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Soccerpreneur: Chapter 3 The Mexican Messi

From the upcoming book Soccerpreneur by Damir Perge (Download a PDF of this Chapter)

Chapter 3: The Mexican Messi

Nothing can stop a passionate heart when you make your mind up

Our family departed Belgrade, Yugoslavia on November 14, 1974 from the Nikola Tesla Airport. I was eleven years old. Twenty hours later, we landed at Chicago O’Hare airport via Dublin, Ireland. Each of us clutched a small carry-on bag. My parents had packed five large suitcases. One bag contained our family’s Yugoslavian crystal ware. Not much luggage for a family of five. Before leaving for America, we sold everything we could in a matter of days.

My mother was hand-carrying a religious artifact. It was a 27”x13.5” picture of St. Nicholas, intricately carved out of wood. It was a hassle to carry on the plane but she was stubborn about it. She was bringing part of the family heritage with her to America.

My uncle and aunt, Michael and Nada Radojevich, picked us up from the airport in their sporty, red Ford Torino. When I saw my uncle, I jumped for joy. I vividly remember the day he left Belgrade for Dallas, Texas. I was five years old and he was in his mid-twenties. He looked older now. He seemed like a man. And so serious. I stopped him for a moment while he was loading our bags into the trunk and said in Serbian, “Hey, you look like me.” My dad laughed heartily at my comment. Michael surprisingly didn’t respond. He just kept placing all the bags in the trunk. He seemed in a hurry. I did not realize what a long drive we had ahead of us.

My brother, sister and I had a special affinity for my uncle because he lived with us on the farm when his parents, our grandparents, immigrated to America. Even though he was twenty years older than us, we felt like he grew up with us. Our family nickname for him was “Lili.” My mother had given him the name, after the famous German love song, “Lilli Marleen” sung by Marlene Dietrich, because Lili had been such a beautiful baby. He preferred to be called Michael, especially in America but he never corrected us. We kept calling him Lili. He knew that was our affectionate way of telling him that we love him and for him to never forget where he came from.

The youngest of the seven children, Lili was born on the Sremska Mitrovica farm on Serbian Christmas eve, January 6, 1943. During his birth, the German military officers occupied our farmhouse. They were housed in the front two rooms of the house, while the Radojevich family occupied the other two rooms.

After World War II ended, the reconstruction of Yugoslavia began. The Radojevich family continued their farming activities. They primarily harvested corn and wheat, but also raised pigs and chickens.

My mother was the oldest of the seven children. While her sisters started getting married and moving away from the farm, she and her brother Lili continued to work the farm, long after their parents emigrated to America. My mother married my father in 1963 and, as the oldest of the children, my mother and father stayed to farm the land.

When we were kids growing up, Lili was so much fun to be around. He was jovial, incredibly handsome and muscular. At six foot one, he looked like a model in those ads for Hollister or Benetton. I recall Danny and I following him around and imitating him doing calisthenics before he lifted weights. He acted goofy around us, always trying to make us laugh.

After his weightlifting exercises, Lili would make us look for eggs in the chicken coop. We had hundreds of chickens, but it was no easy task finding enough eggs to feed his incredible appetite. He loved bacon, sausage and eggs, sunny side up, for breakfast; and he loved sharing his breakfast with us.

From a distance Lili’s resembled Alexander the Great. Lili and his friend Trngov often rode Danny and me around Sremska Mitrovica on their motorcycles. They rode fast but we were never scared. I still recall holding on to my dear life by grabbing the sides of his six-pack stomach muscles while he drove around the narrow streets at full speed.

My family always said I looked like Lili. I resembled my mom’s side of the family, the Radojevich family, while Danny resembled my dad’s side, the Perge family. Lili and my father Ivan worked hard on the farm. We would follow them around, mimicking them like two little monkeys as they tilled the land with a horse and plow.

