Serbia’s loss, Grace’s gain: A tale of two Nikolas

Soccer is in Nikola Blazic’s blood.

The son of a semi-professional goalie, Blazic has dedicated his life to soccer since he was seven years old. This has served him well, as he made the national team at age 10, was the youngest player ever to play in a professional futsol league at age 16, and played on a variety of low-level professional teams.

There is only one problem, though. Blazic is from Serbia. And in Serbia, he could never seem to get a chance to really prove himself.

“Here in America you have options and possibilities to do something if you really want to, but in Serbia you have maybe only one chance and that’s it. I have friends that have gone to college and gotten a degree, but have ended up driving taxi cabs for a living,” Blazic explained.

Blazic needed to get out if he was going to get his chance.

An Unprecedented Journey

Whether it was being benched for older players, being degraded by his coaches, or not being allowed to play because he could not afford it, Blazic was always encouraged to quit playing soccer.

It was at the suggestion of his friend while playing basketball in a school yard that Blazic first had the idea of going to play soccer at a college in the United States. So, Blazic started searching for schools he could play at near Chicago, home to the largest Serb population in America. His search was successful, as it yielded a scholarship to play for Dayton University. Blazic, though, did not get his SAT scores in on time and could not be accepted.

This was only the beginning of Blazic’s unlikely path to Grace.

When Dayton fell through, Blazic’s search continued, only this time he would not come up short. Blazic said that when he saw the pictures on Grace’s website he told himself, “This will be my new home.”

No amount of paperwork for a visa, forms for applying at college, or tests to be able to study abroad could stop him. But his high school transcript almost did.

It was not that Blazic’s grades were poor (he is actually very bright), but when he was at the airport in Serbia ready to go through the American embassy, Blazic realized he had left his transcript at home—a document essential to get in amongst his two-inch stack of other required papers. After an interview with American counsel, though, Blazic told his story and was passed.

So many things had to be worked out for Blazic to get to the United States that worked out smoothly. Blazic knows why.

“It was not just circumstances that got me here. I believe God put me here. Now I see how all along it was just God’s path for my life,” Blazic said.

It is no small feat for Blazic to be at Grace. Three years ago, Blazic’s father was laid off work for a year and a half. Blazic, his sister, and his parents moved in with his grandma, while his mother worked 10 hours a day for $160 a month.

Coming from a war-torn country has not dampered Blazic’s hope.

“I have a strong will and no one can stop me,” he said.
“Never in my life have I wanted to be the best, just a chance to show myself because I know I can do well.”

Blazic is here, and Grace is better because of it.

Just like a Movie

In many ways, America is a dream come true for Blazic.

Soccer head coach Matt Hotchkin remembers taking Blazic out to eat after picking him up from the airport last August.

As they were pulling up to the drive-thru, Hotchkin asked Blazic what he wanted to eat. After being told what they had, Blazic decided on a chicken sandwich, but was staring out of the window with a fascinated look the whole time.

Hotchkin explained, “The whole time I’m ordering, he is staring across at me with this smile on his face. I finally asked him, ‘Nikola, what is going on?’ and he said, ‘Coach, I feel like I’m in a movie, because that’s the only place I’ve seen a drive-thru before.’”

Welcome to America.

A New Opportunity

It is hard to imagine what Blazic’s life would look like without sports.

If soccer were not in Blazic’s blood, he would certainly not be at Grace College right now. For Blazic, being in America is an opportunity to finally show himself after being held back for years. Whether he is cleaning classrooms at 6 a.m. to help pay for school or enjoying playing with new soccer equipment, Blazic considers himself blessed.

“Ever since I’ve come here, only good things have happened. It’s like a dream come true,” said Blazic. “I can never really explain to my teammates what a privilege it is to play on that soccer field.”

A simple piece of advice Blazic’s father told him years ago was “always believe in yourself.” In all the challenges Blazic has faced, he never forgot it.

And he never will.

By Zane Gard

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Nearly four years ago, Grace College gained a Serbian player that would forever change the tennis team, and a Serbian tennis player gained a college which would forever change his life.

