“I was young and I started making dumb mistakes,” he says with a laugh.
He can laugh now, looking back at those youthful indiscretions he made at 21, now that he’s … 22.
But there was no time to laugh last summer when he had nowhere to sleep — and had nothing, in fact, but a backpack full of clothes, two jobs and a younger brother to care for.
There was also no time for soccer.
But on Friday, he’ll report to the Forward Madison FC training camp, a professional footballer, ready to take the field in the club’s inaugural season in the new USL League One, the lone player to make it through the team’s open tryout in November.
His name is Vital Nizigiyimana. He’s a central defending midfielder. And he just might become your favorite Flamingo.
Start practicing his name now, because the Flock — the club’s supporter group — is almost certain to find a way to sing or chant it. It’s pronounced — as close as I can replicate — vee-TAHL NEN-zee-ay-MAHN-ah. At 5’7”, he’s small by defending midfielder standards, and soft-spoken. His smile is genuine and infectious. He repeatedly thanks me for buying him a cup of coffee as we chat at Barrique’s near his Fitchburg home. He has to meet early in the day, because he works at Noodles & Company in Sun Prairie in the afternoon.
His family moved to Atlanta from Tanzania when he was eight. He showed promise as a midfielder early, working his way up to the Georgia United Academy at 17. He also spent a good deal of his time helping his mother, who spoke very little English, get by and care for his siblings.
“I was kinda like a family man I guess,” he says. “I was living with my mom and my little brother, my little sister and my big sister. My mom basically doesn’t speak English, so I was helping her with a lot of stuff. After I graduated high school, the apartment we were living in got too expensive for us, so she moved to Texas. I’m like, this is my chance to be on my own. In Texas, there’s our uncles and cousins, everybody.” With the help of that extended family, he’d be needed less, and could establish himself on his own.
About this time he got his first chance to play professional soccer, as a Mexican team held a tryout in Atlanta and offered him a contract. At the airport on his way there, though, he learned there was a problem with his paperwork.
“I was like, I’m not gonna waste my time no more, because before that I tried to get a travel document and that takes a month. It’s a long process,” he says. “So I just started picking up a job. I started working. I didn’t go to college. I stopped going to college because I was having trouble with the financial aid application and stuff.”
A family friend whom he calls his Godmother offered him another shot at an education.
“My Godmother, it’s this white lady, she is the most nicest person I’ve ever met,” he says. “She’s so cool and she knows my whole family. I’m so thankful that I met her. She used to live in Atlanta too, and she moved here to Wisconsin. After she moved here, she called me and she was like, ‘Since you’re not going to college, come down here. I’ll get you through college. I’ll let you go to (Madison College). I can pay for the stuff.’ And I was like, okay, since the soccer stuff didn’t work out. That’s how I ended up here.”
During the next two years his soccer dream continued, as he played for Madison College and the Madison 56ers at a nationally-competitive amateur level.
But he was still not out on his own, as he had wanted.
“She had a lot of rules,” he says of his Godmother, without a hint of resentment. “It was too much rules. I was 21. I was the only child that was in the house. It was her and her husband and me. I was just not following the rules. I would go to school and come back, and then end up going to play soccer, and then come back late and stuff. She didn’t like that. I understood.”
So he moved out with no hard feelings.
“She’s still my favorite lady,” he says, warmly.
He moved into an expensive house with a friend whose father paid the rent. First dumb mistake, he says, rolling his eyes. After only a few months there, Vital’s younger brother Eli came to live with them. At 16, he couldn’t contribute to the rent, so that was the end of that living situation.
Right about then, Vital got a girlfriend and he and Eli moved in with her. Second dumb mistake.
“At that time I was still young. I was young and I started making dumb mistakes. I got a girlfriend,” he says. “At that time, I should have never got a girlfriend. It was just not a good time. I try to just focus. But this girl came. I met her at college actually. Dumb me, after, I think it was like a couple weeks, we decided to move in together. She had an apartment already, so me and (my brother) just moved in with her and one other roommate. That was dumb.”
He laughs and smiles and rolls his eyes at his own youthful mistakes, even as he’s making clear this all happened less than a year ago. But you grow up a lot, apparently, from sleeping on the streets.
At first, they lived in hotels. That is, after the relationship with the girlfriend predictably went south and she asked him to move out. In June and July 2018, working at Target and Noodles, he was able to pay the $79 a night, and probably could have paid rent on an apartment, but couldn’t save up enough for a deposit. So he put his head down and got to work — while Eli got into trouble.
“My brother started acting dumb too,” Vital says. “He was hanging out with the wrong friends. He ended up going to jail. So I was by myself now. I was living in a hotel. I was paying $79 every day. I was working two jobs at this time. My plan was, if I get two jobs, then I can qualify for an apartment. Then after a month, my brother came out of jail and he joined me in that hotel. I was like, ‘This is what we’re doing right now. We gotta work.’ He got a job too. We were like, yeah, let’s keep working. We could probably qualify for an apartment. We kept working, but we weren’t saving any money. We had to pay everything to the hotel.”
But then Crossfit Games came to Madison. It was a real boon to the local economy and the local hotel business — in fact, it booked up every room in the city.
Which left Vital and Eli Nizigiyimana out on the streets.
“We’re living in the street. We slept outside,” he says.
Vital knows he’s lucky. He knows he was only homeless for a little more than three weeks, during the summer, when at least it’s warm. He knows he was fortunate to have two jobs. No longer paying for a hotel, he was able to save up $1,000 for a deposit on an apartment for him and his brother.
But the experience still shortened up his horizons considerably.