Lili, being a prankster, often teased my father about being short. Ivan was a two-time weightlifting champion of Yugoslavia and Lili often challenged his supernatural strength. No matter how hard Lili tried to prove he was stronger, Ivan always proved him wrong. Despite being only five foot eight, my father had the strength of Hercules. It was friendly rivalry and they constantly tried to outdo each other.

So basically, I grew up with Alexander the Great and Hercules.

My father loved all sports, especially soccer. Lili’s favorite sport was basketball, and he was a skilled basketball player during his youth. Basketball was the second most popular sport in Yugoslavia. Although I was not a big fan of basketball, even I loved watching the famous Belgrade basketball club, Red Star.[1]

In 1967, when Lili decided to leave for America after hitting the ripe age of twenty-four, my four-year-old heart was saddened. He took care of us when our parents were working, and we loved him more than an uncle. He was like a big brother.

After Lili said all his goodbyes at the Nikola Tesla airport, and just as he boarded the airplane, I watch from the second floor of the airport balcony—a river of tears gushing down my face. My mother held me close as I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Lili, I want to go with you. Lili, Lili … Take me with you!“

The American Reunion

Seven years went by before I saw Lili again, when we landed in the United States. He was married and with two children, Nina and Goldie. My uncle and his wife Nada had made our move to America possible. They sponsored us to leave the communist country of Yugoslavia for the land of opportunity. We came legally into the United States.

After Lili managed to fit all of our bags into his trunk, at the Chicago O’Hare airport, the five of us squeezed into his car, along with himself and aunt Nada. Seven people in a Ford Torino—it was a tight squeeze. We drove for eighteen hours straight, except for the occasional stops for gas fill-ups. I felt like I was a sardine for the entire trip. When we reached Richardson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, we met my grandparents, Pavle and Goldie Radojevich. They had rented a one-bedroom, wood-framed house. It was culture shock galore. I couldn’t believe their tiny little house. Their farmhouse in Yugoslavia was at least twenty times bigger. I promise, I am not exaggerating.

To my huge surprise, my parents decided that the three of us children would live with our uncle and aunt for the first six months, until school was finished. Their logic was simple. By staying with them, we could learn English faster and get acclimated to the new American life. My uncle lived in Austin, three and a half hours away from my grandparents. It was tough leaving our parents in Richardson because we have never been separated from them for more than a week. But we were happy to go with our uncle Lili because he was more than family to us. Lili and Nada made a huge family sacrifice taking the three of us into their home. Because school was already in progress, we left Richardson the same day we got there and drove to Austin.

Austin in the 1970s was a cool, hippy-type college town with less than half a million residents. It is the capitol of Texas, and located in the central hills of the state. I loved the city instantly. It exuded the feeling of freedom and was vastly different from living on the edge of the iron curtain. Lili and Nada were building a new house; so while it was being built, they were staying in a nice apartment complex surrounded by rolling, tree-covered hills.

We quickly became accustomed to living in America. There were so many new things to explore and experience. Even the simplest of things seemed cool. I had never seen shag carpet. Rolling around on this carpet in front of my uncle’s TV was like lying around on freshly cut and manicured soccer grass.

American television was a huge hit. In Yugoslavia, we only had two TV channels. My brother and I began a habit of watching old Tarzan movies on Saturday mornings with our younger cousins Nina and Goldie—and even Lili, when he had time, would sit down and join us.

Lili, to give us a jump-start, and assuming we were going to fail school because we didn’t know any English, enrolled us into sixth grade instead of the fifth grade we attended in Yugoslavia.

It was not just fun and games living with our aunt and uncle and their kids. They were strict parents and made sure we applied ourselves at school. Our aunt Nada took it upon herself to teach us English. She would not permit Danny and me to go outside and play unless we had finished our English lessons. To be an eleven-year-old reading first grade children’s books was hitting reality.

