Ethan Zohn: 2003 Cover Story

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Bend It Like Zohn
Survivor Grand Prize Winner and Former Pro Soccer Player Ethan Zohn Tells David Rosenberg How He Used His Winnings to Create Grassroots Soccer, A Non-Profit Organization that Raises AIDS Awareness in Zimbabwe

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Stephen Churchill Downes

Ethan Zohn, winner of CBS-TV’s hit reality series Survivor: Africa, remembers the moment when the African AIDS crisis became a personal matter.

It was years earlier, before the nice-guy-finally-wins success story, before the million dollar prize, before using his winnings to help create an international AIDS charity Grassroot Soccer (www.grassrootsoccer.org).

A few years out of college, Ethan was playing soccer in Zimbabwe for the Highlanders team when he and a friend took a drive out into the country. They passed a cemetery with a startling scene. “On one side were all these graves, neatly lined up all in a row, the grounds kept up, and then on the other side there was this devastating section of haphazard graves, crosses and stones piled up every which way.” Ethan later discovered that those graves belonged to those who had died of AIDS.

He soon learned what an important part the taboo status of AIDS played in the mounting deaths in Zimbabwe. The topic was shrouded in shame and silence, much like the early years of the disease in America. One day a young player on the Highlanders team didn’t show up for practice. One day turned into a week which turned into months. No one ever mentioned his absence or his name again, until finally word came back that he had died.

Ethan’s personal experiences are reflected in staggering statistics across the continent. Over seventy-six percent of the world’s AIDS cases occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the last decade, the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe dropped from sixty-three years to thirty-nine years. In Botswana, it is estimated that ninety percent of all children currently aged fifteen and sixteen will be dead from AIDS before they are forty.

When he returned from Zimbabwe, Ethan took a soccer coaching job in New Jersey. On a lark, he and a friend decided to send in an audition tape to Survivor. As fate would have it, the duo only had time to finish Ethan’s tape. Eight hundred finalists became sixteen, and soon Ethan was off to Kenya to compete for a million dollars on national television.

Survivor takes sixteen contestants and places them in a rough survival setting where they battle the elements and each other for thirty-nine days. Every three days, contestants vote off one of their fellow players until there are two remaining. The most recent kicked-off contestants then form a jury to determine the ultimate winner.

Ethan had always been civic-minded, involved in supporting America Scores, which uses sports and literacy to reach inner-city school students, as well as the cancer cure quest due to the death of his father from the disease at fourteen. But it was the question of a fellow “tribesman” during Survivor’s final round that began to focus his thinking.

Both remaining contestants, Ethan and Kim Johnson, were asked by third place finisher Lex van den Berghe what their first selfless act would be if they won the money. “I said I’d probably start an inner city soccer program because I love the sport and knew its potential.”

With nine months between the end of filming and the live broadcast announcement of the winner, Ethan tried to put any thoughts of the million dollars out of his head. When host Jeff Probst announced Ethan’s name, the ability to manifest that selfless act suddenly was a reality. But there were already many youth soccer programs, and he was haunted by the memories of Zimbabwe.

Ethan soon reconnected with former Highlanders player Dr. Tommy Clark, son of famed Dartmouth coach Bobby Clark and a pediatric resident at the University of New Mexico. Together they began working on the concept that was to develop into Grassroots Soccer (GRS).

Because the pandemic’s spread is worsened by cultural myths and misinformation, Ethan and Tommy thought the best hope was creating a new generation of children who were educated about the disease. They also knew their approach had to go far beyond the traditional techniques of disseminating health material.

Soccer is such a central part of daily life in Southern Africa, so they decided to tap its power with a unique proposal: What if they were to train superstar African athletes in the HIV/AIDS curriculum, and let them become the teachers for middle school children? They imagined western counterparts Shaquille O’Neal or superstar soccer player David Beckham showing up to a class of eleven and twelve year-olds to talk about a taboo subject. Ethan and Tommy felt the potential impact could be remarkable.

They enlisted the help of Methembe Ndlovu, a national soccer hero in Zimbabwe who played on the same team with Ethan, and Highlander alumni Kirk Friedrich, who would become the main coordinator in Zimbabwe. A team of board members including physicians, Bobby Clark and former Highlander player/actor Andrew Shue (Melrose Place) was put into place and the organization began to coalesce.

Zimbabwe was designated as the country for the initial pilot project, and the team began going about creating their curriculum. Friedrich explained, “We wanted something innovative, something that used athletics as a component and would be fun for the kids to learn from.” Key was structuring a system that could quantify concrete results.

Educational consultant Lou Bergholz was brought in to develop the impact-based material, and a last minute grant from the Gates Foundation allowed for a remarkable start to the pilot program, less than a year after Grassroots Soccer was just an idea.

The ongoing unstable political climate in Zimbabwe complicated matters. Not only were there government concerns, but a continuing drought had left the country with shortages in goods, in medical supplies, and in petrol. GRS decided to focus on community centers and city council buildings to hold classes, which allowed for less government interference.

In January of 2003 the GRS soccer initiative officially began as an after school program. Ethan, Kirk, and Methembe joined a team of six Highlander players, two women superstar players from the national women’s team, and an American college player volunteer.

GRS facilitates two types of programs?a one-day, ninety-minute seminar, and a longer four-day curriculum with a graduation ceremony at its completion.

The graduation ceremony is seen as key to any long-term success. Once the children go back into their environments, the GRS staff want to ensure they have the tools to empower themselves to make safe sex and health choices. The ceremony gives the class importance, along with a certificate naming the graduate an AIDS expert. Kirk is also presently creating a workbook that the students can take home, complete with photos of the soccer superstars, to facilitate their commitment.

One of the most popular teaching components is called My Supporters, which instills a sense of mentoring and networking. It is a variation on the American “trust” game, where someone stands in the middle of a circle and falls in any direction, knowing that they will be gently caught by the other players and pushed back upright.

Once the trust is experienced, teachers add the HIV/AIDS element. What happens if the person in the center has AIDS or HIV? One person from the circle turns his back on the main player, another walks away in fear, still another refuses to hold him up, and the circle is broken.

Ethan was immediately amazed by the transformation in the children. “You had kids so shy and reserved and, by the end of the classes, here were these young students boldly talking about HIV and AIDS, freely discussing how they would protect themselves and create a support system for staying healthy.” They also spoke movingly of returning home to teach their friends and parents about the disease.

By the end of the program this last summer, Grassroot Soccer had reached over one thousand children.

The second year of the program is already underway in Zimbabwe, including more women’s issues content in the mix. Although there are hopes for expanding the program, funding remains a big concern before the curriculum is taken to other countries.

Now back in America, Ethan is on the college lecture circuit, speaking to students on the topic of character and donating all proceeds to the cause. As for the future, Ethan has huge hopes. Because the GRS curriculum can be adapted anywhere, Ethan envisions the program being used all over Africa someday. “I want to be as big as Bono,” he states, referring to the rock superstar’s global AIDS fight.

It is a lofty goal to strive for that kind of impact on the world AIDS problem, but Ethan Zohn is definitely up to the challenge.


David Rosenberg is an L.A.-based television writer with credits in sitcoms and animated series. He was a Humanitas Prize finalist for his work on the Nickelodeon series Rocket Power, which dealt with disability stereotypes. He is on the national advisory board of Grassroot Soccer, The Teen Canteen (a day shelter in Hollywood for homeless young people), and has worked with The River Fund, which conducts outreach to children with AIDS.

November 2003