spiky haircut and the last name “Messi” spelled across the back of his shirt, makes his way towards the goal, successfully launches the ball into the air, but then awkwardly trips into the net.
Coach Nathan is all smiles.
For those who avidly follow soccer, that player with the spiky haircut is not Argentine soccer legend Lionel Messi. Rather, he’s a 4-year-old Maplewood resident who, along with roughly 10 other kids, is taking a Saturday morning soccer class with Nathan Davies. And while these young ones may not be playing World Cup-level soccer, the coach has high fives for all the players involved.
Experiencing a Coach Nathan soccer class has become something of a rite of passage in the South Orange-Maplewood community. For more than 13 years, Davies has been teaching both the techniques and joys of soccer to kids between ages 2 and 8. The event is very much a family affair. Diego, his 9-year-old son and soccer enthusiast, is a regular presence on weekends.
The parents, who often ring the soccer field to watch their kids learn the basics, consistently remark on Davies’ affable and supportive demeanor. “I don’t know how he remembers all of their names,” says one local mom. “Sometimes I can’t remember the names of my own kids. I want to know his secret.”
While the community lauds him for his admirable teaching skills, many may be unaware of Coach Nathan’s notable background. Growing up in a family of runners in his home town of Connah’s Quay, Wales, he developed an affinity for soccer at a young age, and quickly moved his way up into playing the game semi-professionally in the Welsh National League, racking up several world records in the bargain. “It doesn’t officially class as professional,” explains Davies, “but standard-wise, it’s not far off from major league soccer here in the United States.”
In 2001, Davies moved to New Jersey and worked for several different soccer training organizations. He began to fuse his athletic abilities with his burgeoning teaching career. That fusion would take him to Lesotho, a country in southern Africa with a population of over two million.
According to a 2016 report by the AIDS Virus Education Research Trust, 25% of the country’s population is afflicted with HIV. Women, young girls, orphans, and children are among the groups most affected by the illness. However, HIV testing and counselling has been expanding throughout the country. Coach Nathan has played an active role in that effort.
“In early 2009, I saw an ad about an organization called Kick4Life,” Davies explains. “They were looking for soccer players to be part of an all-star team and to play charity games against African teams. I thought this was awesome.” But it was what happened off the field that would become an even more powerful experience.
While in Lesotho, Davies and his teammates played roughly seven benefit matches. Once the charity games would finish, each player was assigned 10 children. “They set up testing tents with medical people who’d test the children for HIV,” he says. “We’d first have our own finger pricked, which hopefully would take away the fear from being tested. I remember this one little girl – she was about 13 or 14 – and it was her turn next. And then she ran [away from the tent]. She feared that the test would be positive. The sad thing is that for every 200 kids that were tested, 5 of them would be positive. And these are kids between the ages of 11 and 15. It was just crazy.”
Davies made a strong impression on the fundraising organization. “Kick4Life has been incredibly fortunate to have Nathan as a supporter of our work,” says co-founder and chief executive Pete Fleming. “It was immediately clear that he has a natural gift of engaging and entertaining people regardless of their background. The kids absolutely loved him!”
Upon returning to New Jersey, Davies would continue to develop ways in which to fundraise for underprivileged children. The President’s Cup 5K run in Millburn was his next inspiration. Coach Nathan wouldn’t simply run the race. Instead, he “juggled” – keeping the soccer ball up in the air using only his feet – the entire distance. “A few weeks after doing that race, I thought, ‘Well, that was pretty easy,” he recalls. “I need something more challenging.”
That’s when he and Kick4Life co-founder Pete Fleming set an epic goal: Davies would juggle a soccer ball across Lesotho, raising money for the children of the country. If he completed the 208-mile task, he would also set a world record for being the only person in history ever to juggle a soccer ball across an entire country.
Davies would indeed set that world record, covering roughly 22 miles each day in a little more than 10 days. When asked about the experience, he places his focus on the importance of fundraising rather than his personal record. “If I’m doing anything, it has to be around helping kids,” he says. “These kids don’t need a lot. They don’t ask for a lot. You don’t want any kids to be abused and you want to get them off the street. You want to help educate them.”
When pressed, Davies tells a story about how he had to give his four-person crew a peptalk. “They hadn’t trained [for a 208-mile journey] for this like I did, and I think they were a bit annoyed with me by the third day,” he said, while smiling. “But I motivated them. And they were just great.”
“His world record is just incredible,” adds Fleming. “Lesotho is known as the ‘Kingdom in the Sky,’ with three-quarters of the country covered by mountains, so the terrain was very tough. Not only that, but Lesotho is the only country in the world where the whole nation is over 1000 meters above sea level, so he also had the altitude to contend with. Nathan’s skill level to complete the challenge had to be phenomenal. However, the thing that sets his achievement apart is the inner desire and passion to both complete it and to support the vulnerable youth on our program.” Kick4Life and Davies raised $7,000.
In the meantime, kids throughout our community can enjoy his classes. “They tell me everything,” explains Davies. “There was this one boy who came running onto the field a few minutes after class started. He turned to me and said, ‘I’m late because daddy lost his car keys and mommy was shouting really loud about it.’ The parents had quite a laugh about that one. It’s part of what I do. I want to make sure they have fun. I just want them to laugh.”
In February 2018, Coach Nathan set yet another world record – this time for “most consecutive touches of a soccer ball with the shoulders.” The final count was 5,897 touches, which was 4,000 touches more than the previous record holder. His list of notable achievements will surely grow, both on and off the field.