My uncle played basketball, so he encouraged us to play the American game. He would even watch NBA pro games with us in an attempt to motivate us. Lili told us that getting a college basketball scholarship was a good way to achieve the American Dream. The apartment complex had a basketball court and so he bought us a basketball.

I found learning English difficult. While Danny was already on the basketball court having fun with our new American friends, I continued the painful process of reading in broken English in front of my aunt, from a children’s book about how some little Country Mouse was visiting a City Mouse. Finally, after Nada grew tired of hearing me whine about how unfair it was that Danny was having all the fun, I’d get to meet my brother on the basketball court. I also sold her on the idea that I needed to play basketball in order to practice my English.

Every day after our English lessons, we played basketball. I noticed right away—actually instantly—that I wasn’t as talented in basketball as my brother. Oddly, the more I played, and the harder I practiced, the worse I became. To make it even more painful for me, Danny learned basketball faster and became that much better faster.

Lili surprised us from time to time by showing up at the basketball court after he got off work. He brought our neighbor, Scottie, who played on the Anderson High School basketball team. He was tall and played some badass basketball. When I played with Lili against Scottie and Danny, I quickly realized what a depressing basketball future I had coming to me. I was the worst player on any basketball team I played.

When we got tired of playing basketball, Danny and I kicked the basketball as if it was a soccer ball. I could see in my brother’s eyes that he missed playing soccer. But he didn’t say anything. What nobody knew, not even my twin brother, was that every time I got on the basketball court, my heart bled for soccer—the game I grew up playing.

There were nights I cried quietly in bed after Danny fell asleep, because I saw no future in soccer in America. I missed Yugoslavia. I was not alone. My sister Helen was having difficulty adapting to the new life in American high schools. In Yugoslavia she had a lot of friends. Starting a new high school from another country in your senior year is no easy task. I could see she was not happy either. I thought about telling her about wanting to go back to Yugoslavia but I did not have the courage. I didn’t want to make her feel worse.

In 1974, soccer was not even on the sports radar in Austin. I actually don’t remember ever seeing anyone play a soccer game in Austin. My friends mocked me with, “Ugh, you like soccer? Soccer is a sissy sport.” It was as if I had some kind of a sports disease. Being mocked for playing soccer, the most popular sport in the world, was very odd.

“Yeah, we played football every day back home in Yugoslavia,” I said proudly while refraining myself from giving them the middle finger.[2]

The Americanization of Soccer

Oh Lord, we tried hard to turn some of our American friends into soccer fans and potential soccer players. But it was a pathetic and unsuccessful attempt. When we got some of them to play soccer with us on the basketball court, using a basketball, it was not fun. They were horrible. To give them a little break—it’s kind of hard to play soccer with a basketball. But there is definitely no fun in playing against people who don’t know how to play.

On more than one occasion, Lili showed up at the basketball courts and caught us playing soccer with the basketball. He would interrupt our soccer game by bringing our neighbor Scottie to play. And playing basketball with Lili was no fun. Once, while playing on Lilli’s team and getting beat by Scottie and Danny, I started whining and acting like a crybaby because I hate to lose. When I played soccer in Yugoslavia, I was usually on the winning team because I was one of the better soccer players. Losing and playing badly was foreign to me. My uncle walked off the court and went home, disgusted with my attitude.

I realized at the ripe age of twelve that basketball was not my game, no matter how much encouragement I got from my dear uncle. I knew I would never be as good as Lili. I sucked. Bye bye basketball.

It was not difficult to stop playing basketball because as summer approached, the Texas weather got hotter, and hanging around a swimming pool was a much better option than playing basketball in the Texas sun.

Our six months living in Austin flew by quickly. The end of the school year was coming upon us. The closer summer got, the more time my brother and I spent at the swimming pool. We got very tanned. Our skin was a beautiful dark brown.

