Texas-born, Atlanta-raised Zahmyre Harris is using his talent as a soccer player to dismantle barriers and positively influence generations on and off the soccer field.
From playing at a young age, to now competing in the World Cup and Olympics Games for the U.S. Virgin Islands national team, Harris has become a trailblazer in a sport not normally embraced by African American males.
“I started playing soccer when I was 3,” Harris said. “When you’re young, you don’t really see it as very serious. You just have fun with it.”
As Harris started to further develop his soccer skills, he began to compete alongside older players in youth programs.
“Moving here, I didn’t really know the ins and outs of soccer. I just had natural talent,” he said. “Eventually, I found the right leagues and teams and coaches. I was playing at the highest level possible in the state of Georgia and in the nation.”
Harris later attended Woodland High School in Stockbridge, where he would go on to score 45 goals and rack up 27 assists during his career. He would eventually earn all-conference and all-region honors, along with an offensive player of the year award.
Though Harris had a number of coaches that aided in the development of his talents, he attests that no one’s support was as important as his father’s.
“I was playing basketball and football…in ninth grade,” Harris said. “My father told me I needed to focus on one sport, and the way he explained it to me was as if he already knew what sport I should choose. And from ninth grade on, I never partook in any other sport. I just decided I was going to put my all into soccer.”
Harris would go on to play collegiate soccer at Georgia Southwestern University and Georgia Southern University.
At the age of 18, Harris became able to compete with the U.S. Virgin Islands national soccer team because his father and paternal grandparents were natives of the territory. As with most Caribbean territories, soccer is the most popular and most celebrated sport among residents of the Virgin Islands.
The Virgin Islands national team is relatively young; most of the team’s players are 25 years old or younger.
“It’s a long process,” Harris said. “It’s a young team that’s growing together, building chemistry. With time, we [will] get better and better. The future is very bright.”
While maintaining a genuine appreciation for the sport of soccer, Harris has also identified socioeconomic barriers that may have possibly prevented the growth of the game in the U.S.
“I feel like the problem that comes with soccer in America as opposed to other countries is that soccer is more so a sport for wealthier people,” Harris said. “A lot of times, you have a lot of players that are good, but a lot of them don’t get the same opportunity if they’re not able to afford to pay to play for these teams. That’s the problem I feel like a lot of people have seen with soccer: you may have somebody who is really good, [but] you will never see them reach the professional level because they didn’t have the [resources].”
From the time Harris began playing, he has seen an improvement in terms of financial support for soccer players. Teams are now offering more financial aid through scholarships and other means, which enables more athletes to compete.
“It’s good that kids can have an opportunity to play this sport, and everyone has an opportunity regardless of their family’s income, which I think is a good thing,” Harris said.
When asked how soccer can be better supported throughout Atlanta’s Black communities, Harris said,”When I first moved to Atlanta, I would always hear somebody say, ‘You’re Black, and you play soccer? I’ve never heard of that.’
“I would like to show kids from Atlanta that soccer is a sport for any race. There are kids who wouldn’t even think about playing soccer, so I would like to spread that [idea] within the community.”
Along with changing the mindset of Black youth about soccer in his hometown, Harris also wants to affect change in Europe. He contends that soccer would be an effective vehicle in combating racism there, given the popularity and potential influence of the sport.
“I feel like soccer would be the perfect sport for that,” Harris said. “You have a lot of people in Europe who will be a fan of a Black or African American player, and then the minute that player [doesn’t] have a good game or makes a mistake, [fans] may use a derogatory or racist term towards them.”
Harris continues to note the growth that soccer has made within the country, and takes pride in the love and support that has come with it.
“It’s a good thing; it’s really nice to see that it’s growing,” Harris said. “When I first moved to Atlanta, there was no professional team, only a semi-professional team. Watching the transition and how things changed and grew so fast with soccer – not just in Atlanta, but in the country – it’s a nice thing to see, because I feel like people around the world love this sport.”