The beat of a drum banged through the sold-out stadium, the harmonic chant from thousands growing louder and louder for a man who grew up in an orphanage.
“Hey! Ho! Ger-so!” the voices yelled, to the rhythm of a 1976 Ramones song. “Hey! Ho! Ger-so!”
The chorus echoed through the park as Gerso Fernandes skipped the ball to his left foot and unleashed a shot that blistered the inside netting, a stunning goal to seal a victory for Sporting Kansas City. He sprinted to the north end of the field to greet the choir, a boisterous group of former strangers who treat the club’s newest players like lifelong friends.
Fernandes knows many of them now. He has sipped Boulevard Wheat with them at tailgate parties. He’s met them inside Kauffman Stadium, moments before dressing as a hot dog and out-racing two teammates as part of the Royals’ in-game entertainment.
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“My life,” he says, “I like it a lot here.”
Unique talent brought Gerso (pronounced JER-so) to Kansas City six months ago, all 5-foot-8, 137 pounds of him, and it has already inspired the most enjoyable moments of his 26 years. His teammate, Roger Espinoza, calls Fernandes “one of the happiest guys I’ve ever seen. He never stops smiling.”
There’s more to his story, but Gerso hasn’t shared it, even with some of his closest friends. For a long time, he didn’t want most of it made public.
Fernandes’ new teammates will be hearing this story for the first time, here, the same way you are.
He opened with a deep breath.
“OK,” he said. “I think I’m ready.”
The rooms held six beds, lined up like a military boot camp. When Fernandes arrived, he was issued a sheet and a pillow.
More than 100 boys shared his address, many of them enrolled in the orphanage after behavioral incidents. Within Fernandes’ first month there, one of his roommates orchestrated a middle-of-the-night escape. He asked Fernandes to join him.
“Where was I going to go?” Fernandes asks in his slow, deliberate speaking style.
Fernandes had been on the move for most of his life. He was born in Guinea-Bissau, a country on Africa’s west coast that has been slumped in political turmoil since the 1970s. Nearly 67 percent of Guinea-Bissau’s population lives below the poverty line.
With the politics fusing a civil war, his parents relinquished their only son when he was 4 years old. Along with two cousins, Fernandes packed his belongings into a duffel bag and moved with an aunt and uncle to Lisbon, Portugal. Two sisters stayed behind.
In the ensuing years, the cousins became brothers. Aunt and uncle became mom and dad. He adopted their last name as the relationship with his parents faded to the occasional phone call.
When Fernandes was 7, he walked outside to play with his two brothers. They had done this hundreds of times before, kicking the soccer ball around.
But on this night, they watched as an argument escalated between his uncle and his uncle’s brother. As family attempted to intervene, his uncle’s brother removed a knife from his pocket and stabbed Fernandes’ uncle.
The wound was fatal. His uncle was left dead.
Fernandes was left homeless.
Fernandes’ aunt, Sabado Fernandes, could no longer take care of him without her husband’s financial support. After a few days, she called a local orphanage.
The wake-up call arrived at 7:30 a.m. each morning, a fist pounding against the door.
Breakfast at 8. School at 9. Chores at 5 p.m. Prayer at 7:30. Dinner at 8. Asleep by 9.
A Catholic priest supervised the orphanage and emphasized 30 minutes of prayer as the most important item on the schedule. On Sundays, the kids traveled to church, one of their only opportunities to leave the campus until they reached middle school and high school, which required bus rides to off-site locations.
The house included a diverse mix of backgrounds. Some, like Fernandes, had no parents to care for them. But most were there as a form of punishment for past conduct. There were “good boys and bad boys,” as Fernandes puts it, and he was left to figure out which ones to associate with. Guidance came only in the form of discipline.
Sabado Fernandes visited monthly to check in on her nephew, her maximum allowance under the priest’s rules. Gerso looked forward to those visits for days. Inside a home of more than 100 children, including two cousins, he battled bouts of lonesomeness. As he learned the power of Christian prayer, he sought a reunion with his birth parents, hoping they would remove him from the orphanage.
“I don’t know, maybe sometimes in the beginning, I felt like they forgot about me,” Fernandes says. “The other kids, they had their families there. They would visit them. Maybe I was thinking, ‘I would like to have my parents in here and visit me.’”
His parents never showed.
But when Fernandes was 11, he had a new visitor. His older cousin, Reinaldo, whom he calls his brother, had developed a friendship with a classmate who lived outside the orphanage. The classmate told her father, João Carlos Cunha, about Fernandes’ living situation.
Cunha dropped by the institution the following week. And the next month. And then the next.
What began as visits derived from empathy became a sense of responsibility, and soon thereafter, a significant undertaking.
“The food and nutrition there was very, very bad,” Cunha says of the orphanage, speaking with the assistance of an interpreter. “The priest was very harsh. The kids in the institution, they were angry. It was not a good place for Gerso and Reinaldo.”
Cunha wanted the two of them moved to a nearby state-run institution, one he had already toured. The food was more plentiful there, the rules more lax. He put in a transfer request.
The priest, Cunha says, responded with a threat to move the boys to a city a few hours away.
A sand and grass field sat tucked behind the orphanage.
The kids were allotted an hour of free time every day, and Fernandes spent just about all of it playing soccer. The children had imaginary end points for sidelines, and they refereed their own games.