The once-promising young professional no longer had any plans to play again.
“I quit playing soccer, ’cause there’s no way,” he says. “I was just playing Sunday leagues and I wasn’t making any money. I’m like, soccer’s not paying me. I love this sport, but right now it seems like an extra activity. What I need to do is take my behind, go to work and get money and pay my bills. That was my priority. That was like at the top of my list for me to continue my life.”
So go to work he did. He kept working those two jobs, caring for his brother, paying those bills. But when Forward Madison announced open tryouts, he figured he had nothing to lose.
“Everybody was talking about Forward Madison coming and stuff. It was cool that they were having a team,” he says. “At first I was thinking, if I go try out and it doesn’t work out, I’m just gonna continue to keep working. When it came, I was like, let’s just go ahead and try out, because I love the sport. Just give it a shot.”
He says this attitude helped him take the tryouts loose and relaxed — which helped his performance. If you’re trying too hard, it’ll affect your play, he says.
“You make a lot of mistakes (when you’re trying too hard). You don’t play the same,” he says. “(During the tryouts,) I never stopped and (thought), ‘I’m doing pretty good.’ I hoped I could keep having good touches, minimize mistakes. I hope I can keep running because I haven’t been running or playing for a long time.”
Whether it was his relaxed state or just his natural talent, being a bit out of shape didn’t hurt and he made an impression on Forward’s coaching staff.
“He was obviously the best player at the open tryout,” Forward Madison Head Coach Daryl Shore says. About 50 local players turned out on a cold, sunny day in November to make their case to become pros, but only four got invitations to the next day’s invitational tryouts, where players from around the country came in to show their stuff to the coaching staff.
Four players from the open tryout have advanced to the invitational tryout! ????????
Congrats to Jesus Herrera, Vital Nizigiyimana, Leo Lenth and Damien Vassell! pic.twitter.com/NnGNo8ryNk
— Forward Madison FC (@ForwardMSNFC) November 17, 2018
Vital made an impression there, too.
“Even when we invited him back into the invite tryout … he didn’t miss a beat and he wasn’t fazed by anything,” Shore says. “And just the soccer side, his passing ability, he picked up the speed of play of it pretty quickly, and we just thought the overall soccer IQ part of his game was well above what we would expect from a player coming through these type of tryouts.”
Both days, Vital went from tryouts to work at Noodles and Co.
Talking with him after the tryouts further impressed Shore, who had no idea Vital had been homeless just weeks earlier.
“To be totally honest, we knew nothing about his background until after we spoke with him,” Shore says. “What we really loved about him was his personality. His personality really came out through the tryouts. We knew we wanted to sign a few local players. Then when we sat down and talked to him and I kind of started asking him some questions, he then started telling me the story and I was blown away just by … what he’s been able to accomplish, what he still wants to accomplish.”
When I ask Vital what he brings to the field, he doesn’t name any particular soccer skill.
“I’m a hard worker,” he says. “I defend the ball well. If the coach says protect the back four, my defenders behind me, then that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna do everything that I can to protect the people behind me.”
Hard worker is right, and not just when it comes to soccer.
“I think the proof’s in the pudding there,” Shore says. “I mean not just on the field, but off the field. He showed us that he was a hard worker on the field, and then us getting to know him off the field, he’s now proven to us that he’s a lot more than just a hard worker. He and his brother didn’t have a home and they’re both working at different restaurants just to support each other and provide for each other. That just made it even more of a bonus for us to say, ‘This is definitely a guy that we want as a part of our club.’”
It took about six weeks of anxious waiting — “I was checking my emails all the time,” Vital says — but finally the email came. But the contract offer came with a catch.
“One of the things that I told them is the only way we were going to work this out is if we had an agreement with him that he goes back and finishes at least his two year degree at Madison College,” Shore says. “So that’s part of it is that we want him to finish the beginning education part of the college process. “
“I can’t believe I’m playing with them,” Vital says, a hint of awe in his voice. He’s equally awed that people will be paying good money to watch him play.
“It’s a blessing. Since they coming out, I’m definitely gonna play my heart out, work the hardest,” he says. “I’m gonna do it for the fans. Definitely do it for the fans.”
He’s very aware of the unlikelihood of this story unfolding this way.
“It is remarkable. I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. It’s unbelievable,” he says. “It’s unbelievable that I’m even gonna play for Madison. It’s really unbelievable. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I’m prepared. I’m excited.”
His goal is the same as any player’s.
“My goal is to win a championship,” he says. “Win championships, get trophies. I miss getting trophies, man. I miss getting medals at the end of the tournaments.”
Our coffee cups empty and his story more or less fully told, I turn off my recorder and put on my coat. We shake hands and exchange a one-armed hug. I tell him he’ll see me in the locker room, as I’ll be covering at least some of the home games. He seems happy about that, and then pauses.
“I want to say to the kids,” he begins. I turn my recorder back on.
“Have faith. Just keep working. If life knocks you down, keep working. Keep having faith. If you keep working hard, something’s gonna come out of it. Something.”
An hour later he texts me. He wants to thank me, one more time, for the coffee, but mainly he needs to let me know, he forgot to tell me, his brother hasn’t been in trouble since he got out of jail. He’s working on music now, rap music, on YouTube. Vital is proud.
He’s still working at Noodles, and he’s a professional soccer player, but he’s still, it would seem, a family man.
This story has been corrected. An earlier version indicated Vital had played for the Atlanta United Academy. In fact he played in the Georgia United Soccer Academy in 2015. GUSA is not affiliated with Atlanta United FC, which started its academy program in 2016.