Maybe it’s their shared love of soccer, their admiration for Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo, or maybe it’s simply that the pair saw a piece of themselves in each other despite their seven-year age gap.
On Friday, July 22, Issa was playing soccer with his teammates from the Hilltop Tiger Soccer Club, part of MY Project USA, a nonprofit focused on fighting against gang violence.
A group approached the boys looking for one of Issa’s teammates, according to Zerqa Abid, president of MY Project USA.
The teens argued on the field and someone pulled out a gun, and a shot hit Issa, Abid said. The shooting happened just before 10:30 pm, according to police. It’s clear how many shots were fired.
“This is a community loss, this is not just a family loss,” Abid said. “Issa has taken a piece of our hearts with him and we are in mourning.”
Ali Jeylani, 22, is also a coach with the Hilltop Tigers Soccer Club but was on a different part of the field when the shooting took place. He was getting ready to leave the chaos when he realized Issa wasn’t with him. By the time he found Issa, his younger brother had a gunshot wound and was bleeding profusely from his chest, Jeylani said.
Two other teens were hurt in the incident, Maureen Kocot with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office told CNN. One suffered a gunshot wound but is expected to make a full recovery and another suffered minor injuries in the chaos following the shooting.
The organization aims “to protect and empower our youth and families” and “uplift underprivileged, crime-ridden neighborhoods” through community programs, like the Hilltop Tiger Soccer Club, according to its website.
“Right now, we’re trying to process everything, but we are having family talks and getting closer as a family,” Jeylani told CNN. “He didn’t deserve this; he really just wanted to play soccer.”
Abid has known the Jeylani family for several years and became close with Issa because he volunteered with the nonprofit.
For as much as the nonprofit does to protect and empower the youth and the community from gangs and gun violence, Abid said losing Issa in this way is heartbreaking.
Leading by example on and off the field
Issa, who would have turned 16 next month, had big plans. He wanted to go to college and continue to play soccer.
Issa would often talk about his goals with his older brother during their chats at home, Jeylani said. Not only was Ali a brother to Issa, he was his confidante, his soccer coach and his mentor in one.
“Everybody in the house I would get mad at for coming in my room, but when he comes in my room, I can’t get mad, I just let him stay and we would chill,” Jeylani said.
Issa may have been the smallest player on the soccer field but he played with the biggest heart, Ali Jeylani said.
James Fredrickson coached four Jeylani brothers, including Ali and Issa, at the Ohio Premier Soccer Club in the suburbs of Columbus.
Through relationships in the soccer club community, Hilltop Tigers connects players they think can play at a more advance level with clubs like Ohio Premier Soccer Club, which is how the Jeylani brothers were coached under Fredrickson’s wing.
“We have some donors that sponsor these kids to come to practice,” he said, “and go to events that they normally would not have been able to go to.”
One of his favorite memories of Issa’s character was off the field during a tournament in Indianapolis last year.
After the evening’s game had wrapped up, Fredrickson and the four boys he was chaperoning went into a Red Robin for dinner when Issa saw a group of special needs diners leaving. As they shuffled out the door, Issa held the door open but noticed one woman was left behind.
Instead of focusing on getting his dinner, Issa approached the van that was backing out of the parking lot without one of its members and alerted them.
“Had Issa not acted so quickly, that could have been really bad, who knows? Fredrickson said.
“And we all talked about that night … how we looked at other places, and how we just kind of felt like, God had maybe put us there for that purpose that night.”
As a soccer player, Fredrickson said, Issa was skilled and crafty with the ball.
“We’re all devastated,” he said. “It’s so tragic.”
Worrying for the safety of other youth
“One debate the whole nation is going through is why these people or anybody who doesn’t need guns, has guns,” Abid said. “So that’s one question but on the top, MY Project USA has seen that when we do the right programming, we can keep our children away from gangs and guns and we have proven that.”
And now, Abid worries for the safety of the other youth in her programs and says the entire community needs to take a stance to prevent future violence.
“Issa’s case really highlighted for me that doing it just for few might not be enough; we have to do it with a holistic approach for all of us.”
After taking a few weeks off from coaching, Jeylani plans to return to coaching at the Hilltop Tiger Soccer Club in an effort to do his part to protect the youth in his community. He feels like that’s what Issa would have wanted.
“I don’t want them (players) to feel like they’re not safe and just do the best I can to coach them, get their mind off stuff from home and make them want to do better and achieve their dreams.”
And even though Issa won’t be knocking on his brother’s bedroom door for their sibling chats, Jeylani knows his brother hasn’t gone far.
“We still feel like he’s here. He’s in our hearts,” he said.