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Not saying goodbye | Longtime Mercer Island coach prepares to head home
Zeke Halilovic is adamant he is not saying goodbye. It’s more of a long “see you later.”
The longtime soccer coach and trainer on Mercer Island has been an Island fixture in the soccer community for the past eight years, but he will be returning home to Switzerland next month.
“I’m sad to leave, but I’m telling myself I’ll go home for a year and then come back,” said Halilovic. “I’m coming back; don’t write me off. It’s been a great experience. I came here when I was 26 years old after playing professionally and moved all around, so this is kind of my first station that I really think of as home. I have great friends on Mercer Island, and it’s something I will always cherish. To me this is the first home feeling that I’ve built with my family together.”
Halilovic has touched thousands of lives over the course of his time on the Island, helping many children become not only solid soccer players, but better people.
“Our program is so much better and our children are lucky,” said Julie Crow, a parent of two children whom Halilovic has coached, and a personal friend to him. “It would be impossible to say it simply (how much he has meant to us). I know he installed confidence in my kid and I know he did that for a lot of kids. The gift he gave was all of himself, 110 percent, 24/7, 365 days a year.”
“It’s going to be tough to replace him,” said Roy Umlauf, who worked with Halilovic for years as a coach and board member for the club. “He was the face of Mercer Island soccer for most of the kids on the Island. He was willing to fill in whatever kind of role we needed.”
It was kind of a stroke of luck that Halilovic ever even came to Mercer Island. Originally from the former Yugoslavia, Halilovic grew up in Switzerland. He first came to the United States through an exchange program for high school, hoping he would go to New York, Chicago or Miami (because every kid dreams of New York, meeting Michael Jordan in Chicago and the beaches of Miami), but instead was placed in Louisville, Ky.
“That’s one of the luckiest things to happen to me, that I ended up being in Louisville, Ky., because I was hosted by a great family and had a great time,” he said. “I played soccer in high school.”
Halilovic said he was supposed to go home in order to play with the U17 national team, but because of his status in the U.S. couldn’t leave, so a friend who lived and trained soccer players on Mercer Island invited him out west.
“My first contact with Mercer Island was through soccer,” he said. After playing for the Huskies for a year, he headed back home, where he played professionally for five years in three countries, before injuries forced him to stop.
“I had an injury — two times having surgery on my heel and ankle due to my injuries, and now I have a daughter and wife and we’re enjoying each other,” he said of wife Lucy and Emma, his daughter. So when the opportunity to help his brother as an exchange student came up, Halilovic immediately knew the place to go — Mercer Island.
That trip, which was only supposed to be for a year or two, spanned eight years.
“I came here to bring my brother as an exchange student to Mercer Island and I said, why don’t I help out with the club just while I was here with him to spend time with him,” said Halilovic. “The person who started everything on Mercer Island was John Addison — that’s an important name because he’s my second father here. He said there is more soccer than Samir can handle, why don’t we start an academy — you’d be doing the same thing. I said, great, why don’t we do it. I went back home, brought my family and the plan was to stay two years, learn English, do this and that, travel a little bit, and eight years later we’re still here.”
Halilovic is in charge of the International Academy of Soccer through the Mercer Island Youth Soccer Club. Unlike other soccer clubs in the area, the Mercer Island club runs theirs with volunteer coaches and Halilovic is the professional trainer, in charge of running the programs and preparing the players.
“It’s a full-time job; it’s a lovely job,” he said. “I wish we were in San Diego because my office is outdoors and I wish it was sunny outside so I could spend more time dry, but I still love every minute of it.”
The passion he has for the game has not gone unnoticed by the parents and families of Mercer Island soccer players.
“He’s a friend of many people on the Island, and this will take a toll,” said Umlauf. “He is a great coach at understanding the game and teaching them. He has incredible knowledge and insight into the game.”
For the longtime trainer, its impossible to pick out a favorite memory from his time on the Island, but one of his favorite things is when former players come back to say hello. To Halilovic it’s akin to raising 1,600 kids every year.
“So I always tell them when I want them to be good in soccer, to be as good as they can. My enjoyment and reward is when I see a kid I’ve been training for six years, he’s gone off to college, and he comes back and has become a great guy. He’s a good man. I always approach the kids as if they are my own kids,” said Halilovic. “Sometimes people might think I was mean, but it was like they were my kids and from my field they might go apply for a job and I want them to be challenged and learn how to accept the challenge, the defeat and how to get up from a failure. Because the score in soccer for me was never about winning or losing, it was always about success and failure, and I always try to make my guys a success in their personality. That’s the beauty of it.”
While his family is already back in Switzerland, Halilovic is finishing up a few projects and will leave in the middle of March.
“He will be greatly missed,” said Crow. “We’ve been really fortunate to know him, and on some level I’m sure he wasn’t as appreciated as he should have been.”
The Mercer Island Youth Soccer Club will hold a reception in honor of Zeke Halilovic on Monday, March 5, starting at 7:15 p.m. at the Mercerwood Shore Club.
All are welcome and encouraged to stop by.