Kids who grew up in George Town’s roughest neighborhood back in the 1970s didn’t hear much talk about graduate degrees and office jobs. Life there was a little closer to the ground and a lot more immediate.
In 1979 one of those boys, a nervous 13 year-old, suited up to represent his country in a football match. The standard script called for a few years of fun and fleeting glory on the field followed by a life filled with bad decisions and consequences. But this skinny little boy had different ideas. He wanted a better ending for his story.
On Saturday night at Pedro St. James, Lee Ramoon got that happy ending. The former national team captain was awarded the Centennial Order of Merit, a rare award from FIFA for outstanding contributions to the game of football. Out of the many millions connected to the sport, only 204 people earned the award worldwide. Other winners of the award include: Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Valderrama and Johan Cruyff.
George Weah, a former FIFA World Player of the Year and current presidential candidate for Liberia, presented the award to Ramoon before an invitation-only crowd of some 300 dignitaries, friends and family members. Fittingly, it was also Ramoon’s 40th birthday.
Weah is a rare superstar who has transcended impressive on-field accomplishments by working to improve the lives of millions in Liberia, a country whose people have suffered severely from civil war, corruption and poverty.
‘It is an honor for me to have been asked to be here out of all the other people who could have been asked,’ said Weah. He cited Ramoon’s success as a role model as the key to his greatness as a football player. On stage, Weah embraced Ramoon and then pinned the medal on him. Weah also invited Ramoon to play in his farewell match scheduled for this summer.
Ramoon then took the podium and proceeded to give a stirring acceptance speech. He delivered it without reading cards, without leaning on clichés. He spoke as if he were speaking to a friend in a quiet corner.
‘When I heard about this award, my first thought was that I’m not worthy of it,’ he said. ‘It’s overwhelming for me to be here getting this award. I’m a simple person. I just wanted to have a good time and try to look out for my fellow man. I am honored.
‘You don’t know where I come from,’ he continued. ‘It was all drugs and kids wanting to be gangsters. Well, I didn’t want to be a gangster; I wanted to be a footballer.
‘As a parent, I say get your kids involved in sports, any sport. It teaches them discipline and it keeps them off the streets. We have to protect our children. That’s what life is about. Don’t turn your back on these kids. If you do, then one day they will be robbing your house.’
Finally, Ramoon thanked all the players and coaches who helped him along the path. And, of course, he thanked his mother, Jean, most of all. ‘To my mom, I love you.’
The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
The night air was filled with praise for Ramoon, both the player and the man.
‘His performance on the field and off the field has made him an icon in these islands,’ said Jeffrey Webb, president of the Cayman Islands Football Association.
‘The consistent display and output by Lee has taken him to the highest levels a footballer could dream of achieving. The name Lee Ramoon is now within the hallowed halls of FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. To many Caymanians, Lee is a symbol of Caymanian pride and achievement, and his symbolism lies in the fact that Caymanians can shine in the global sphere.’
Webb surveyed some of the highlights of Ramoon’s remarkable career. He was one of the first Caymanians to receive a football scholarship to a US university and earned All-American honours there. He earned a master’s degree in economics in the UK and while there played on a semi-pro team that competed in the English FA Cup. He is now the director of the Revenue Unit for government.
‘He is certainly an icon in Cayman football,’ echoed McKeeva Bush, Cayman’s leader of government business and a former minister for sports. ‘Lee has been an encouragement to many people in many sports. I often hear people in other sports using him as a positive example. Lee Ramoon has shown us that while small, we are capable of producing top-quality players and well-rounded individuals.’
‘He has meant everything to Cayman football,’ said Winston Chung who coached Ramoon early in his career. He cited the hard work of Ramoon’s mother, Jean, as well.
‘We must also think about a woman named Jean Ramoon, coming from behind, around the back, raising all those kids without a father and now they have university degrees and are professionals. She did it and you never heard her complaining. I think they saw her strength. She is the hero in this. She is the hero.’
‘Lee has been the anchor, the stability, the direction and the purpose and the ethics of Cayman football,’ said Cayman Islands Sports Minister Frank McField.
”He has done a lot for the sport in Cayman,’ said Dalton Watler, Cayman Islands director of sports. ‘What he has done for us is very valuable.’
‘Lee was always an inspiration,’ said Neil Murray, a star midfielder who played with Ramoon in numerous national team matches as well as with Strikers FC, the former George Town powerhouse that once dominated domestic football. ‘He did incredible things on the field and he brought leadership to the team. Even when we were down we could always rely on Lee for something positive. Overall, it was a thrill playing with someone as great as him.
‘He was an excellent player, man,’ said Lloyd ‘Stoka’ Ramoon. ‘Whenever we were down he would come alive and just show us how to come alive. I’m extra happy for him. He put a lot of hard work into this.’
‘Lee meant a lot to young footballers and to Cayman on a whole because he was very dedicated to the sport,’ said Kennedy Kelly, former national team manager. ‘He got his education through football and he has given back. As far as I am concerned, he is a role model for Cayman football. Sports help to create a healthy mind and healthy body. Lee is proof of that.’
Jack Warner, the head of CONCACAF and a FIFA vice president, said that Ramoon has ‘elevated this country to a level unprecedented with his accomplishment.’ He added that Ramoon will be an inspiration for others to come.
The award banquet was organized by the Ministry of Sport and the Cayman Islands Football Association.