KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It had a mind of its own, one that teetered cheerfully toward insanity. After 200,000 miles, Leo Gibson’s white 1998 Impala smoked like a chimney and leaked like an old set of pipes. It overheated constantly, stalled at inopportune times. It handled the extreme cold and heat of the Plains with equal, almost comical, ineptitude.
Any time a friend suggested he get a new ride — which was often — Leo would remind them about priorities, what he was saving for, where those nickels were better spent.
"He’d say, ‘Listen, man, it’s getting me where I need to get to,’" Worteh Sampson, an old friend and fellow native Liberian, says with a laugh. "’We’re putting this money into charity and trying to sponsor this trip to Africa.’
"He puts himself second. To everything."
Kids first. Always.
Although they didn’t really get the significance of the old Impala, either, even as they piled in, six or seven at a time, en route to a soccer practice or clinic.
"My kids ask me the same question: ‘Hey, Leo, why are you driving this car when your friends are driving this car?’" he recalls.
Don’t pro athletes drive Beamers or Jags? Or trucks that could crush a strip mall?
Sampson laughs as he thinks on this, just as he did every summer, when he got the same phone call and the same exasperated voice.
"And I’d tell him, ‘I know it’s overheating,’" Sampson says. "’Everything on that car is going to fall apart soon.’ But that’s him, man."
On weekends, Leo is a forward with the Missouri Comets of the Major Arena Soccer League. During the week, he’s a one-man soccer missionary, driving that old Impala to camps, practices or tutoring sessions, spreading the Gospel and picking up goods for Kick For Christ, a charity he started three years ago to collect soccer equipment for children in his native Liberia and inner-city youth around greater Kansas City.
Kids first. Always.
This past spring, they counted enough equipment to fill nearly 500 boxes, stacked inside a 20-foot container to ship overseas.
"I grew up with some things that I never wished on anybody," Leo says. "But it’s because of everything that I’ve gone through growing up that’s gotten me to appreciate life."
While you give thanks for the turkey and the stuffing, for the Seahawks and the Niners, the discount codes and free shipping, Leo will give thanks for another sunrise, for grace, for peace.
Then, as now, the simplest blessings are the biggest. Civil war tore his homeland in west Africa asunder from 1989-96 and 1999-2003. There were nights — many nights, too many to count — where he and his family slept outside, "so we could see who was coming at us so we could run for it.
"And it was just daily life. Every day we would hope and pray to see the next day. And nothing else mattered."
A lifetime’s wounds are a decade’s scars. In 2002, Leo was granted refugee status in the United States, where his mother had already settled.
"It’s hard to understand, being a Christian, as a kid, what it means," says Sampson, one of Leo’s former teammates with the Detroit Ignition. "So going through what we went through puts things in perspective for us, to understand what that means. We are blessed. We’ve got to find a way to share this blessing and (affect) somebody else’s life. And I think that’s where it comes from."
The soul pushes. The heart abides. When the Ebola crisis stunned Liberia, Leo was forced to postpone the mass delivery — hundreds more boxes of soccer gear — that had been planned for spring.
Now he’s collecting medical gloves, masks and hand sanitizer to go along with the balls, gloves and pads, shipping what he can when he can.
"I’m fortunate; I have 11 brothers and sisters (there), and I can send them whatever they need to assist themselves," says Leo, who played soccer at King College in Bristol, Tenn. "(We’re collecting) for people who don’t have people like me in America."
Leo Gibson with his family.
While his new country wrestles with its divisions, where the national conversation is about anger, mistrust and misunderstanding, here’s a man trying to build bridges, not burn them.
"It’s very hard," Leo says. "I’m a person of faith and I believe everything happens for a reason. Just staying in constant communication with my family and my friends via Facebook or via phone helps me to be at peace. But for the most part, I’m just praying. Whatever happens, God has a plan for it, and trust in that."
Leo is the Comets’ Alex Gordon, its rock and its spine. The 5-foot-6 forward leads the MASL in goals (12) through the club’s first four games. Last season, he paced the circuit in points (76) and assists (25) as the franchise won the Major Indoor Soccer League title. He’s been named to the All-MISL team three times since 2010; in October, he signed a three-year contract with the club.
"I’ll ask him, ‘Why haven’t you signed yet?’" pal and confidant Rick Underhill says. "And he’ll say, ‘Because they haven’t given me enough money for Kick For Christ yet.’"
Underhill met Leo through a charity auction a few years back; he was one of his son Jacob’s favorite players. They became firm friends after that, with the Underhills joining Leo on missions to Haiti and, earlier this year, on that aforementioned trek to Liberia.
"The neighbors thought we were moving," Underhill chuckles, "when the container was parked at our house."
Leo flew over with the Underhills and other local families to distribute the equipment, only to find that it wouldn’t be coming on time. Forced to improvise on the fly, Leo and his party gave whatever they had on hand. Ergo, each village got a soccer ball — they’d started with 50 — and whatever cleats he’d brought with him were gone, gifted away, within days.
"These starving areas that we were in, everybody had smiles on their faces," Underhill recalls. "It was hard to believe that people in this country are so choosy about what they have or don’t have, or what (you’ll) give them or won’t give them, and these people don’t have a square of dirt to stand on, and everybody was smiling. The kids wanted to play, everybody was great."
Well, not everybody. Red tape with Liberian customs slowed the process, and government interference left Underhill shaking his head.
"If you’re bringing a dollar over there, they’re going to figure out a way to get 80 cents of it," he says.
But Leo persisted, calling in favors from old friends and clearing a path for the eventual delivery of the soccer gear. With Sampson by his side, he also visited his father’s grave — he’d passed away after Leo moved to the United States — for the first time.
"I saw his face, and he was very, very sad," Sampson says. "It cut deep into his soul, for sure."
The soul pushes. The heart abides. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13.
"I believe that sums up Leo," Sampson says. "Nothing can slow him down when he makes up his mind that he wants to do something."
They want to build a public library in Liberia, to give kids free access to books, more platforms to read and learn on their own. They want to partner with an orphanage there, or perhaps even start their own. They want to give a Liberia slowed to a crawl the legs to walk again.
Kids first. Always.
"We celebrate Thanksgiving back home, too," Leo says. "It’s celebrated here differently. And I respect that and enjoy that.
"But Thanksgiving, to me, has always been a day of being thankful and just appreciating life in general itself, for everything that comes with it."
Leo Gibson talks to students about camp events.
The sunrise. The snow. The smoke. The leaks. The razzing from teammates.
"I think he’s realized he’s going to have to take on something a little newer," Underhill cracks.
"Money is just a way help somebody else out. It’s not a way to help him get a house or fancy clothes or a better car. Money is just a way to get somebody else something that they want."
Light. Dreams. Hope.
During a gas run after practice last week, the Impala died. Hundreds more kids in Liberia will live. In Leo Gibson’s world, that’s the greatest blessing of all.
For more information on Kick For Christ, or to donate this holiday season, visit KickForChrist.org.