The Mexican Messi

During our last week of school, after a three-week business trip, Lili made a surprise visit to our school to take us back to the house in Nada’s super cool Buick Riviera with a 454 engine.[3] Usually, we rode the bus to school and back. Danny and I were coming back from recess, and my uncle, wearing dark sunglasses and looking like a supermodel, waited outside of our classroom. When I saw him from forty yards away, I raced up to him.

“Lili!” I screamed with joy.

“Oh, it’s you Damire.[4] I couldn’t recognize you!” he said, grinning and nudging me on top of my head. He had a habit of affectionately nudging our head when he saw us.

“Where’s Dejan?” he asked.

“He’s behind me,” I said.

“Hi, Lili,” said Danny.

My uncle was sizing us up.

“I can’t even recognize you … hahari,”[5] he said as he put out a huge smile.

After saying hello to our teachers and asking their permission for us to leave school early, Lili checked us out at the front office and we drove to the house. When we arrived, Nada had chicken prepared for Lili to barbecue. Lili had an incredible talent for cooking kickass barbecue. Today, he could have been on the FOOD network promoting his style of barbecue. Soon after, school was out and Danny and I had passed our sixth grade class with flying colors. That’s one way to skip fifth grade. Thanks Lili, for hedging our bets.

Our parents drove down to Austin the following week to take us back to Richardson. We had not seen them for a few months. I was happy to see them, but part of me wanted to stay in Austin for the entire summer and spend it lounging around the swimming pool like a cheetah, looking at pretty girls.

After we all enjoyed Lili’s delicious barbecued chicken, my uncle poured himself a scotch. He gave my parents a huge smile and said, “Miro and Ivo, I have to tell you a really funny story.” He swirled his scotch slowly.

“Last week, I went to their school to pick up our hahare. When I got to their class, it was empty. Nobody was around. As I walked out of their classroom and looked toward the playground, I saw a bunch of kids playing soccer on the football field. I realized they were at recess. I walked up closer to the fence of the field, to watch the soccer game, waiting for them to finish their break.

They were playing soccer with a dodgeball. Suddenly, I see this Mexican kid dribbling with the ball. He was unbelievable. He was dribbling the ball around all of the kids like Pele. Nobody could take the ball away from this Mexican. It was funny to watch. I wish you could have seen it. The American kids were chasing the Mexican kid with the ball, trying to take the ball away from him without any hope of success. I started looking around for Damir. I thought—I have to find Damir and show him how incredible this Mexican kid plays soccer. I wanted to show him that there are other kids that know how to play better than him.

I watched them for the next ten minutes. The Mexican just kept dribbling as if the ball stuck to his foot. He had incredible talent. Finally, the recess bell rang, and all the kids started running toward me. I looked at the Mexican running towards me as if he knew me. He was waiving at me. When he got twenty yards from me, I realized it was Damir. I didn’t recognize him at all because he was wearing a baseball hat backwards, and his skin was so dark brown from the sun. He looked like a real Mexican.”

Lili was laughing and smiling like a supermodel as he told his Mexican soccer story.[6] My parents laughed too because when they came to Austin, they barely recognized us also, because of our dark suntans.

It was super special for me to hear my uncle to tell the story. For whatever reason, Lili was not a big fan of soccer. And he did not give compliments easily, on anything to anyone. If he ever gave you a compliment, you knew you had earned it. It is one of the highest compliments I have ever received in my soccer career.

After Lili told that story to my parents, I realized I needed to follow my heart and passion in life—soccer. As far as I was concerned, I was born to be a soccer player.

Maybe it was his way of telling me I really sucked in basketball. But Lili’s compliment made me believe I had special soccer talent. He inspired me to become a better player almost overnight. My thoughts were simple—if Lili, of all people, believes I am really, really good—I must be really, really awesome.[7]  

We left for Dallas after dinner. Austin is only 195 miles from Dallas, but the difference in the level of soccer interest and play between the two cities was extreme. As we drove up to our tiny, one bedroom apartment, my father gave us the good news: Dallas had youth soccer leagues. In fact, Dallas was becoming a hotbed for soccer in the South in the mid 1970s. Our destiny and passion to pursue our dream of becoming professional soccer players became a possibility again.