A Perfect Fit

In 2008, a Serbian named Nikola Todorovic began looking for a school to attend and play tennis for. Wanting to have an opportunity for a successful career, he knew he needed to go to school in the United States. After finding a random list of colleges online, he started emailing coaches.

After his research, Todorovic decided that he would play Division I tennis as Mississippi State University and pursue a career as a film director. Still, for some reason he kept in touch with a coach from a small college in northern Indiana. Unknown to Todorovic was that school’s tennis team had just ended its season without a conference win for the fourth consecutive year.

Todorovic credits head coach Larry Schuh with his coming to Grace.

“Coach Schuh was very persistent in emailing and seemed to be a man of integrity who genuinely cared about me as a person rather than just me as a player on his team. If it weren’t for his persistence, I probably would not be here right now,” Todorovic explained.

Many international students want to play at the collegiate level, but unfortunately most never get the opportunity because they need too much scholarship money. Schuh said that he pursued Todorovic because of his willingness to work hard to pay his tuition.

“I was looking for some good, hardworking players to start building the team because at that time we were the welcome mat that everyone wiped their feet on at conference matches. I watched a video he posted on YouTube of a tennis match he played in and I knew he would be a great fit for the team,” Schuh added.

Little did Schuh know how good of a fit it would be.

Adjusting to America

When he first came to Grace, Todorovic experienced an expected culture shock.

There was, of course, getting used to the fact that people in the United States do not walk everywhere and finding out that Americans are not as liberal as Serbians. Perhaps many people at Grace overestimated the adjustments he would have to make.

Questions like “Do they have phones in Serbia?” and “Have you ever eaten pizza before?” (yes and yes) became staples in conversation. Yet Todorovic was sure to have fun with this. He laughed as he remembered the time when he told a girl that because of war in Serbia all the radiation caused him to be born with two hearts—and she believed him.

Aside from social culture shock, however, there was another kind of shock—spiritual culture shock.

“The Christian atmosphere at Grace is unlike anything that I had ever been around,” Todorovic said. “In Serbia, the brand of Christianity that we have here at Grace would be considered a cult. It was so good for me to be here, though, because I grew so much from the Bible studies that coach did with our team.”

Schuh, a pastor for eight years before he started coaching, explained that his responsibility as a Christian leader is to impact his players in light of the Gospel. Through season-long Bible studies, Schuh’s aim is to have each player mature in Christ. Todorovic said that these Bible studies have impacted him deeply and pushed him to grow in his faith.

One of the Guys

Now two years removed from his freshman year at Grace, Todorovic has come a long way. From once being a player who would consistently get very frustrated to a player who Schuh now praises for managing his emotions, Todorovic has become better on the court.

In 2009, his freshman year, Todorovic made it to the #2 singles championship in the MCC tournament, finishing 11-4 overall and being named to the all-conference team. This year, after a disappointing sophomore season, Todorovic has bounced back with a 7-2 record in singles match play.

Despite these successes, Todorovic’s biggest impact has been off the tennis court.

A new culture and new community did not stop Todorovic from becoming an instant fixture on the team, which Todorovic described as “more than just a bunch of guys who go to matches and practices together.” Todorovic’s electric personality, humor, and attitude drive the tennis team and add diversity to the Lancers.

Todorovic’s friend and doubles partner for the past three years, Michael Blevins, said that the team loves Todorovic as much as he loves them, saying, “Nikola is by far the funniest person on the team whoalways knows how to cheer someone up if they are down. His impact is one of the most important to how our team performs. If his attitude is good and he plays well, we win 99 percent of the time.”

Despite being one of the most unlikely athletes to come to Grace, Todorovic has made a profound impact on the men’s tennis team. With over a year and a half to go, though, he is far from finished at Grace. More laughs, encouragement, and victories are sure to follow.

Good thing he did not end up in Mississippi.

By Ashley Mazelin

These two stories were published in the October 6 issue of Grace’s student newspaper, The Sounding Board.

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