Grassroot Soccer co-founder and Survivor African winner Ethan Zohn helps to teach at-risk youth about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
Ethan Zohn's passion for advocacy, social enterprise, global health and self-empowerment took shape in 2002, when he used a significant portion of 1-million dollar winnings from CBS' SURVIVOR: Afirica to co-found Grassroot Soccer, a first-of-its-kind non-governmental organization (NGO) that uses the sport of soccer to teach at-risk youth self-reliance and critical life skills, such as HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
It was the realization of an idea that first came to light while Zohn was playing professional soccer for Highlanders FC in Zimbabwe.
Since Grassroot Soccer's inception, the international organization has scaled up to 60 countries worldwide, impacted and graduated more than 13-million lives, and worked with scores of public and private-sector partners.
Ethan Zohn, who is also a cancer survivor, media celebrity, former professional goalkeeper and former FDU assistant soccer coach, joined SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about his incredible journey that's far from over.
Ethan Zohn, who co-founded Grassroot Soccer and won Survivor Africa in 2002, joins SportsJam with Doug Doyle
"Some of my strongest memories of when I playing in Zimbabwe was all the graveyards there. My team the Highlanders Football Club, we'd all smush into these tiny little white vans and travel these long dusty roads to get to our away games and I just have these visions of these graveyards. Some of the headstones were perfectly organized, one right after another like we see here in the United States. But then other areas there these wooden crosses piled high overflowing on the streets, so I asked one of my teammates why some people are buried like this and other people buried like that. He says that's where the bury all the people that die of AIDS. So for me to see a physical representation of everyone that was dying of this disease was shocking to me. People are dying and nobody is doing anything about it, including me at that time of my life. To be honest I really didn't know what I could do about it. What can one person do to help this massive problem in all of Africa. I didn't do anything, I shelved it. I said it's not my problem, it's in a land far way, someone else will deal with it. So I continue playing soccer in Africa."
Zohn would eventually return to the United States, and about a year later he got a letter from a friend telling him one of his close friends, the starting goalkeeper had passed of AIDS.
"This is my buddy. This is the guy I trained with day in and day out for years. You know this really was the first time I saw how one disease was destroying this community. I saw the pain and suffering and I had compassion for all these people touched by this single disease. So that kind of framed what was happening in the world for that global pandemic back in 1999-2000."
Two years later, Zohn co-founded Grassroot Soccer with three other people. They had all played for that same Highlanders FC team at some point in their lives.
"Our basic model is we train professional soccer players, coaches, peer leaders in the community with a curriculum that we developed on adolescent health. Then we send those players or coaches into the classrooms, or the the soccer fields, or the churches or temples to deliver these health interventions. I don't have to tell you or anyone in New Jersey, soccer is the world's most popular sport. Every little kid wants to be grow up to be a professional player. So you can imagine the impact when we use these mentors , these heroes, these role models, I mean we are able to break down cultural stereotypes, bring people together and help educate these young people about adopting healthy behaviors. We were using soccer as the hook."
Ever the tireless and creative promoter, in 2008 Ethan did nothing short of dribble a soccer ball more than 500 miles on his own from Boston to Washington, DC as a campaign to drum up visibility, awareness, and support for Grassroot Soccer.
Besides his time in Zimbabwe with the Highlanders FC, Zohn was a goalkeeper at Lexington High School and Vassar College, and also played professionally for the Hawaii Tsunami and Cape Crusaders of the United Soccer Leagues.
Zohn, who is Jewish, was only 14 when he lost his father to cancer. Then in April of 2009, when Zohn was training to run for a marathon, he diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called CD20-positive Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The diagnosis immediately brought back painful memories of his father's battle.
"My only connection to cancer growing up was through my dad. So cancer to me cancer equaled to death. When I got diagnosed at age 35, I was totally sideswiped. I was fit, young, healthy. I was training for the New York City marathon at that time. I had some really itchy skin and I didn't know what was going on inside my body. I went to every doctor, nurse, whatever, tried every pill, cream, potion, no one could figure it out. And finally a swollen lymph node popped out of my neck and they found a six-centimeter by 12-centimeter mass in my chest."
He started chemotherapy in May 2009. On September 14, 2009, he disclosed that after three months of intensive chemotherapy, his cancer returned. He underwent a new treatment, including a stem-cell transplant, to battle the rare form of Hodgkin's disease. Zohn received a "clean CT scan" in late April 2010 and remained in remission for nearly 20 months. In September 2011, Zohn confirmed that the cancer had returned in his chest. In early March 2013, Zohn announced that he was cancer-free due to two rounds of stem cell transplants that he received from his brother Lee, who is now a chiropractor in Massachusetts.
As you can imagine, Ethan's bond with his brother Lee remains tight.
"Very close. Literally my DNA is his DNA. Cancer research and technology is mind-blowing. I am a science experiment. It's like let's remove all the blood and stem cells and platelets and red blood cells and white blood cells from this dude and let's replace it from stuff from this dude and see what happens. It's like a science fiction novel. It's literally what they did."
The severities of both Ethan’s illness and treatment, coupled with the debilitating anxiety of his cancer coming back post-treatment, led Ethan to experiment with, and ultimately adopt, cannabis and CBD as a form of palliative care.
In 2011, Zohn and his then-longtime girlfriend and fellow Survivor winner Jenna Morasca participated in the 19th season of of The Amazing Race. He says their public relationship ended shortly after that filming. He says they are still friends.
In 2016, Ethan married Lisa Heywood, a New York City interior designer in a Jewish ceremony in Vermont. They would spend a "charitable" honeymoon volunteering at a school not far from a Syrian refugee camp in Greece.
"I'm sure you've heard or read stories about what these refugee camps are like. It was horrible. It was an upscale concentration camp as far as I was concerned."
The newlyweds one day got to visit the actual camp. They weren't allowed to because he says they didn't want Americans in there filming, so they snuck in through the back fence with the help of a little school girl. After avoiding authorities, they were able to sneak out the back shed.
"It wasn't the most romantic honeymoon in the world, but we became a lot closer after that. The fun part about that is that we did a flash fundraiser while we were over there, so we raised 64-thousand dollars in 24 hours. We literally took that money out of the bank and we went and bought books , soccer gear and goals, coffee, tea, sugar, milk, hats, gloves and delivered it to the camp the next day. Focusing on the challenges or the plight of other human beings helps you heal as a human being."
This year's Grassroot Soccer World Aids Day Gala is November 30 in New York City. For more information you can go here.
You can see the entire SportsJam conversation with Ethan Zohn here.