To watch him pace the sideline during one of his Lewiston High School boys’ soccer games is to watch a bundle of human emotion slowly wind itself tightly — every pace quicker with each passing minute of a tough contest.
To hear him — if you can, as the season wears along — is divine.
And through the raspy, throat-clearing verbiage that escapes his lips on a daily basis, one word resonates as clearly as a drop of water on a still pond: “Together.”
“Our kids know, if they don’t do it together, if all of the pieces don’t work together efficiently, it doesn’t get done,” McGraw said.
The same can be said for the players and the community they represent.
Long before Benjamin Musese, Abdi Shariff, Noralddin Othman, Austin Wing and the rest of the Lewiston team cradled the gold ball after their 1-0 win over Scarborough in the Class A state final on Saturday, long before last year’s heartbreak in the state final against Cheverus, this group of players was overcoming a different kind of adversity.
Some escaped war-torn regions of the world. Most endured significant travel through many of their formative years, trying to escape turmoil wherever it was they called home at the time: Turkey. Congo. Kenya. Somalia. Germany. The United States.
Each in time found his way to Lewiston with his family. But even arriving in this small Maine city wasn’t without its rough patches. Many families were disturbed when, in 2002, the sitting mayor wrote an open letter to the Somali community, trying to discourage further immigration. In 2006, a frozen pig’s head was rolled into a local mosque. Lewiston’s current mayor appeared on a BBC broadcast in 2012 and stated that immigrants in Lewiston should “leave their culture at the door.”
Just this week, after the Blue Devils won the Class A North title for the second consecutive year, among the first comments on social media was the question, “Are there any native Mainers on the team?”
Clearly the question was bait for those who wanted to burn the team for having players from multiple ethnic backgrounds.
Most on this particular thread steered clear.
The best reply came from a Lewiston alumnus: “They are Blue Devils, that’s all that matters.”
The students at Lewiston High School — and in particular those in athletics — have helped pave the way for the community.
“I think the soccer program has played a big part, along with the track and field team and some others, part of that assimilation process,” Lewiston Athletic Director Jason Fuller said. “It’s fun to look around, and see all the different kids, the different backgrounds, ethnicities. It’s amazing.”
A quick scan of the nearly packed house at Fitzpatrick Stadium on Saturday proved Fuller’s point. Young. Old. White. Black. Somali. Muslim. Roman Catholic. Protestant.
It didn’t matter.
“Look at the community,” Fuller said, pointing to the bleachers above the field as the team celebrated below. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought we’d see this many people.”
There were so many people — many adorned in royal blue and white — officials had to allow seating in the secondary bleachers behind the team benches after earlier turning people away from that location.
What the near-capacity crowd saw was a display of exceptional soccer — from both teams. Scarborough was a game opponent, clearly the best Lewiston had faced all season, and the only team to hold the Blue Devils scoreless in a half, and to just one goal in a game.
But that one goal, McGraw astutely asserted, came as a result of playing as a team.
“The kids have to be together as one unit,” he said. “It doesn’t work if there’s only a few of them that are playing one way, or there is a defense versus an offense. They have to do it together. There’s a total concept of the game.
“Neither team was going to get a clear, easy opportunity … We got the goal when we did because we played hard, we kept working together.”
McGraw has been at the helm of the program for 33 years, has been a part of it in some fashion for nearly 40, and he’s been a part of one of the more difficult transitions for any sport at any school in Maine for the past decade or so.
Through all that, he echoes what many in the community believe is possible: Change and acceptance beget change and acceptance.
A year ago, reflecting on the changes in the program over the past decade, McGraw said: “The way they play together, the way they get along, that’s the future of our cultures together in the city. Maybe adults don’t see that all the time. I still saw a lot of racism. I knew that what they did as kids could go a long way to helping our city mature a little bit more.”
Bad apples and infrequent social media jabs aside, McGraw’s opinion hasn’t changed much, and he’s perhaps grown even stronger in his conviction.
“If kids can do it, when they grow up, they’ll say the same thing, and they’ll grow,” McGraw said. “I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic.”
That makes two of us, Coach.
Let’s all be optimistic.