Mithsaika Napoleon is electricity. Blessed with the pace and trickery of an out-and-out winger and the scavenging eye for goal of a center forward, she is that rare kind of soccer player who possess a visual gravity field that vacuums up eyeballs whenever the ball is at her feet, passing the eye test — the sport’s definitive hallmark of quality — with flying colors. She’s totally at ease being the only woman on the field, as when she invited me, a total stranger, to a pickup game, which she played with dancing, audacious feet.
In a word, Napoleon’s game is like her life: undaunted.
That’s because her story is larger than life, larger than her 5’4” athletic frame adorned with tattoos and piercings, larger than the flashing smile that will sneak across her face and onto yours. But as she would tell you, as a refugee-turned-coach, her story is very much a product of Starfinder, a Manayunk-based nonprofit that uses soccer as a tool to help kids from low-income families create better lives and futures off the field.
Starfinder began in 2002 as a weeklong soccer summer camp for 23 Philadelphia children. Today they’ve served over 12,000 area kids, from elementary school through college, while run almost entirely by its own alumni. Starfinder students speak 12 first languages, come from 18 countries, and participate in activities ranging from low-commitment drop-in games to a demanding, five-plus-month high school intensive that teaches leadership development and mentorship.
It was this program that changed Napoleon’s life.
“They saw me as a student and as a player, but really, the entire me, the entire person I was becoming. Coach Nadia told me, ‘I think you can take more advanced classes that can challenge you,'” says Mithsaika Napoleon.
Born in Haiti, Napoleon moved to Philly in 2013, three years after an earthquake devastated the half-island. A high school freshman, she, like her parents, spoke no English, and struggled to find belonging and a sense of confidence. Then, when she was a junior at Olney High School, Starfinder staff showed up to one of her soccer games — and her life turned.
By her senior year, Napoleon was class president, a speaker at her graduation, and a Division 1 soccer commit at Harcum College. Today, she has a Masters in psychology and works at Starfinder as a coach and mentor.
Kai Englisch: What was your first experience with Starfinder?
Mithsaika Napoleon: When I first started with Starfinder, I did not think that it was going to change my life the way it did. I thought it was going to be a soccer club, that we were just going to be running around playing soccer. When I was in Haiti, that’s what I wanted to do 24 hours, all day long.
Well, little did I know. I had no idea what I was in for until Coach Nadia and Coach Sam told me, “This isn’t a soccer club. This is a program.” The first couple of weeks we did not really play soccer, and I wanted to leave to be honest.
But the thing about Starfinder was that I never felt like an outsider. I felt like we were family from the moment I came. Before Starfinder, I did not feel like I was accepted by anyone, to be honest. I felt like I was living in four walls, like in a box. After I found Starfinder, it gave me that sense that I was there too, they could just see me.
They saw me as a student and as a player, but really, the entire me, the entire person I was becoming. Coach Nadia told me, “I think you can take more advanced classes that can challenge you.”
“I made so many mistakes at Starfinder that they should have kicked me out. I gave excuses after excuses,” says Napoleon.
When you’re an immigrant, you know a lot more than you can speak. I felt like my school was never understanding of that. But Starfinder provided me with tutoring options, Starfinder asked me to be concise — to slow down.
Starfinder was like, If you can speak, you can write. If you can write, you can do the work.
Tell me about high school graduation.
It’s a crazy story. Once I started at Starfinder and started to speak more, the teachers would help me. I used to go to school late. By senior year, I had so many responsibilities that I’d come into school before every other student.
The principal approached me and was like, “We need someone to speak. We want you.”
I had a lot of tassels. I took a step forward when I talked about my experience at the school at graduation, how I did not like it at first, then I started liking it.
Can you imagine the way my parents felt? For me, I saw the opportunity. I was afraid of going after it, but it was exactly what I wanted.
Why do you think Starfinder was able to reach you in such a profound way?
Each player has a mentor that they can talk to. They really know your weaknesses and your strengths. They’re not faking it; it’s real. They care, because they were you, so of course they’re gonna give everything.
Some places expect you to be amazing at all you do. But at Starfinder, the expectation is that you become you. That you make mistakes, that you fail, because if you don’t fail, then you don’t know what to work on. I made so many mistakes at Starfinder that they should have kicked me out. I gave excuses after excuses.
If I did not have Starfinder, I would not have even graduated from high school. I tore my ACL in 2017, when I was a senior and class president. I went into a deep depression. It was like everything was taken away from me. I wanted to give up. But I couldn’t. That wasn’t an option for me.
“I look at the players that I used to coach. Now they’re taller than me. They’ll be like, ‘Coach, I’ll smoke you,'” says Napoleon.
“Can you believe that your own player wants to smoke you? Well, that’s the goal. That’s the dream.”
With Starfinder, they collect your report card, so after I went to training, I had to go study. I had Coach Sam and Coach Nadia tell me, “Get it together.” For me, as a young adult growing up … I needed that honesty.
When I was depressed, I was cutting myself. My mom didn’t even know about that. I couldn’t tell that to her, because then I’d be in even bigger trouble than I was to begin with.
But I could tell the coaches. They could see it, they would ask me what’s going on. Even if I didn’t want to tell them, they would be like Ok, tell us when you’re ready. It’s not letting it go, giving the person time, but reminding them that these things need to be talked about.
Depression does that. Anxiety does that to you. Mental issues are real. They require listening. They require doing the work daily. And really, they require having someone you can trust.
How is life as a coach and mentor?
I look at the players that I used to coach. Now they’re taller than me. You never stop being their coach. They’ll be like, “Coach you remember that move that I was working on? I got it down!” “Coach, I’ll smoke you.”
Can you believe that your own player wants to smoke you? Well, that’s the goal. That’s the dream. It’s just like a mother wants their child to surpass them and be better than them.
You become a part of that child’s life, part of that adult’s life. Just like Coach Sam, Coach Nadia — I can name all the coaches that touched my life. They became a part of my story. That’s richer than money. That’s beyond rich. Changing lives.
I have never seen a bad kid in my program that I’m coaching. They have good hearts. They will shock you. They will say things that will make you say, Wow.
I would not want someone to make the mistakes that I made. I was the kid that didn’t want to talk because I believed that my English was not ever good enough. But if I see kids that don’t want to talk, I’ll be like “Speak, whatever you can say. Because it does matter, your voice. Everything you do matters.”
I’m also not going to be that person saying “Oh, go to college! Don’t do drugs! Don’t do this or that!” I’ll be the person that’ll tell them “Make sure you mess up. Make sure you fail. And make sure you get back up.”
We coaches, our job is not to force … to tell them don’t do this, don’t do that. Our job is to be there no matter what they do. Our job is to make them see their mistakes and then correct them.
Where do you see yourself now?
I’ve learned that this is actually, My. Own. Life. That’s better than anything. It felt like a hole. But now it’s the opposite of that.
It feels like every pain, every wound that was there in the past is healing. I feel like I can breathe, and I’m happy. I love myself. I have a tattoo that says “self love.”
I’m rich. I’m like that bird, who flies wherever I go. I fly, and I shine.
MORE INSPIRING TRUE STORIES FROM THE CITIZENMithsaika Napoleon, Photo by Chloe Geiger of JPG Photography and Veracity Studios