Boys Soccer: Geral Leka finds perfect role at Whitehall-Yearling

FRANK DIRENNA
fdirenna@thisweeknews.com
Whitehall-Yearling boys soccer coach Geral Leka stands in his classroom next to the flags of his native Albania and the United States. Leka, who moved with his family to the U.S. when he was 12, is in his first season leading the Rams and also is a social studies teacher at the school.

Whitehall-Yearling boys soccer coach Geral Leka speaks fondly of his homeland and his adopted country, and honors both by displaying the flags of Albania and the United States on the wall of his classroom.

His family's life-changing decision to leave Tirana, the capital of Albania, for what Leka calls "the promised land" still resonates with him today.

Although Albania transitioned from communism to a democracy as Leka grew older, his family -- Leka, his parents and his sister -- still endured hardships because of government and economic issues. They moved to Columbus in August 2000, when Leka was 12 years old, because they wanted their chance at "the American dream," but those early experiences have turned into teachable moments for Leka in the classroom and on the soccer field.

"Albania is a beautiful country (with) a long, rich history," said Leka, a social studies teacher at Whitehall. "(It has) a lot of culture (and) tradition, but some of the negative aspects of growing up in Albania was a lack of stable government, the economy was in a transitional phase. ... That was a big part of who I am as a person because you have to go through some financial adversity. I'm grateful for the lessons that were learned during those times.

"We had an opportunity to go to the promised land. The American dream is a universal appetite for many people. You can be in Albania. You can be in Egypt. You can be in any country, the American dream is an attraction to all."

Leka, who is in his first season leading the Rams, graduated from Whitehall in 2008 and from Ohio Dominican in 2013 with a degree in integrated social studies.

He developed a love for soccer growing up in Albania and continued that passion in America by playing at Whitehall and later serving as an assistant coach. He remains an active player, participating on a regular basis in games with other Albanian immigrants.

He first taught social studies at Franklinton Prep, a charter school, before an interaction with Rod Lightfoot, his former teacher at Whitehall, helped him land his teaching position with the school in November 2017.

Lightfoot also is a social studies teacher at Whitehall, and his second-floor classroom is adjacent to Leka's.

"He's one of those kids where, in the classroom, he was your typical student, but he loved being here and he had a personality you just gravitate towards," said Lightfoot, who is also Whitehall's football coach. "He's an awesome person to be around.

"I saw him out here a couple of years ago and he was teaching at a charter school and I said we have to get you over here. I talked him up. It's just great for our kids. He lives here in Whitehall. He's a Ram through and through."

Teaching world history as part of the curriculum, Leka often shares stories of his native country with his students. He also discusses Albania with his Whitehall soccer players.

"Me being a history teacher, you tell the kids about the migrant journey, the American dream, the promised land and I lived it," Leka said. "I gladly go into my experiences to give an authentic perspective as a reminder for some students who have it pretty hard. This country provides us some opportunities that we should not take for granted."

Several of his players' families have moved to America from other countries.

"He tells us how he grew up in Albania," said defender Daba Hordofe, whose family moved to America from Ethiopia.

"Since we're all from different countries, he connects with us. When we have hard classes, he tells us to come to him if we have questions and he helps us. He tells us how he grew up playing soccer."

The Rams got out to a strong start this season, as they were 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the MSL-Ohio Division through five games. They lost to Grandview 2-0 on Sept. 16 but rebounded to beat Delaware 2-0 the next day.

fdirenna@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekFrank