When you’re recruited to play for a high-level NCAA Division I soccer program, it’s not a stretch to believe that one day you could play professionally for a living.
Those were the childhood dreams of Javier Carrasco, who grew up in Anthony, N.M., and Simon Ejdemyr, a native of Sweden, who came to the United States on an athletic scholarship.
Both were recruited by the University of New Mexico, and both completed standout careers as captains of the Lobos men’s soccer team.
“(Those two guys) are great examples of natural leaders,” said UNM men’s soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein. “(Both players) showed their leadership by demanding a high level from their teammates; they set the bar.”
Carrasco served as a captain in 2002, his senior season and Fishbein’s first as head coach. The better part of a decade separate Carrasco’s and Ejdemyr’s stints (Ejdemyr’s final season was the fall of 2009), with the Lobos, but the two share a unique distinction in program history: Both recently earned doctorates.
“We had a lot of (former players) with masters degrees and medical degrees, but I think these are the only two with a Ph.D.,” Fishbein said.
In May, Carrasco completed his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in physical education/teacher education, and Ejdemyr completed his Ph.D. at Stanford in political science. Ejdemyr also earned what is called a “Ph.D. Minor” in statistics.
“UNM is dear to my heart,” said Carrasco, who is district coordinator for El Paso’s school district, which includes 58 elementary schools, 17 middle schools, and 12 high schools totaling 64,000 kids. “The university experience provided me the tools and the framework to further my education, and I carry those values with me.”
Carrasco’s path to the University of New Mexico involved a lot of road trips — in the opposite direction.
Anthony, with a population of just over 9,000, was not a college recruiting hotbed, so Carrasco’s parents made the half-hour trip south to El Paso, where Carrasco played for the El Paso Patriots, a travel team that increased its players’ exposure.
The Lobos did not initially recruit Carrasco, who began his college career trying to walk on to the UTEP football team. Carrasco didn’t make the cut.
“I wasn’t good enough,” he said, and was a freshman taking classes at UTEP when he was recruited by the UNM men’s soccer team. (NCAA rules allow soccer transfer students to play right away.)
“I learned so much (playing for UNM),” Carrasco said, now a husband and father. “The key points (I learned) were focus, attention to detail, discipline, respect, striving for excellence, and giving back to the community.”
Carrasco said that academics were something he had to work at, but he soon realized that through his athletic scholarship, his schoolwork would provide a gateway to a long-term vision.
“My focus (as district coordinator) is on health and wellness and giving back to the community,” Carrasco said, who has implemented several programs in the El Paso school district including curriculum development and a social/emotional learning program focused on children’s behavior during recess called “Positive Playground.” It introduces conflict resolution strategies during kids’ recess time to reduce discipline referrals and create a safer environment.
“When I was younger, these weren’t things I thought of,” Carrasco said. “To be a district leader, I’m in a position to help out the community in that manner. … Playing soccer opened up that first door to school.”
Growing up in Sweden, Ejdemyr was on a path toward a professional career. He said he was playing on developmental contract with the aim of reaching Sweden’s highest professional level.
“I felt I could have probably played professionally for a few years, made a little money, and lived off it,” Ejdemyr said. “My calculation was that was not a fruitful long-term strategy. Very few people go on and play 10 years, and then live off that money. That wasn’t going to happen, and I wanted to do something stimulating after soccer.”
Sweden’s universities do not complement their academics with collegiate-level sports teams where one can earn a scholarship based on their athletic prowess.
Of course, that isn’t the case in the United States, and Ejdemyr looked at UNM as a great program, especially with the Lobos coming off a Final Four season in 2005.
“Jeremy did his due diligence looking at my (highlight) videos and talking to my coaches,” Ejdemyr said. “Pretty quickly, we found it was a really good fit.”
Ejdemyr was always a good student in Sweden, but he wasn’t as proficient in English as he needed to be, and there were some early struggles.
“I remember sitting in a math class after the first week,” Ejdemyr said. “I was familiar with the terminology, but I had no idea what was going on.”
Ejdemyr overcame the language issues, graduated with honors, and was accepted into several post-graduate schools eventually settling on Stanford.
He earned his master’s degree in political science, and in pursuit of his Ph.D., found that he really enjoyed statistics adding a Ph.D. minor.
Within a short window in May, not only did Ejdemyr earned an advanced degree, but he took a job with Facebook as a data scientist, is now engaged and lives with his fiancee on the Stanford campus.
“It blows my mind when I think about (everything that has happened),” Ejdemyr said. “My first thought was that I would stay one year at UNM at the most. I was very attached to Sweden, and my whole family is over there. I took UNM as an interesting challenge to go live in a place so different from Sweden … 10 years later, I still don’t know what happened.”