Cyprian Hedrick will be the first to tell you he is blessed, but don’t mistake that to mean that he has led a charmed life.
Hedrick, 22, a surprise pick at No. 30 overall in last month’s Major League Soccer SuperDraft, is all smiles these days at Sporting Kansas City’s training sessions. He laughs easily and often, seeming to understand how fortunate he is to be on the cusp of a professional soccer career.
Still, at nearly every step in his journey from Cameroon to the practice fields in Tucson, Ariz., where he is trying to earn a spot as a reserve centerback for Sporting KC, the reigning Eastern Conference regular-season champions, Hedrick has faced an uphill battle.
Of course, that is part of why Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes took a flyer on Hedrick, the Big South defensive player of the year from Coastal Carolina who wasn’t invited to the league’s pre-draft combine.
“Having guys who’ve had to go through a little bit to get where they are is always a good thing, because they don’t break,” Vermes said. “They bend and they spring back.”
Hedrick was born in Douala, Cameroon, and moved to Houston at age 9 when his mother, Susana, married a Texas businessman, Arlan Hedrick.
“That was very difficult, because I didn’t speak Spanish or English, which were the only two languages the people around me spoke,” Hedrick recalled. “Plus, I was very close to my mom’s side of the family in Cameroon and everything was completely different when I came here.
“Houston was like a new world to me from the way people interacted with each other to family life.”
And it wasn’t always a pleasant world.
Classmates mocked him during fifth-grade graduation for his clothes, a long shirt and flowing pants that matched.
“It looked a bit like a gown,” Hedrick said, “but that was the traditional attire I wear for celebrations in Cameroon.”
At lunch in middle school, Hedrick recalled an unnerving time when several students convinced him the red Jell-O served with lunch was actually frozen blood. He also said his family — his mother is black and his father is white — encountered racism on occasions.
“There were looks and whispers,” he said. “But when we would go out as a family it wouldn’t be an issue, because my dad, especially as a younger man, could be an intimidating guy. He wouldn’t stand for people disrespecting his family.”
Fortunately for Hedrick, there was soccer. As his English improved, sports became a way for him to make inroads in his new community.
“Soccer — and I played football and basketball as well — helped me make new friends and broke down a lot of barriers,” Hedrick said. “I wasn’t the greatest, but I was always pretty good and I earned a lot of the people I know these days’ respect through sports.”
By high school, Susana encouraged her son to focus on soccer exclusively.
“My mom was my biggest fan,” Hedrick said. “She would take notes at every game and offer me pointers. She always believed that soccer would take me places in life, so she wanted me to commit to one sport and not worry about football or basketball and the possibility of getting hurt.”
Turns out, Susana was right, but she never got to see Cyprian live his dream. She died six years ago, when he was still in high school.
She wasn’t there as Hedrick, who fancied himself a forward when he started his college career at San Jacinto Junior College, had to redshirt, or when he started to make a name for himself the next season at midfielder, or as he moved on to Coastal Carolina, where he settled in at centerback.
She couldn’t console her son when he wasn’t invited to the MLS combine and couldn’t celebrate when Sporting KC drafted him.
“My life has never been the same since she passed away, obviously, and that’s still a very emotional thing for me,” said Hedrick, who was a first-team academic All-American at Coastal Carolina. “But I know when I got drafted, it felt like I could feel her spirit enjoy it — crying and overjoyed. I know how happy she would be for me.”
No doubt, she’d be overjoyed watching her son chase his dream now, too.
“I like the fact that he’s a guy with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder,” Vermes said. “Those guys wind up being the guys who can last and work a little harder. He’s got a long way to go. He still hasn’t made our team, but one thing about him I can see is that he’s a quick learner and he has the desire to do this.”
Hedrick doesn’t want your pity, but he won’t mind if you want to root for him either.
“I don’t expect or want people to feel bad for me in any way, because things work out the way they work out,” Hedrick said. “I just hope I can be one of those under-the-radar guys who comes in and makes a name for himself.”