Oniel Fisher was a small boy when he hit upon his sanctuary.
It was a soccer field toasted by the sunshine of Jamaica, and came before he even played a game.
It was before he was a Lobo from New Mexico, before he put on a cap for the Reggae Boyz, before he won a national title as an Apache. It was long before his current job as a member of the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer.
At first he was not allowed to play, being too young for organized games. But he got a thrill kicking the ball around, running with reckless abandon as if there was a purpose.
By the time he was 12, he was playing in matches with boys three years older.
“I felt the passion was there,” Fisher said by phone last week from the Sounders preseason camp. “It was a way to express myself.”
It has been the same ever since.
Fisher is preparing for his second season with the Sounders, who drafted him out of New Mexico in the second round in 2015.
He was in a communications class at UNM that January day when his phone buzzed. Then it buzzed again. And again. It kept buzzing until he decided to step outside to see what the commotion was about.
He checked one of the messages and it said: “Congratulations.”
“Congratulations for what?” he wondered.
He opened another and it informed him that in far away Philadelphia, Seattle had made him the 40th overall pick.
He went back to class, a bit stunned. When it was over, he reached for his phone again.
“I called my mom and cried a little,” Fisher said. “Finally, I had the idea that I was getting somewhere with my career. It was what I always wanted. They were tears of joy.”
Fisher had been mentioned as draftable by soccer aficionados, but the MLS offers no guarantees. All he knew is that he had worked hard as a Lobo, just as he had as a boy in Jamaica.
His effort as a youth had earned him a spot on the St. George’s Sports Club, a top-level team in the Jamaican Premier League. In 2010, at the age of 19, he earned a cap with the Jamaica National Team — the Reggae Boyz — in a match against Trinidad and Tobago.
His hunger for the game led him to want to play in the United States. He found a spot at national power Tyler (Texas) Junior College and helped the Apaches to the 2012 NJCAA championship. Then it was time to move on.
“I just wanted to go to a college that had a good program, where I could work hard and be myself,” Fisher said. “I went on a visit to New Mexico and that was the place for me to be. I liked the guys there, the whole cohesiveness of the team. Why not come to a place with good facilities, good fans, good coaches? Why not take that opportunity and see what happens?”
What happened was more work, more growth.
His first year, as a junior, the Lobos reached the NCAA Final Four in 2014. He was part of a backline that recorded 11 shutouts. He also scored the game-winning goal in the Sweet 16 win over Penn State and had an assist in the Elite Eight victory at Washington.
He finished his two-year career with four goals in 39 matches, each being a game-winner.
After Seattle called, he became determined to win a place on the roster.
“I started out working hard for a spot,” Fisher said. “Everytime I got on the field I wanted to be focused, to work hard. That was the main focus and it paid off. I started getting minutes.”
Fisher got into 12 games and made nine starts as a defender. Ari Liljenwall, who covers the Sounders for MLS.com, called him one of the best young players in the league.
Now he begins his MLS encore. Predictably, nothing has changed.
“It’s pretty much the same thing,” he said. “Work a little bit harder. Last season was a stepping stone. I got a feeling for what I need to improve on. I should have a better year this year.”
His passion is fueled further when he plays in front of the frenetic Seattle crowd, which averages about 44,000 fans a game.
“It’s not explainable,” Fisher said of Seattle’s fanaticism for the Sounders. “I enjoy playing every single minute in front of them.”
Still, fans or not, the soccer field has always been his refuge.
“When I’m on the field, nothing really matters,” Fisher said. “It’s just my teammates and playing for what you love. Once you have a love for it, what can go wrong? Nothing else matters. If you have a bad day, go play soccer.”
It was true then. It is true now.