Kudumovic and the ‘impossible dream’

Alen Kudumovic ’03 didn’t hesitate when he called it the “impossible dream.”

He was sitting on the Mount Mercy campus, with Amir Hadzic ’10, his former soccer coach. Smooth-faced with a shaved head, and as exuberant as an underclassman, Kudumovic, 37, had just listened to Hadzic detail the long ordeal that led both of them to the United States from war-torn Saravejo in what was once known as Yugoslavia (now Bosnia).

They had traveled only months apart through a Croatian refugee camp nearly 15 years ago and finally settled into a much better life in  Iowa and at Mount Mercy.

On July 1, 2010, Kudumovic took over the duties as the Director of Coaching at the prestigious Cedar River Soccer Association, headquartered in Cedar Rapids. It is the culmination of a lifetime of work in soccer with youngsters who embrace the sport. After enrolling at Mount Mercy in 1999, Kudumovic became the school’s first NAIA soccer all-American and his name is all over Mount Mercy statistical record books. He joins other former Mustang players coached by Hadzic who moved on to great things in soccer.

“That’s not uncommon for our Mount Mercy soccer program,” Hadzic said. “We have, currently, 13 (graduates) who are head coaches across the nation, and we take great pride in that. It’s a big thing for us that we not only (have) people graduate who play soccer while they are here, but they continue being passionate about soccer and they spread that passion.”

But Kudumovic’s story is special. It is one of those heart-breaking tales that he related with no sadness or regret. In fact, pure joy inflected his voice as he recalled his early years in the United States. Kudumovic came to this country in November of 1995 as a refugee from Bosnia.

He and his wife, Adisa, spent their first two years in Des Moines. They moved to Iowa City in 1997. He began coaching soccer at Iowa City’s City High School in 1998 and moved to Cedar Rapids two years later when both he and Adisa enrolled at Mount Mercy. It was a frantic time, but Alen and Adisa — a nursing student — fell in love with Mount Mercy and Cedar Rapids. “It was a special time, for sure,” Kudumovic said. “It was a very busy time in my life … but it was a very exciting time.”

Hadzic, Mount Mercy’s men’s head coach, related this story of a conversation he had with the Kudumovics when they were contemplating the move from Des Moines to eastern Iowa. “I said, ‘Guys, one day — Alen and Adisa — you both come here and study at Mount Mercy, and Alen, you play soccer and become an all-American, and Adisa, you go back to nursing and you teach nursing one day, and you buy a little house (near) Mount Mercy.’”

It didn’t take long for Hadzic’s words to become prophetic. Alen and Adisa both enrolled at Mount Mercy in 1999, Alen became the school’s first soccer all-American, and they bought a little house not far from campus. “To come to where Alen is right now, thinking to where he was when he came here as a refugee with two bags of belongings and barely speaking English, it is a tremendous accomplishment,” says Hadzic. In Kudumovic’s words, it was the “impossible dream.” He said he owes it all to Hadzic.

“His friendship means a lot to me,” Kudumovic said. “I had a choice to go to the University of Iowa but a really friendly face here really meant a lot to us, both my wife and me, and to go to Mount Mercy was a great experience for us.” Kudumovic, his wife and Hadzic were born and raised in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, which later became part of Bosnia. As civil war raged around them, they played and coached soccer, including at “underground” locations while under siege in Sarajevo. Hadzic escaped from Sarajevo in December 1994 and he landed in a refugee camp in Croatia, very close to the Italian border. Kudumovic wound up at the same camp a short time later.

“It was kind of like destiny,” Hadzic said. Hadzic spent eight months at the refugee camp. Kudumovic was there for a year. Hadzic arrived in the United States in July 1995 and Kudumovic followed him in November 1995. “We knew each other back in Sarajevo,” Kudumovic said. “We are both from the same town, and we both played on the same team. He was older than me so he was kind of my mentor. I was the youngest player on the team … and he was really a friendly face to be around.”

Kudumovic first became involved with the Cedar Rapids-based Heartland Soccer Club while a student at Mount Mercy and worked with the club from 2000-03. He was the head soccer coach at Iowa City’s City High School for two years, then moved on to the Cedar River Soccer Association after graduating from Mount Mercy with a degree in business administration in 2003. The

CRSA now has about 400 members, and Kudumovic is in charge of bringing all the members and their conflicting schedules together. “The big part of it is making it work for everybody,” Kudumovic said. “The director of coaching is about setting up a philosophy of the club. Our board of directors, which is made up of (the players’) parents, supports that philosophy and making policies. I work in conjunction with the board of directors on making things better.”

Shaun Howe, the out-going director of coaching at CRSA, sent a letter to member families when he announced he would be leaving the post and sang Kudumovic’s praises. “I’ve been around a lot of coaches over the years, and I have never seen one better than Alen,” Howe wrote. “With years of coaching experience and a professional playing background in Europe and the United States, he clearly knows soccer and how to teach the game to kids.  More importantly, Alen possesses the highest level of integrity. He is the most principled and disciplined person I have ever been around. Alen has a rare and special ability to push the kids to new levels while making it very clear he cares about them as people.”

The CRSA is recognized as one of the top clubs in the state and Midwest. According to Kudumovic, CRSA has more former players playing at NCAA Division I soccer programs than any club in Iowa. When asked to reflect on Kudumovic’s playing days at Mount Mercy (and even earlier in Sarajevo), Hadzic didn’t hesitate in his assessment.

“Alen was the smartest player we ever had,” Hadzic said. “He didn’t just use his soccer skills, he was always thinking. For him, it was always like a chess game. He would always be a step ahead of his opponents.” Kudumovic’s commitment to CRSA, Hadzic and Mount Mercy is a full-time job. He and Adisa have made Cedar Rapids their home, even as they moved from that small house near campus.