By Mike McCall
US Club Soccer
The soccer field is many things for Sheila Ramos.
In its simplest form, it’s a patch of grass where she plays for the Florida Premier League’s Tampa Bay United.
On a deeper level, it’s where she bonded with her father as a young child, joining her first team at age 5 and playing under his tutelage as she learned the game from him.
And in its darkest form, it’s the place where her father lost his life, the victim of a sudden heart attack that came while refereeing a match.
But the soccer field has also been her sanctuary, a home filled with friends and mentors that helped her through the devastation of losing a parent. And soon, it will be the stage she takes as a college player.
“I don’t think I could have gotten to where I am without soccer and the soccer community,” Ramos said. “It was my place to go to put everything away.”
What she hoped to put away was the 2008 passing of her father, Roel, who had been a major influence in local soccer as a coach and referee. He got Sheila her start in the sport as well, coaching her — on a boys team — until she turned 10.
“He was never easy on me, but he inspired me to always have fun on the field,” Sheila said. “He was like my best friend because he was so into sports.”
It didn’t take long for that same passion to take root in Sheila. She played club soccer for Hillsborough County United (a precursor to TBU where her father was also a board member), and as an eighth grader, she was preparing to make the jump to Tampa Catholic High, where there was a chance she would get to play for her favorite coach again. Roel led the Tampa Catholic JV boys team and had talked about switching to the girls squad once Sheila enrolled as a freshman.
But those plans were scuttled one Sunday on a soccer field, on a date that Sheila recalls without the slightest hesitation.
December 21, 2008.
A family lost its father and husband. A community lost a leader. And because of the setting of Roel’s passing, a soccer community feared they might lose Sheila as well.
“When any child loses their father in that regard, obviously you mourn with them, but you also wonder with the sport being the environment in which he lost his life, would that make a kid think ‘The last thing I want to do is be around a soccer field?’” TBU Director of Girls Coaching George Fotopoulos said. “It was actually the opposite. She understood her dad’s passion for the game and his love for the game, and I feel like that helped her in the grieving process but also allowed her to realize she wanted to carry the torch for her father.”
If the date and circumstances of her father’s death are burned into Sheila’s memory, so are the many moments and joys she spent with him — plenty of which came through soccer. Then there was the outpouring of support from those in the sport. Coaches and teammates rallied around Sheila and her family, and she was touched by letters and kind words from Roel’s former players.
“It was amazing to see the impact he had on the lives of people I never even met,” Sheila said.
And when that wasn’t enough, she could trot out onto the soccer field and just play.
“If you ask anyone, club soccer is my favorite,” she said. “I enjoy the team experience. It means so much to me because it has helped me through not only my dad but all the other ups and downs. Everybody in the soccer community wants you to do well.”
Rather than chase Sheila away from the game, Roel’s passing brought her closer to it. She calls her young career “the experience of a lifetime,” and while she understandably speaks of her father with a slight quiver, she handles an emotional situation with strength and maturity that would be unfair to expect from a high school senior.
“At my age people don’t like to talk about difficult problems,” she said. “I think my friends know I’m someone they can talk to about their problems because I’ve been through it. Sometimes I didn’t have somebody around when I needed it, so I want to be that person for my friends.”
With that attitude on top of the athletic and technical gifts Fotopoulos is quick to point out, it’s no surprise Ramos is headed for a college career at Florida Southern — making her one of 44 TBU players committed to play at the next level.
Until then, she’ll be focused on graduation and finishing out the season with the TBU U-18 squad. With five matches to play and a game in hand, TBU sits six points behind leaders IMG Academy in the race for the Florida Premier League title and a berth in the 2013 NPL Champions Cup.
And in the meantime, there’s another opportunity to look forward to. Call it one last gift on the soccer field from her father.
By virtue of Roel’s Mexican nationality, Sheila is working toward dual citizenship, which she hopes will lead to a tryout with the national team this spring.
“I really hope I make him proud,” she said.
Those close to Sheila have little doubt of that.
Roel’s work as a father, coach and advocate of club soccer turned the field into a path of opportunity for his daughter, and Sheila is striding confidently toward her goals.
“She always has played with the understanding that her angel, her father, has always been with her,” Fotopoulos said. “He might not be here, but he has always been by her side.”