Aziz Khan takes unconventional journey to Amherst College soccer

  • Aziz Khan, a junior forward for the Amherst College men’s soccer team, chases down a ball during the season. Khan, who was raised in Gambia, took an unconventional path to Amherst. ADAM AUCOIN

For the Gazette
Published: 11/15/2016 7:13:42 PM

In his native Gambia, a 12-year old Aziz Khan sits in his classroom waiting to be picked by the upperclassmen for a game of pickup soccer. One by one, players are picked and their names are crossed off the blackboard.

Young Aziz just sits there waiting for his chance. The minutes seem like hours as he waits and he waits for a name that won’t be called.

Khan, now a junior forward with the Amherst College men’s soccer team, remembers the horrible feeling he felt in that moment.

“I felt embarrassed more than anything,” Khan said. “I felt like I did not fit and I wasn’t accepted. People were talking about it outside like ‘it’s OK, next time, next time.’ It’s more than that. It was an adverse situation that I had to work through and push through.”

From that day on, Khan was on a mission. He worked daily to improve on the pitch and he soon noticed results. Khan became quicker and more skilled than his counterparts and his love for the game of soccer continued to grow as his game grew.

The transition

In 2011, Khan’s family in Gambia made a life-altering decision when they decided to send him to the United States in hopes of better education and a better life. The decision made all the sense in the world for the Khan family. Aziz was born in Boston but after a few months moved back to Gambia, where his family lived. When he returned to the U.S., he enrolled at Lawrence Academy in Groton.

Coming from a country with less than two million people to a country with over 300 million, it was a culture shock for Khan. Spending the first 15 years of his life in Gambia, Khan had to adjust to the American lifestyle not only on the field, but off of it.

“It was a little different in the beginning, obviously culture-wise and community,” Khan said. “Back home it’s very community-based. All doors are open. You can go into any house.

“Coming here, it’s you stay in your side, so it took me a while getting used to that part, but when I went to school and joining teams like this I brought back that community. Coming in and joining a team, helped me a lot with that camaraderie aspect.”

The transition on the soccer field was also a major change. Khan vividly remembers details about how the Gambian and American games differ.

“In America, people talk way more. It’s never quiet on the field,” Khan said. “It’s always high energy. The idea of high energy and raising the energy in the room every time you come in. We didn’t have that too much (in Gambia). It was always about you getting in to play and go play. You wouldn’t say anything.”

Finding a home

Khan was an All-Independent School League (ISL) and New England All-Star player at Lawrence Academy. He led his team to an undefeated regular season and ISL championship his senior year, before losing to South Kent 1-0 on penalty kicks during the 2013 Class B New England playoffs.

When it came to choosing his next step after high school, a small school in the heart of western Massachusetts caught his eye. When Amherst College and coach Justin Serpone made the pitch to Khan, he was sold.

“I chose Amherst because I believed it was the best place for me to further my academics and athletics equally,” Khan, a pre-med major, said.

Serpone has seen the different perspectives Khan has brought to the team and he believes that has helped his teammates grow.

“He brings a different facet to team discussions and his outlook on all of the things we talk about on campus and in the community,” Serpone said. “He’s just got a different life path and it’s super interesting to hear stories about his family and his upbringing.”

Serpone recalled a time last summer when he took a long ride with Khan during Ramadan, a Muslim holiday observed to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.

“He’s got the whole traditional garb on and traditional dress,” Serpone said. “It was really cool to learn about all these things that I didn’t know about.”

Khan has found a niche as a strong piece off the bench for Amherst, which will host Brandeis at 11 a.m. Saturday in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. Serpone has loved what he’s seen out of his forward during his career, but he knows Khan has the ability to bring his game to the next level for the defending national champions.

“I think the sky’s the limit for Aziz. He always asks good questions,” Serpone said. “I think he’s such a good teammate that sometimes he’s worried about everyone else rather than himself. He’ll go out of his way for his teammates. He should feel more empowered to put a stamp on the game because he’s so talented and important to what we do.”

Khan may be a long way from his native Gambia, 3,930 miles to be exact, but he knows when he’s on the soccer field, he feels at home.

“Soccer is a way of life for me,” Khan said. “So many difficulties, sometimes you succeed and you fail. Since then, I’ve never let it go.”

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