Garden City Place Kicker Becomes an American

Berin Lacevic, one of the highest scoring junior college place kickers in the nation with Garden City Community College during the 2000 season, became an American citizen several months ago at the Federal Court House in Wichita, Kansas.

He was one of 108 people naturalized, but his path to becoming an American, and a college football place kicker, is an amazing story about overcoming personal tragedy.

It was . . . a typical Sunday in January, 1993, on the brick streets of Sarajevo.  Light mortar and rocket fire had been reported from the surrounding hills of this modern European city as the Lacevic family gathered their Jerry cans for the two-kilometer trek to water.  Once the home of the winter Olympics, the infrastructure of Sarajevo had long since been reduced to rubble, and drinking water for the city of several hundred thousand was only available from the twisted pipes of an old bottling plant.  The mangled plumbing had been forced through the brick walls of the battered building and left running to provide continuous access for Sarajevo's war torn residents.

It was a big day for 11-year-old Berin, as he accompanied his father, mother and sister on the trip.  Berin was getting older, and this day marked the first time his parents had asked him to come along -- helping assume part of the responsibility of providing for the needs of the family.  Carrying water such a distance could be quite a heavy ordeal, but it was necessary to sustain life.

As they arrived at their destination, and without warning, a single mortar shell fired by the Serbian army outside the city found its mark, striking the wall of the bottling plant six feet above the heads of the Lacevic family.  Berin's mother, a dental hygienist, and his father, a bookstore owner, were killed instantly.  As Berin reeled from the impact of the explosion, his sister hit the ground in serious injury -- 32 pieces of shrapnel imbedded in her body.  Berin could feel the pain of wounds to his head, and to his foot, but he couldn't think.  Why had this happened?  He reached out to his mother, but she was not moving.

Within seconds, ambulances and television crews were on the scene, swarming through the smoke and destruction of this singular act of terror.  Berin's sister, Delila, was rushed to a hospital in critical condition.  Berin stood alone -- crying for his family -- as his image was simultaneously beamed around the world by CNN, and ABC News.

Within minutes, on the other side of the globe, a Kansas man and woman watched in anguish as the young Bosnian boy sobbed in pain.  They were touched, and the woman did what few of us would do in a similar situation – she placed a call to Peter Jennings of ABC News, and inquired how they could help.  This was the beginning of a laborious process to rescue the boy from a war that had unjustly placed him as a victim in its path.  

Sarajevo was without power, and messages were best transmitted to the ABC correspondent team by generator-supported fax machines at the front line.  The fax signals from the United States were beamed off a ship in the Atlantic, and the ship had to be in the right position for the message to get through.  The initial request, asking for permission to help Berin, triggered a series of events (spanning nearly a year's time) including gaining the approval of the United States government, the city of Sarajevo, the world children refugee commission, the United Nations, and support from the U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia, and the White House.  Month by month steps were taken, signatures and authorizations were gained, and eventually plans were made for Berin's evacuation.

This was more difficult task than calling a cab.  In an early pre-dawn humanitarian operation, and at the direct request of Senator Bob Dole, of Kansas, Berin was driven by a convoy of armored vehicles through five enemy checkpoints by the United States Marines to meet the Ambassador at the Sarajevo airport – some distance from his home downtown.  When Berin arrived, Serbian military forces initially denied him access to the U.N. plane waiting on the runway for his departure.  In a heroic move, the U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia grabbed the boy's hand, and led him to the plane, telling the Serbs "Shoot us in the back if you must, but this boy and I are boarding that plane."

From Sarajevo, the pair flew to the Adriatic coastal town of Split in Croatia and called the Kansas couple, who boarded a commercial flight in Kansas City for the U.S. Embassy in Frankfurt, Germany-- the pre-established rendezvous point.  Thus begun Berin's journey to America . . . to a new home, a new extended family, and a new way of life.

When he arrived, Berin could say, "Hi, Tom!" and he recognized the names of Madonna, Michael Jordan, and his favorite celebrity, Hulk Hogan.  He would nod his head and smile, under a mop of jet-black hair.  He collected flashlights, wherever he could find them.  We quickly recognized how important the simplest of things -- a flashlight-- was to a young man from a war situation.  Young Berin continued to wear his long underwear day and night out of habit . . . in Sarajevo, when the sun set in the late winter afternoon -- day was over.  There was no longer light, nor heat, nor electricity, and little food or water.  This place, America, offered all the conveniences life had to offer, most importantly—safety and freedom.  Even a simple, warm bath was a thing of luxury.

