This story was originally published on NYCFC.com.
New Yorkers rising up together to meet unprecedented challenges is in the fabric of this great city.
Through the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen countless examples of the community-minded selflessness and resilience associated with New York City and we’ve been inspired by those who have raised a hand and stepped up to help their fellow citizens.
In this spirit, we are setting out to reflect what’s truly undeNYable about our city and the people who make up our extended NYCFC family, all doing whatever it takes today to be back together again tomorrow through the sport we love.
undeNYable is a series of stories featured on NYCFC.com, holding up members of the NYCFC family who’ve shown the meaning of “For The City”, coming through for their fellow New Yorkers when it has mattered most.
Dumitru Grigorean, or Mr G as he’s fondly known to his students, is a University Prep Charter High School teacher from Romania who moved to New York City in 2007.
A 14-year old who didn’t speak English, adaptation to his new surrounds was tough for Dumitru, but a love of soccer and an infectious energy enabled him to thrive in NYC.
He remembers: “It wasn’t easy. It was difficult. I did not speak the language at the time. I didn’t have friends over here. I was not familiar with the American culture. So, I had to learn everything on my own. I was lucky to have a brother that’s two years younger, so, we did it together.”
Long before his arrival on these shores, that passion for the beautiful game was incubated in his native Romania, where he and his friends would create impromptu pitches in the forest and play rain or shine, summer or winter.
“We did not have a soccer field in Romania,” he said, “At the end of town, it was just plains, so what we used to do is go to the forest actually, chop down some trees make our own goals with the posts and the crossbar, make holes in the ground and kind of like create our own field.
“It was an insane experience now that I think of it. I must have been 8-10 years old at the time and we wanted to feel like professional soccer players.
“Everyone wanted to be the next Gheorghe Hagi but today it would be the next Ronaldo, the next Messi. So, we wanted to have a field, we build it on our own, and it’s just incredible.”
This passion is now being transferred to pupils at the University Prep Charter School on a New York City Soccer Initiative mini-pitch where new bonds and understandings are being formed through this most unifying of sports.
That said, Mr G never thought he would become a teacher when back in Romania but his own high school teachers in NYC instilled a love of history and teaching in the then-teenager.
He recalled: “A lot of them sacrificed, they came in earlier in the morning, they gave up their lunch, they stayed with me after school, to help me learn the language, become more familiar with the culture over here – to succeed in my academics, mature and grow.
“I looked up to them as my role models. Then they gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of my classmates who also came from other countries and tutoring my classmates, they looked to me, and they said, have you consider becoming a teacher? And no, at first, I was shocked.
“I said, I would never want to do this job. Then the more that I thought about it, and the more they said that I’m actually good at it, and they kept on encouraging me to do it. Over time, I grew in love with it. And I have to say that it’s by far one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.”
Dumitru graduated from Queens College with a major in history and secondary education before joining Teach for America which paved the way to his position at University Prep Charter High School today, where his soccer games have helped to unite the students and teachers alike.
Creating games with mixed teams of teachers and pupils on the NYCSI blue pitches, the power of soccer quickly became clear to him.
“I think the team spirit is a unifying theme in many aspects of life,” he reflected, “How often do we hear the phrase: ‘Are you a team player’, or ‘no man is an island’ and I think that it’s not only fun, it’s not only exciting, it’s not only competitive, but soccer specifically brings everybody together.
“We have the pitch in the back of our school, and my colleagues and I organize games, in the spirit of unity. When the students played together with us, they saw us and we saw them in a different light and a more positive light and a more friendly light.”
This wasn’t just recreation time together. This time also created a new level of trust and meant that Mr G was able to connect more and more with his students and not only academically.
He continued: “I personally, I saw that a lot of those students that played with us then later on came and asked for help academically and came and opened up to us about their personal lives. I realized that the relationship that I was trying to build with them grew because of our time playing soccer, watching soccer together.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students come to me and say, ‘are you going to stay after school today?’ Because we want to watch the Champions League games together and we would and we stay until five, six, and watch those games.”
In 2016, NYCFC, with partners the U.S. Soccer Foundation, adidas, Etihad Airways, and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, made a pledge to build 50 mini soccer pitches across the five boroughs, including the one on the back of his school in the Bronx.
This impact cannot be understated according to Dimitru: “The students that were there that day that New York City FC came and had the opening ceremony, I’m never going to forget that day.
“They talk about it all the time. Meeting the players, playing with the actual professional players, receiving jerseys and tickets, and then going to the game. I went with them to the game – it was so exciting.
“They saw that New York City FC came into their community and took an interest in their school and wanted to make a difference and them having the pitch there I think it gives them a greater sense for the game and helps them improve their skills.”
While improving as soccer players is a focus and there is a competitive element to some games, for Mr G it’s all about bringing people together regardless of skill first and foremost.
He added: “It doesn’t matter if you’re skilled. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a soccer team, whoever wants to come is always welcome. Seeing them look forward to the day that we’re going to go out and play again and then talk with their friends after school, seeing them so excited and then having actually other staff members who are now playing, coaching them, and telling them what to do, and them listening to them for advice and executing those moves, you know, and those passes and those crosses or those shots is just amazing.”
To learn more about the New York City Soccer Initiative, visit this link.