Lewiston head soccer coach Mike McGraw talks to a player on the sidelines during a soccer match in Lewiston in September. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

A beautiful Maine night in 2018, my octogenarian mother met Mike McGraw for a beer in downtown Lewiston. An alumnus of Bates College, like me, she was in town to celebrate my nephew’s graduation from our alma mater. She wanted to meet McGraw, this man I talked about so often, researched so deeply, because she felt like she already knew him.

For hours, they talked soccer, Bates, the Red Sox (“She knows her baseball!” he marveled to me later), and how they were convinced that my daughter, Hannah, was a violin prodigy. (I send “Coach” a lot of videos of Hannah playing — he likes her intensity).

Whether on the soccer pitch, in a classroom, or at a local watering hole, that is who Mike McGraw is — someone who can talk to anyone from the moment he looks at them with his twinkling blue eyes.

There were points while I was writing “One Goal,” when my editor asked me to rein in my descriptions of McGraw. I focused on those eyes too much, he said, the piercing blue, the various “tells” they gave into what he was thinking. But even more worrisome to my editor were the things McGraw did. If I wasn’t careful, he warned me, no one would believe this guy was real.

But he is real.

“He has generations of people in awe of him,” a former player posted to my Facebook page Monday night. “He has that something special that just brings out the best in people. I don’t even think it’s intentional. Just who he is!”

Coach texted me Monday afternoon that he’d just told the team about his decision to step down. Finally, I thought, there was a definitive answer to the question that has followed him the past several seasons: Is he done? Is this it?

Last winter, on one of the coldest nights of the year, Coach and I sat in the Blue Goose, the walls not quite thick enough for us take off our coats. He was going to return, he told me. At least one more season.

He’d taken longer than usual to figure it out, to start thinking about summer games and who he wanted to play and in what configurations. As I write in “One Goal,” at the advice of his wife, Rita, McGraw tries to take two weeks after the close of a season before deciding about the next one. The exception, of course, was after the heartbreaking loss to Cheverus in the state final in 2014. That year, he knew when he got on the bus to return home that he — and the team — would be back.

But this week, the answer was different.

So, too, is Lewiston soccer. It’s not the same as it was in its infancy, when McGraw agreed to be Paul Nadeau’s assistant in the team’s second season, when kids played mostly to get ready for basketball or hockey. As Lewiston’s demographics shifted, McGraw began to realize how the newcomers could impact the game, and how soccer could fit into a landscape filled with the fears and worries that racial tensions could bring.

Gus LeBlanc, former principal of Lewiston High School, told me it was, essentially, kismet, that McGraw was the right guy at the right time, able to capitalize on the changing strengths of a changing roster. He has a huge heart, LeBlanc said, and a whole lot of credibility in the community. People trust him.

McGraw was the heart of the high school long before the city’s latest transformations began, always voted “most school spirit” in the yearbook, always the guy leading the back-to-school pep rally. The changes he’d made, from his own understanding of the world to the way he coached the game he loved, gave people hope for Lewiston’s future, as he — Lewiston-born, Lewiston-educated — represented everything the city had been, and everything it could be, some of his more recent players even occupying apartments where his own family once lived.

“It is not easy to be a coach for Lewiston,” says Abdullahi Abdi, who coaches at the middle school and throughout the community, and whose sons have played for McGraw, including Abdijabar Hersi, who is an assistant coach at the high school, and Bilal, who is headed to play at NCAA Division I Siena College next fall. “But he is the man who pulled it off and earned his respect from the community, his players and their families.”

The 2015 championship season, when the Blue Devils outscored their opponents 114-7, was a coming of age. And the players knew it.

“I don’t even know where to begin with Coach McGraw,” Mohamed Khalid told me Tuesday. “It was more than soccer with him. He constantly pushed us to be a better version of ourselves.”

“He was more than just a coach to us,” Zak Abdulle said. “He was a father figure to all of us and treated us like one of his kids.”

Longtime assistant coach Dan Gish echoes the former players.

“There are people that come into your life and make you a better person in everything you do,” he told me Monday night. “Coach was everyone’s father figure, brother, friend and mentor.”

McGraw never takes those relationships for granted. Named New England Coach of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association for the 2015 season, he told Lewiston athletic director Jason Fuller that he wanted to cut up his plaque and share it with his assistant coaches.

“Mike,” Fuller remembers telling him, “you ain’t cuttin’ up your plaque.”

In what would be McGraw’s last game, Lewiston fell, and fell hard, to Falmouth. I waited until the next morning to reach out to him. I told him that I knew waking up that day was tough, but that he was the one who taught so many that, yes, the sun comes up, regardless of what happened the day before. I reminded him about the legacy he had created, a legacy that means we all expect that Lewiston soccer cannot fall. But sometimes, we all fall.

Lewiston has gifts that no one ever predicted, both on the soccer field and off. And while the Blue Devils came up short against Falmouth, the team, the community, still has those gifts. And the role Mike McGraw played in bringing them out is immeasurable. While he contemplates what is next, looking forward to a fall that is not scheduled around games and practices, the advice that he gives his players before they take the field — “we’ll see what we’ll see” — rings true.

“He taught us a lot of life lessons,” says Abdi Shariff Hassan, captain of the Division I UMass-Lowell Riverhawks and the Blue Devils all-time leading scorer, “that will guide us in the future beyond soccer.”

All that is left to say, then, is what Shobow Saban, who launched his Lewiston soccer career so many years ago by throwing a rainbow flick at tryouts, dropping Gish and McGraw’s jaws to the ground, taught me in the early days of my research in Lewiston: Wad mahadsantahay. Thank you.

Amy Bass is a professor at Manhattanville College in Harrison, New York, whose book about the Lewiston High School boys soccer team, “One Goal: A Coach, A Team, and the Game that brought a Divided Town Together,” was named a best book of 2018 by the Boston Globe and Library Journal.


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