Your Passion is the Goal to Your Happiness

I learned from Lili that no matter what you are doing, you should follow your heart—you should follow your passion—because when you follow your heart, you have the necessary passion to help you through any difficult journey.

  • How many times has someone told you can’t do something, that you don’t have the talent, that there is no way someone like YOU can achieve your passionate dreams?
  • How many times have you been told that your idea, your dream or your passion is not going to work?
  • How many times have you been told that you should stick to something easier, something simpler, something less riskier?
  • How many times have you been told that following your dream is a dead end?
  • How many times have you been told that you can’t do something because you are not smart enough—according to them?
  • How many times have you been told that you should not follow your passion and instead focus on something more practical—something that makes money?

As an experienced entrepreneur and investor, I learned that these simple passion questions apply in all aspects of any business or personal life. Besides, doing something just for the sake of money is not going to take care of your passionate heart. It doesn’t matter what the odds or what obstacles you might face in achieving your dream, if you are passionate about your dream, then keep going. Follow your passion and the rest will take care of itself.

Don’t sell out and choose a business career, or an entrepreneur path, only because there is money to be made. Making money is exciting but if you don’t feed your passionate heart while doing it, the money ends up making you feel empty inside. A simple analogy: In social media, Twitter enables you to follow your interests. In your mind, you should follow your passion.

We Followed Our Passion: Soccer

After our six-month soccer hiatus in Austin, my brother and I decided to follow our hearts and play soccer. It wasn’t the same kind of intense soccer we experienced in Yugoslavia, but it wasn’t easy soccer either. As we advanced in our age and soccer capabilities, we played on Dallas soccer teams that were good enough to play against the youth clubs in Europe.

There were many life and business lessons I would learn from playing soccer that I used in life and business. Thus, this is the reason for this book.

I learned from Lili that no matter what you are doing, you should follow your heart—you should follow your passion—because when you follow your heart, you have the necessary passion to help you through any difficult journey.

Chasing the American Dream

Soon after we moved to Dallas, Lili took the ultimate risk and became an entrepreneur. He opened up his HVAC engineering business, Energy, Testing & Balance, Inc., with an incredible amount of persistence, hard work and perseverance. As a teenager, I worked for him during a few summers and learned that being an entrepreneur is not for everyone.

Entrepreneurship is exciting but it’s not easy from a psychological and physical perspective. It is also hard physical work because of the long hours needed to grow any business. Fitness in soccer is critical for producing maximum performance; but you also need mental and physical stamina to persevere the hardships of starting a business.

When Lili became an entrepreneur, you could feel the passion he had for his business. Work was fun for him. When you have passion for what you’re doing, work is not work. He was considered as one of the top experts in the field of commercial HVAC systems in the world. Many entrepreneurs say, “I work 24/7.” That’s obviously mathematically impossible, but Lili got close. I saw it with my own eyes working for him. Lili worked an incredible 18- to 20-hour days, seven days a week in order to make it big.

And make it big, he did. His success was simple. He made it big because he put all his heart into it. He truly loved his work. I never saw him tired when working for him because he had passion for his business.

Ask yourself a simple but often unanswered question: What is your passion?[8]

Randall W. Jones,[9] a great entrepreneur himself, when looking to hire CEOs for companies in the Patriarch Partners portfolio, will ask potential candidates an important question: What makes their heart pumping with excitement?