Fernandes was one of the smallest players on the field, especially while lining up against older kids. But he was the clear standout.
For younger residents, the orphanage employed teachers to conduct classes inside the home. One of those instructors saw Fernandes on the field and landed him a tryout with a local club team. He was 13. After one day, he was offered a permanent spot on the team. Three times per week, he left the orphanage for practice, a routine requiring signatures on consent forms.
“I felt free,” he says. “I could be able to know another world.”
At 14, Fernandes began drawing inquiries from clubs who were interested in adding him to their academies. The interest prompted thoughts about a potential future in the sport, which he mentioned to a few roommates.
Not everyone was on board. After Fernandes had spent two years playing club soccer — with Cunha simultaneously working behind the scenes to secure his release from the orphanage — the priest determined it was unfair that Fernandes enjoy an opportunity not all of the kids were afforded.
He ordered Fernandes to quit the team.
“When you have dreams about his life — he has no father, he has no mother, he has no one — it’s very bad for them, and they suffer very much,” Cunha says, his voice breaking. “It’s not easy to talk about because Gerso was very bad psychologically — very, very bad. And I don’t stop that. I can’t stop that.”
Maybe Fernandes had made a mistake. Perhaps, seven years earlier, he should’ve taken that roommate up on his offer and attempted to run. Attempted to break free from a life of rules and restrictions.
“Why hadn’t I?” he wondered.
Fernandes was still permitted to play soccer in the back fields of the orphanage. But he played less often than ever before. The game had lost its spark.
“To be honest, I felt like, I’m done. I will never get back to playing soccer,” Fernandes says. “Or if I get back after two years, it’s going to be really hard to be in a good team. I thought that I might never play with a team again.
“It was one of the hardest times in my life.”
The ban only intensified Cunha’s efforts for a transfer. After it became evident the priest would not budge, Cunha developed two sources inside the institution, he says. Those contacts provided knowledge about unethical dealings in the organization’s leadership, Cunha says.
In a meeting with management, he relayed the information he had learned in an effort to blackmail — that was the word Cunha used — the priest into allowing Fernandes and Reinaldo to leave.
The process had stretched over five years before the priest ultimately obliged, transferring Fernandes and Reinaldo to a state-run institution near Cunha’s home. The climb to complete the move was slow-moving. The effects of it were abrupt.
“The first day he goes to the second institution, he goes to fútbol,” Cunha says. “I prepared everything in quiet. I prepare the school for them. I prepare the fútbol for them. I prepare everything.”
Fernandes had spent two years away from the game in an organized setting. He worried it had stunted his development. Instead, in his first tryout, a coach described his playing style as “from the streets.”
Ten years later, Fernandes refers to the remark as a compliment.
Nearly an hour after a recent Sporting KC match, Fernandes stepped in front of his locker to field questions from a few waiting reporters. His cubbyhole was nearly empty, save a few clothing items.
There are no remnants of his past here. No sentimental items saved from his childhood.
Even the rigid schedule he once followed is now much more chaotic. On this night, he was late to meet his girlfriend in the stadium players’ club. He was late to call Cunha, whom he speaks with multiple times each day.
Several years ago, Fernandes began referring to Cunha as “Dad,” and Cunha’s wife as his mother. Their two daughters are now his sisters. Fernandes laughs about the situation because of the reaction he gets when he introduces them — Fernandes is black and his new mom, dad and siblings are white.
He has also stayed in touch with his aunt, Sabado, and, via Facebook, he recently reconnected with a sister, one of the two from whom he was separated in Guinea-Bissau.
He has not spoken to his birth parents in more than 20 years.
“Now, I’m a man. I can handle it. Before, I used to think that I had less, that something was missing in my life,” Fernandes says, pausing to collect his emotions. “I was thinking it was the affection — and living with my parents (like) a normal family. But then I grow up with a different family, and they were my family. I stopped feeling like something was missing.
“But it ... it was hard being in (the orphanage). We felt alone.”
And yet as more roommates initiated their own plans to flee the institution, Fernandes remained.
What had prevented him from running all those years? “I am scared,” he recalls thinking. Fearful not of a punishment if he was caught, but that he would be unable to figure things out on his own.
Nineteen years later, he did choose to run. Toward another path with an uncertain future. To a life and career in Kansas City.
He believed he was ready this time.
Hopeful, not fearful.
In his first season in the United States, Fernandes leads Sporting KC with nine goals across all competitions. For two years, the club scouted him in Portugal, where he had started to make a name for himself in the country’s top league.
In April, the Cunha family visited him in Kansas City. They planned the trip around attending a game at Children’s Mercy Park so they could see him play in person. On his way off the field that night, Fernandes pointed toward the stands, smiled and saluted them.
“They were the ones who always believed in me,” Fernandes says. “Sometimes, they were the only ones.”
More than 4,000 miles away, Cunha typically watches Fernandes’ games from his living room couch, via an online stream. Because of the time difference, this requires staying awake until 3 a.m.
More than once, Fernandes has wondered if others are watching, too. Might his parents use Fernandes’ public status to track his life’s progress?
It’s a brief thought.
“There are some things you just have to let go,” he says. “You can change some things. But you cannot change everything.”