It was early December, 1993, in Salina, Kansas.  The houses were brightly lit with multi-colored lights in celebration of Christmas, and food was plentiful.  Soft drinks that had sold for $20 on the black market in Sarajevo (if one could afford them) were in plentiful supply here.  Berin and his family had eaten dried rice and canned beans for a long period of time . . . and Berin wanted nothing to do with those foods.  And there were presents under the tree.

Berin started sixth grade at mid-year not knowing any English.  Through tutoring and with the help of his classmates, he made the honor roll by middle school.  But another activity was slowly becoming a part of his life -- football.  The Salina school system had no organized soccer program at that time, so the woman made another important call -- this time a call for help to Jan Stenerud, the Hall of Fame place kicker of the Kansas City Chiefs.  When Jan heard Berin's story, he immediately agreed to teach Berin how to kick, and their first meeting took place on a golf course in Kansas City – kicking the football down the fairway.  Berin's pals Tate Hancock (University of Montana running back), Mike Wilson (Garden City Community College's long snapper), and Griff Moshier encouraged Berin to join their Salvation Army league football team.  He was a skinny little guy, but he loved being part of the team, and Berin eventually helped them to a city championship.

High school was challenging academically, but Berin worked hard to learn English, and keep up with the others.  Berin trained further on kicking with Sean Snyder at Kansas State, and at John Jett's camp in Texas. He continued to condition, build strength in his kicking leg, and develop his timing.

Berin's senior year at Salina Central, the Mustang football team under Coach Marvin Diener went undefeated as State 5A Champions in Kansas, and Berin nearly broke the Kansas single season scoring mark for place kickers.  As a freshman at Garden City Community College this past year, Berin tied for third in the nation in scoring in the NJCAA with 78 points.  His no-time-on-the-clock 36 yard field goal on a sanded down field in sub-freezing temperatures against Butler County Community College propelled the Busters into overtime, and toward the eventual championship of the Jayhawk Conference.  Berin's only loss as a varsity kicker in his entire football career happened this past December with the Broncbusters losing to Glendale Community College in post-season play, 13-7.


Berin achieves US citizenship

Berin regularly kicks 55-60 yard field goals in practice, and has improved his distance on kickoffs dramatically over the past two years.  His work ethic and dedication in school and kicking are unparalleled, and he has become a fine young man, with dreams of kicking in the NFL someday.  A betting person would find much longer shots out there.  Berin will complete his sophomore year at Garden City this year, and is very excited about the 2001 team.  Garden City head coach Bob Larson says, "Berin is becoming more than a kicker, he is a team leader.  He is kicking with great confidence and maturity, and we can tell that he has improved his strength and distance in the off-season."  Berin is considering his Division 1 options for next season, but he is very focused on helping this Garden City squad get back to being the top ranked team in the NJCAA.

Most importantly, last semester Berin earned a 3.80 G.P.A. at GCCC — quite an accomplishment for a young man who a few years ago knew a handful of English words.

Berin's sister, Delila, survived her wounds and followed Berin to America with the help and assistance of Senator Byron L. Dorgan, of North Dakota—a tremendous individual.    Delila lives in Michigan now, marrying a man who saw her on TV during one of the television accounts of Berin's journey.  Berin's older twin cousins, Adnan and Amer, immigrated the next year to America as political refugees to complete their high school education.  Both are seniors now at the University of Kansas.  And Berin and Jan Stenerud remain good friends.

Oh, the man and the woman who brought Berin to America?  They're my parents, Roy and Suzanne Wilbur, from Salina, Kansas.  Dad's a successful contractor, and Mom, a caring housewife who's persistent with a phone.  When they made the decision to help Berin, they were in their early 60's, had raised two grown sons, and didn't exactly need a teenager in the house.  The decision had inherent risks.  But they were determined to help this young Bosnian boy – an image of whom they had seen for a few seconds on a television news broadcast.  Mom and Dad have never attempted to replace Berin's real parents, but are known to Berin as "Grandma" and "Grandpa".  And Berin is now a brother to my kids, Brock and Brooke – they love each other very much.

Berin and Tom

Berin and Tom Wilbur

I have seen first-hand what it means to reach out to someone in trouble, and to show compassion to someone you've never met.  It's a wonderful lesson to learn.  Hopefully, by reading about Berin, you'll be inspired to do the same-- and recognize that no matter where someone lives in this vast world of ours, you can make a difference in their life, as well.

Tom Wilbur is the President of Security Savings Bank, in Salina, Kansas, and has written numerous articles on sports, and life.  He is a graduate of the University of Kansas, and says that he loves junior college football . . .

You can correspond with him by e-mail at ---


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