I hear the almost-still wind of a sunny California day, the thud of soccer balls hitting the back of the net, the echoes of players celebrating goals. Chris Wondolowski, known as “Wondo” by fans and teammates alike, is one of the last players to walk off the field after wrapping up a recent late morning practice with the San Jose Earthquakes, the local Major League Soccer team. I’m here to grab an interview with one of the best-known athletes in Indian country, the Kiowa man who helped stir up the whole country on the United States’ national soccer team’s recent run in the World Cup.
He walks energetically off the field: hot, sweaty and ready for a shower, but ready to talk to a young Native reporter about his heritage and his game. “Sorry I’m sweaty—I just finished practice,” he says with an apologetic smile as he tries to run his hands through his disheveled hair.
It was only a week after USA’s devastating 2-1 loss to Belgium in World Cup 2014, in which Wondo played forward. The six-foot-tall Kiowa tribal member seems refreshed and motivated.
Although he didn’t grow up on his home reservation, Wondo says he is driven by his tribal roots.
“The culture is who I am—it’s part of me,” he says. “I love the ‘no fear’ aspect. I fear no one and I respect everyone at the same time.”
Low-key and easy to talk to, but clearly familiar by now with being interviewed, Wondo describes walking onto the World Cup field as a whirlwind of emotions.
“It was a just a huge honor to represent my country,” Wondo says. “And [I was] extremely proud of the hard work it took to get there [to the World Cup] and was just excited. I was very excited to be a part of that and just to try and help any way I could.”
Wondo, who grew up in Danville, California, which is east of Oakland, says he finds a lot of support in his Native American fans.
“I feel close to them and I feel that we are part of a family and it’s a small minority at times,” he says. “But I think that’s what makes us strong: that we stick together and that we can embrace each other’s culture and heritage.”
Kiowa soccer star Chris Wondolowski practices for a recent game for his San Jose Earthquakes team.
Wondo is currently a Nike N7 ambassador, yet another tie to Native America that he holds in high regard.
“Culture influenced my life a great deal. And I think it really helped me be who I am and has taught me many life lessons,” he says.
Wondo hopes his position with Nike N7 helps encourage Native youth to stay active and follow their dreams.
“There are many different paths to get to that ultimate goal and I think you have to explore each one,” he says. “Sometimes you get down a road and hit a dead end. I think what makes something special is how you overcome those circumstances and reach that ultimate goal in the long run.”
After practice, Wondo stands among a group of elementary-aged soccer players who have just finished practice nearby. The girls swarm Wondo, asking for autographs and to take selfies with him, even though they are barely tall enough to reach his chest.
“It’s a huge honor,” Wondo says of being a role model to all youth, not just Native Americans. “I grew up a huge soccer fan and it means a lot that they’re following and know what’s going on.”
Erin Tapahe lives in Provo, Utah and is originally from the Navajo reservation in Window Rock, Arizona. She will be attending Brigham Young University in the fall to pursue a major in sports medicine and a double minor in journalism and fine arts. Brandon Frye is a reporter and photography intern for the Biskinik, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s official publication. Frye, a Choctaw Nation citizen, grew up in Ada, Oklahoma, where he graduated from East Central University as an English major. This story was produced for the website and newspaper of Native Voice, a mentoring program for young Native journalists held in Santa Clara, California, just a few miles from where Wondo plays in San Jose.