Questions For. . . Ethan Zohn
Since outwitting the other contestants on Survivor: Africa, Lexington native Ethan Zohn has invested some of his $1 million prize in Grassroots Soccer, an organization that brings African soccer stars into the classrooms of several African countries to teach children about HIV/AIDS prevention.
On August 20, Zohn will invest more than his money in the cause. The former professional soccer player will dribble a soccer ball from Gillette Stadium to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness and funds for the program.
We talked to Zohn about his training regiment, the difficulties of dribbling downhill, and whether he can take on a naked guy.
Boston Daily: How you did you get the idea to do the dribble for Grassroots Soccer?
Ethan Zohn: We were looking for a cool, trendy, fun way to get everyone in the United States involved with Grassroots Soccer. Originally, I wanted to dribble across the country, and then I thought that might be a little too far.
It’s a great way to connect the youth here in America in a common cause. It’s an international, youth-led commitment to end HIV/AIDS. I’m literally dribbling a soccer ball from Boston to Washington, D.C. Along the way, there will be stops, whether it’s a soccer clinic, or a speech at a college, or stopping by a Puma store for an autograph session. Tons of different things we’re doing along the way to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in the world.
BD: Will you be dribbling when you appear at these events, or will you take a break?
EZ: That would be pretty impressive. Maybe I’ll think about that. The goal was to stop at some point.
BD: How are you training for this?
EZ: Well, I’m going to start training tomorrow [laughs] . No, I’ve been training by basically just jogging a lot and literally getting out there with the ball at my feet and dribbling up and down the West Side Highway.
BD: Do people give you weird looks for dribbling on a street and not on a field?
EZ: The beauty of New York is that there’s a lot of weird stuff that goes on the streets, so people think I’m jogging home or something.
BD: Was it your idea to dribble the ball?
EZ: It was my idea, with one of our interns. We’ve done such a great job in Africa, and we’ve raised a lot of money here through grants and through individual donors. Our program has been evaluated and it’s working, but not that many people here in the United States know about it or understand the concept behind it.
BD: Who came up with the idea to pair a curriculum about HIV and AIDS with soccer?
EZ: There’s a guy by the name of Dr. Tommy Clark. He is the founder [of Grassroots Soccer] and I’m a co-founder, along with Kirk Friedrich and Methembe Ndlovu. All four of us had played professional soccer in Zimbabwe at some point in our lives, and we witnessed firsthand what HIV does in the world. Our teammates would become sick and disappear. We saw the popularity of these professional soccer players and the impact that they have from just walking around town.
Tommy came up with this brilliant concept to basically use these professional soccer players as educators and send them into the classroom to teach kids about HIV/AIDS prevention.
BD: So it would be like David Ortiz teaching a group of kids in Boston?
EZ: You got it. Stick Michael Jordan in the middle of Harlem and have him teach kids about drugs. In Africa, soccer players are heroes. They are the role models and the gods of the community. When you put them into that classroom, the kids’ eyes pop open and their jaws drop, and we change their behavior and help them lead a healthy lifestyle.
Soccer’s the hook. The curriculum itself is pretty progressive for an African nation. They’re used to going into the classroom with 60 other kids and one pencil and a chalkboard, and listening to the professor speak on end. The kids are on their feet, they’re playing sports, there’s drama, there’s poetry, and the people teaching them are heroes.
BD: How long have you been playing soccer?
EZ: I’ve been playing since I was six years old. I had two older brothers and they both played, and I always wanted to be better than them.
BD: Was your experience in Zimbabwe how you got inspired to help with HIV/AIDS?
EZ: I saw how HIV/AIDS was destroying the community, but at that time in my life I didn’t really know what I could do or what could be done or how to do it. When I got back in 2000, I was still playing professional soccer in the States, then Survivor came into my life and I went back to Africa.
We filmed the show in Kenya, and while I was there I won a reward challenge where I got to visit a little village. I ended up playing soccer with these little children, and I later found out all these kids were HIV positive. That coupled with my time in Zimbabwe, knowing Tommy Clark, and having $1 million in my pocket brought us all together.
BD: What do you think will be harder—Survivor or Dribble 2008?
EZ: I can’t vote myself off, so I gotta do it myself for the entire time, which could be good or bad. It will be a tough battle. I’m not so worried about the physical aspect. I’m worried about getting up every day and dribbling 10, 15 miles a day.
BD: We always had a hard time dribbling the ball in gym class. Got any pointers?
EZ: You want to be on the balls of your feet, be in the ready position. Keep the ball close to you, using the inside of your foot. No toes—toezoes are for bozos, laces are for aces. Keep your head up, and keep the ball close to you, and get a good stride going.
BD: Will this set a World Record?
EZ: We have an application with Guinness, and we should have word soon. We’re creating a new category—the longest distance covered while dribbling a soccer ball. No one has done it before.
BD: Why are you starting at Gillette?
EZ: I grew up in Boston, so I’m a fan of all the local teams. Boston’s my baby, so I wanted to start it there. We can head south. Downhill, I guess you could say.
BD: I think you’ll hit some big hills along the way.
EZ: Uphill will be OK, I’ll just kick it up and let it roll back to my feet. But downhill, I don’t know if I’m going to go backwards, or just keep it close to me.
BD: Best of luck on your journey. Keep us posted as you go along.
EZ:I will. And if you want to see what it’s like to dribble with me, come out for a day. You can sweat, cry, and write about it.
BD: I can flashback to my gym class experiences? Actually, soccer wasn’t so bad. It was the Presidential Fitness Test that was traumatic.
EZ: Oh yeah. The 50-yard dash, the pull-ups.
BD: You probably did fine, since you were playing soccer at age 6.
EZ: I still try to get it every year.
BD: You take pride in beating those 7-year-olds?
EZ: [Joking] Yeah, I crushed those 7-year olds.
BD: Did you hear about the Revolution players who tackled the naked guy on the plane?
EZ: I did. Pretty cool, huh? They are real-life heroes.
BD: Well, the ones teaching the kids about AIDS may be a little more heroic.
EZ: I’m glad it wasn’t me capturing the naked guy on the plane.
BD: What would be really impressive is if you can tackle a naked guy running down the street while dribbling a soccer ball.
EZ: Set it up, and I’ll try it. You provide the naked man, and I’ll see if I can do it.
Zohn’s journey starts on August 20 at Gillette Stadium. To learn more about the route and Grassroots Soccer, visit Grassrootsoccerunited.org.