Sports

Cutchogue man to play for U.S. team in amputee soccer World Cup

Finding a comfort level playing what is called the fastest game on one leg has been an arduous, slow journey for Jovan Booker. It has been well worth it, though, for the Cutchogue man, who will play for the United States in the amputee soccer World Cup this fall in Turkey.

Mr. Booker, 28, a 2011 Mattituck High School graduate born and raised on the North Fork, was three months old when it was discovered that he had a birth defect. He was missing a tibia in his right leg. Seven months later, the leg was amputated, and Mr. Booker has worn a prosthesis ever since.

That hasn’t stopped him from playing sports, though. Mr. Booker was a member of Mattituck’s varsity basketball team for two seasons, including its Long Island championship season when he was a senior. He also continues to play for Amp1, a stand-up amputee basketball team that plays games throughout the country.

As a youngster, Mr. Booker played for his late father Joseph’s North Fork Soccer League team. “Soccer was my first love,” he said.

Mr. Booker returned to soccer — well, a different version of it anyway — in 2016. His prosthetist had a friend who happened to be the U.S. amputee soccer team’s head coach. Mr. Booker tried out, made the team and thus began a long road.

“In essence, it sounds like the perfect 360, full-circle thing … but the soccer that I was walking into was a completely different sport, to be honest,” he said. “It was a completely different world.”

Amputee soccer is a seven-on-seven outdoor game in which field players are missing one lower extremity and must play without their prosthetic limbs. Goalkeepers are required to be missing one upper extremity and may have both of their legs, but may not leave the penalty area. The field players move about with the aid of custom-made, carbon fiber forearm crutches, which may not be used to play the ball.

“We went in as kind of an underdog, and we knew there were teams we were also capable of beating.”

Jovan Booker

Mr. Booker said “it’s almost like human foosball, if you can think of that.”

Mr. Booker said it took him five years to adjust to playing with a crutch and without his artificial leg. He said it was “an immense challenge.”

Mr. Booker progressed so much that he has won a spot as a starting striker for the U.S., destined to appear in his second World Cup. The first amputee World Cup was in 2018 in Jalisco, Mexico.

Jalisco was also the site for last month’s World Cup qualifying tournament. Three of the five teams in the North and Central American tournament — Haiti, Mexico and the U.S. — earned the right to advance to the big show where the top 24 teams in the world will meet in Turkey Sept. 30-Oct. 9 as part of the World Amputee Football Federation event.

“We did it in pretty epic fashion,” said Mr. Booker, who has scored three goals in 11 career international games. “We went in as kind of an underdog, and we knew there were teams we were also capable of beating.”

The U.S. played four games in four days, tying Costa Rica, 1-1; defeating El Salvador, 1-0, on a Booker header (“That was a pretty spectacular moment for me,” he said); losing to Mexico, 2-1, in an “extremely loud, a hostile environment” (another Booker headed goal); and punching its ticket to Turkey with a 2-1 triumph over Haiti.

“It was honestly one of the biggest wins I ever felt in my life,” Mr. Booker said of the Haiti game, in which he was fouled, leading to the penalty kick that brought the Americans their first goal. He continued: “That win meant more than what it was for the result. It meant more than that … It showed people that this is something to be taken seriously.”

Amputee soccer is physically demanding. “This sport is a total body workout,” Mr. Booker said. “You’re using almost every muscle you have, your upper body, your core, your lower body. It’s like one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.”

Last September, Mr. Booker began working as a part-time wellness coordinator at Peconic Community School in Aquebogue, interacting with students from kindergarten through eighth grade. He has since earned a master’s degree in sports science from Hofstra University and hopes a full-time position is in his near future. In addition, he gives basketball lessons to youngsters ages 8-17 and coaches soccer for North Fork United.

This fall, though, Mr. Booker will be a national team player, one of 15 to represent the U.S. in Turkey.

He said, “It’s honestly been a true blessing and I’m living my own dream come true, to be honest.”

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