So I ask you, my friend, the same: What makes your heart pump with excitement? Whatever makes your heart passionate is the thing you should do. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Questions:

  1. Do you know your true passion?
  2. If you have more than one, what is your biggest passion?
  3. Are you doing your true passion right now? If not, why not?
  4. Do you know your true talents?
  5. Has anyone told you that you were really, really talented at something but you did nothing about it?
  6. How do you define talent in soccer and in busines?
  7. What are some of the important variables in recognizing talent in sports and business?
  8. In business, how do you find, match and organize the right talented people to make an awesome team
  9. How important is talent in becoming successful?
  10. Is talent more important than hard work?
  11. How does talent relate to skill and luck as a function of success?

12. How does your talent relate to your passion? Are they aligned and moving in the same direction? 



[1] Despite the Yugoslavia civil war of the 1990s, and despite being broken into separate countries, Serbia and Croatia still produced an incredible amount of global basketball talent. For two small countries, quite a few players ended up in the NBA over the last twenty years.

[2] I can’t and won’t lie to you. On more than a few occasions, I have flipped off someone in America for making fun of soccer during the 70s. Yes, I know it is not polite and I don’t encourage anyone to mimic me.

[3] The Buick Riviera was a badass car. This particular model had a 454 engine.

[4] In Serbian-Croatian language, when you call someone directly, you add an “e” to the name.

[5] Hahari means “little rascals” in Serbian-Croatian.

[6] Michael “Lili” Radojevich, in his late 60s, looked like the “Most Interesting Man” in those Dos Equis Beer TV commercials.“ In fact, people often stopped him to ask for an autograph.

[7] My dribbling style changed throughout the years. From six to twelve years old, even though I tried to imitate my idol Pele, I displayed a dribbling style similar to Maradona or Messi. From twelve to sixteen years old, I used the dribbling moves of Pele and George Best, after I perfected my body swerve to shift one way while moving the ball between my feet, using the inside of the foot and shifting to the outside of the foot in the opposite direction.

From age sixteen on, the body-ball swerve was one of my trademark dribbling moves. I also mimicked Johan Cruyff’s long dribbling runs, using pace, timing and momentum to get around players. So as my brother discusses in the chapter “My Style of Play,” I perfected the long dribbling run.

During my early SMU college years, I developed my own dribbling style. I used instinct and intuition to commit defenders to dive into tackles as I quickly changed the direction of the ball.

During the later SMU years, I further developed my dribbling style into a hybrid of Pele, Cruyff, Messi, Maradona and Cristiano Ronaldo. Unlike most soccer players, I could mimic some of the dribbling styles from other soccer players without having to resort to one predictable style. The expansion of using different dribbling styles was encouraged, inspired and motivated by my father Ivan—who actually did not like me to dribble too much—but encouraged using the best dribbling tricks from various players with different styles.

After age thirty-five, I changed my dribbling due to ACL problems in my left knee. I shifted more to using the inside of my foot vs. my preferred outside of the foot. Today, I most likely mimic Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona midfielder) or Luka Modrić (Real Madrid midfielder) dribbling style because I have lost the quickness and speed but not the technical skill, vision or imagination.

Every soccer player faces the reality that as you age you change your style of dribbling because you lose those microseconds of quickness. A billionth of a second in dribbling can make the difference between going around a defender or being stopped in your tracks. 

When Lili saw me dribble on that school day during recess, I most likely resembled Maradona and Messi’s dribbling style where I used instinct, intuition, change of pace, cutting in with left or right foot to go around defenders without some of the fancy moves you would see Cristiano Ronaldo do—such as simple stepover. I didn’t use the stepover dribbling trick before I was twelve because I could just go around defenders using quickness and tight ball control, while cutting direction with either foot and keeping the ball close to my foot.

[8] Michael “Lili” Radojevich achieved an incredible amount of success as an entrepreneur over the years, and as a result, was able to sponsor five of his other sisters to come to America with their entire families. Lili and his wife Nada changed many lives by giving their extended family the opportunity to come to America and work to achieve the American Dream. Lili and Nada were visionaries.

[9] Randall W. Jones, Managing Director, Patriarch Partners

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by Damir Perge

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