Soccer Defender, Athelia Graham | The Official Site of BYU Athletics

Soccer Defender, Athelia Graham

Less than two months after helping her team finish the women's soccer season with a 20-5 record and a Sweet Sixteen finish in the NCAA Tournament, BYU defender Athelia Graham was no where to be found on the campus in Provo.

In fact, the junior defender/midfielder from Orem's Mountain View High School was no where to be found in the entire United States.

She was in a small town in the middle of the Mexican desert, six hours northwest of Mexico City. In this place where soccer is often the only source of recreation, she was spending her time doing something she enjoys more than playing soccer. She was teaching native adults how to read and write in their native Spanish.

She was participating in a "hands-on" experience required for her major - Spanish. Each student majoring in Spanish is required to live in a country where Spanish is the native language for a semester.

"It was a wonderful experience," Graham said. "It was great to get to know the people and the culture. Their lifestyle is very different and it was neat to be a part of that for a while."

The idea of speaking another language is nothing new for Athelia. Her father is a professor of linguistics at BYU and four of her five brothers either speak or are learning Spanish (her mother speaks French). She became interested in Spanish when she was young and her father ran a Spanish pre-school.

"Language is something that I think is really interesting," Graham said. "It's challenging to learn a new language and to get to the point where you feel comfortable talking to people that speak it well, but I think that's part of what I like about it ... the challenge."

A challenge is something that Athelia has never been afraid of. She decided to attend BYU although she had athletic scholarship offers at other schools and BYU was unable to offer her a scholarship after her graduation from Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah. However, she liked the atmosphere that BYU had to offer and felt it would be a better place for her to go to school.

"I was offered a basketball scholarship by Utah Valley (State College)," Graham said, "but I really decided where to go to school from a non-athletic point of view. BYU had the environment I liked and I felt it would be a good place to gain an education. To me that was the most important thing."

Because of the lack of a scholarship offer to play for the Cougars, she was required to walk-on, although she admits she had an advantage over other walk-ons.

"The coaches already knew who I was before I decided to walk-on," Graham said. "It still wasn't easy, but I was confident I could play if I worked hard."

Head Coach Jennifer Rockwood agrees that the work ethic Graham has helps her in all facets of her life.

"Theo (as she is called by her teammates) is basically the kind of student-athlete a coach dreams about," Rockwood said. "She balances everything she does so well, on the field and off. She is an outstanding student and an outstanding soccer player. She works so hard and she enjoys everything she does. She makes everyone around her better."

As a defender, that hard work and dedication is extra important to the success of the team. She is required to play a big role not only on the defensive side of things, but also be a key to the transition from defense to offense.

"I know there are so many things I need to work on as a player," Graham said. "The team needs me to be more of a presence on offense. I need to improve on my foot skills and my accuracy in kicking."

Graham's presence was felt last season when she finished the season with seven points on two goals and three assists. However, according to Rockwood, her improvement in several areas will be important to the Cougars' success this season.

"Theo is a versatile player and we may use her at a few different positions this year," Rockwood said. "She hasn't quite reached her full potential. She is a great leader by example, but we need her to step up vocally."

The reasons she is an example are easy to see. She was an example to the many Mexican adults who can now read and write at least partly because of the time she spent with them. She's also an example on the soccer field by the way she approaches the game.

"Theo, on the field, has no fear," Rockwood said. "She has the attitude of 'I'm going to get the ball no matter what.' She's always knocking people down, not because she's trying to hurt them. She does it because that is what it takes to get the ball."

But for Graham, the success she is finding wasn't always there. After walking onto the team, she was asked to redshirt so she could have time to improve her game and learn the BYU system. Although it was difficult at the time, Graham now sees the positive side of her sitting out a season.

"Redshirting was good for me," Graham said. "Not only did it help me improve physically, but it also helped me put things into perspective. It was hard for me to work hard in practice everyday and then not even be able to suit up for the games. It really helps me appreciate the chance I have to play soccer for this team. That was the first time I ever really sat on the bench and watched everyone else play. I think every athlete should have that experience. It would help them appreciate the game a lot more."

The different perspective she gained from redshirting may also contribute to her current list of goals. She still has the soccer goals - make it to the NCAA Final Four, win the inaugural Mountain West Conference title, help her team in any way they need her to - but she has other goals that she mentions before anything related to the soccer field.

"My first goal is to graduate," Graham said. "My education is important to me. Eventually I would like to teach Spanish. But more and more, I want to teach English as a second language to people who only speak Spanish. I think that's a great way to help people. It makes it so they can get jobs and support their family."

As Graham looks back on her short time in Mexico, she remembers that perhaps the hardest thing about being there was being out of her comfort zone. With little experience in speaking Spanish to non-English speakers and a total change of lifestyle, she quickly learned to turn possible negative situations into positives.

For now, she's in her comfort zone. She's playing soccer with people she knows and is working hard to make sure they feel the universal sound of victory.