I had the great pleasure to interview CJ Sapong. CJ currently plays forward for the Philadelphia Union. Before turning professional, CJ attended James Madison where he became the first player to win conference First-Team honors four times and the 2010 CAA Player of the Year. He is also a two-time NSCAA First Team All-South Atlantic Region selection. He was drafted 10th overall in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft where he won MLS Rookie of the year with Sporting Kansas City, the team he would win the MLS Cup within 2013. Internationally, CJ has earned four caps for the United States National Team. He also set the all-time single-season record in goals (16; 2017) for the Union, but before joining the Union in 2015, CJ suffered a slew of major injuries the year prior. After speaking to doctors and trying various unsuccessful treatments, he realized the best way to get the nutrients he needed was through food. His exploration and research aided him in his recovery from injury, as his body healed through the nutrients he fed it. This sparked CJ to start his non-profit, Sacred Seeds, an organization that focuses on developing sustainable agriculture spaces within urban underdeveloped areas.
Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?
My parents both individually emigrated from Ghana and met in the US. So growing up, I was playing a lot of different sports and they were very supportive of all them, but soccer was the one they connected with the most. I remember watching games with my family and them getting so animated. My father played soccer a little bit, and that was the sport he could help me with and play in the back yard with me, so that’s what stuck.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
One was getting pranked by an older player, Kei Kamara. We were in Vancouver and he told me that a company wanted to do a photo shoot with me. Being a rookie I was very excited about it. He got me in a full jersey and had me in the middle of Vancouver doing different poses all for nothing — that was a funny one.
Another funny one was rapping to Hope Solo. I made a bet with someone on the team that I could get a hug from her — and I did! I got the hug after doing this rap. It ended up blowing up a little bit, but I made it a joke. I messed up the rap, but I finished strong and that was a cool thing.
What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Continue to find your own truth and figure out ways to maximize that. It’s easy to get pulled in different directions and to define yourself by external means. Find your true self and internal connection, then you’ll be the best you, period. I think that’s where true success is.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
My third-grade teacher, Ms. Fujisaki. She was nice but she was also fairly strict. That year, I was starting to flirt with girls and I was just a mess in her class. One of the things she made me do as “punishment” was read this book called “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” about a girl who had cancer and she starts looking for these different remedies to cure cancer and there’s a myth about creating paper cranes. I just remember as a kid, the feeling and imagination that were sparked by that book. Believing in miracles.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?
I’ve used soccer as a platform to try to give back and reconnect people to their health, their community, and what they put into their body. I’ve started a non-profit called Sacred Seeds that’s focused on developing sustainable agriculture spaces within urban underdeveloped areas. That translates to building community gardens that can be used to facilitate workshops for underserved youth as well as building community run greenhouses to increase access to organic food. It empowers individuals to be the best them, but also to be communal and to reach out to their peers and create something better.
What methods are you using to most effectively share your cause with the world?
Social media of course, but what has really worked best is just getting out into the community and doing it. Going and meeting like-minded people and organizations, going to events and workshops, public speaking. Just actually doing the things you’re hoping to accomplish.
Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
It’s two-fold. As an athlete, I was able to experience success early, whether it was accolades or championships, and I remember growing up and my whole motivation was to be able to get an MLS Championship or league award. Getting those things and still feeling that I didn’t do enough was a weird place to be. It made me start exploring different ways I could get fulfillment off the field.
Right around that same time I had a slew of injuries. One or two that was more serious was a herniated disc, impingement in my neck, and cervical nerve nutrient deficiency — stuff that was really affecting my well-being off the field. It was a trying time but it did lead me to take over my health and start exploring avenues to healing myself. Through that, I went down a rabbit hole which led me to get my nutrient’s through food and growing my own microgreens. Once I did that and noticed improvements in my health and felt that empowerment, it was a no brainer that I had to share this information. Since that was something that I had experienced firsthand, it gave me even more confidence to pursue it.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your career?
The people in the communities that we’ve built the gardens in. In the community, we go to a school and give the kids practices and methods to implement a nutritional diet. Since I’m researching this and doing it daily, what seems simple and well known to me doesn’t necessarily mean everybody else knows about it. Just seeing how people’s faces light up when they hear how they can take control over their health, even kids in underdeveloped areas, and having them ask questions and show interest is special. I’ve realized getting into the communities and talking to people face-to-face is when you get a true understanding of what they’re dealing with and how they may not be privy to a lot of information that other people have.
Individuals on my Sacred Seeds team have also been impacted. I have some volunteers who found us on social media, believe in our mission and join us. One of my team members is due to get a kidney transplant soon and once he started working with us he decided to create his own hydroponic system in his house. He’s growing things that could help his situation and he just seems like a very happy person. That’s just from him implementing things he learned while working with us. It shows the power and the beauty of connecting with your food and with the earth.
What are your “three things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
The saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Whether it’s a single workout or a soccer season, it’s an important thing to remember. When I was younger I easily got down on myself for not accomplishing certain things quickly. I wish it was told more to me that it’s a journey that you should be looking forward and not focus on individual battles because everything sets you up for growth. Whether you achieve it or fail.
Another would be enjoying the moment. That’s something that wasn’t reiterated to me enough. I try to bestow upon the youth, the only thing that you actually have is this moment right now and the more present you feel within it, the more presents you get. The gift of what you have starts to be appreciated the more cognizant and aware you are.
And lastly, just be the best you. When you’re younger there are so many labels and images that are put out and force us to aspire to be things that sound good as opposed to what we really want. I wish someone told me that I was ok. I didn’t have to be something else to be successful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It would be going green. It’s something that has become trendier than ever, but if people really understood the gravity of the situation with our planet, I think it would really change how we treat this earth. Just in my lifetime alone, I’ve seen drastic changes in our environment for the worse.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” After your performance on the field, you are constantly criticizing or being criticized on your soccer game. As I move through life, I see aspects that I can be better at, and it starts to manifest externally.
I follow more health conscious and health-driven accounts on social media, but every so often, you’re seeing detrimental things people do to themselves and to those around them. My initial feeling or urge is to judge but at the end of the day, I can only control my own response to the situation. Instead of voicing frustrations so much, I am going to change it within my own life. By doing that you might not change the world, but you may attract more likeminded people to you.
Some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, politics, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why?
Will Smith. I’ve always been a fan of his acting, but I really like how he utilizes his platform to continue to provoke people, to think more, to be better. He also just enjoys the hell out of his life and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s good to see. I would like to be able to pick his brain on how he views the world and what methods and practices he uses to continue to be that way.