Senior midfielder George Malki has two goals and three assists in 20 games played this season.
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I met him by happenstance.
On Friday, March 16, 2012, I boarded U.S. Airways flight No. 11, scheduled to leave San Francisco at 9 p.m. and arrive in Phoenix at 10:55.
Pacing the airplane’s aisle, my eyes shifted between the seat number on my ticket and the numerals above each row, until they finally locked on 19D.
At that moment in time, I was a senior in high school, my thoughts consumed by the rapidly approaching college decision deadline. Though Cal Poly wasn’t the frontrunner, it ranked high on my list, which had recently shrunk to only a couple schools.
Coincidentally, a young man donning a Cal Poly sweatshirt occupied 19F, the window seat in my row. One of my travel companions noticed the sweatshirt and suggested I sit next to him, hoping I could learn a thing or two about San Luis Obispo.
His dark brown eyes, previously glued to his laptop, lit up.
“You go to Cal Poly?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said, sliding my carry-on into the overhead compartment. “Thinking about it, though.”
He reached out his hand.
“George,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
The first thing I noticed about George was his passion.
He mentioned playing soccer at Cal Poly, and spent the two-hour plane ride fixated on his laptop, watching highlights of Cal Poly’s victory over rival UC Santa Barbara in 2011.
I didn’t know much about Cal Poly soccer or the magnitude of the rivalry, so it wasn’t until we landed that I realized George wasn’t an average player at a decent Division I school.
After the plane touched down in Phoenix, I whipped out my phone and searched “George Cal Poly soccer” on Google.
His full name: George Malki.
A few of his accolades: 2009 Gatorade Arizona Boys Soccer Player of the Year, ESPN RISE All-America first team, three-time All-Arizona first team and 2009 U-17 national team residency program member.
Malki, a senior midfielder this season, had a faint recollection of our plane ride to Phoenix when we sat down for an interview this past week.
His stats caught my eye more than anything when we first met, but during our interview I learned that beyond the numbers is a young man with an unwavering love for the sport.
“I love the camaraderie, the teammates, the competition, winning,” Malki said. “For me, it’s a getaway. Any time I step out onto the field, whether it’s in a game or practice, or I’m just going out to mess around, I just forget everything that’s going on in my life and just enjoy playing soccer and having fun.”
That love began at an early age.
Born in Chicago, Malki had a soccer ball before he could walk. His father, Sarge, would do a kicking motion with George’s leg when he was only eight months old.
Though he grew up balancing soccer and hockey, soccer began to take precedent when Malki — who moved to Arizona at a young age — made the switch from recreation to club soccer, claiming six separate state championships as a member of the Serreno Soccer Club.
And perhaps the most pivotal moment in Malki’s soccer career came during high school.
As a member of the 2009 U-17 national team residency program, Malki moved to Bradenton, Fla. for his junior year, which he spent training and traveling the world while playing international matches.
Malki made the residency squad due to his performance on the regional Olympic development team a couple years prior.
That team was, coincidentally, coached by Paul Holocher.
Now the Cal Poly soccer team’s head coach, Holocher developed a relationship with the then-16-year-old Malki, who would chose to attend Cal Poly over Indiana, UC Santa Barbara, Stanford and UCLA largely based on his familiarity with Holocher.
“I liked his technical quality,” Holocher said. “I liked his mentality, and I liked his personality. He’s a winner. Always ready to get on the line and do what it takes to compete. He’s not a guy that you ever worry about on or off the field. He’s there with that ambition and commitment. I could tell that when we were recruiting him.”
Malki had a relatively quiet freshman season with the Mustangs, starting 14 matches, half of which were multi-shot games. But that year marked the start of an analogy that Malki would never live down.
“He has a ton of energy on the field,” Holocher said. “One thing that we talked to George about when he first came here was de-caffing his game. Not only just go 100 miles an hour, but slow the game down sometimes, add more quality to his passing. We’re always kidding him like he was playing like he had drunk too much coffee.”
As a midfielder, Malki represents the link between defense and offense. Passing lanes would close and Cal Poly’s opportunities on the field would disappear with Malki at full speed.
“I’ve been hearing the word ‘decaf’ for probably my whole four years here,” Malki said. “Decaf, decaf, decaf. ‘George, your game is like coffee, you gotta decaf to maybe like a Dr Pepper or something like that.’”
Though he is a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, Malki has learned to slow the pace of the game. His movements are still quick, but he’s settled down and learned to play more intelligently.
“Now he’s one of those few guys on the field that can really dictate the tempo of the game,” Holocher said. “He’s really taken that to heart and it shows now. This year, now we know that we can give him the ball and we know that good things will happen.”
In some ways, Malki was forced to decaf his game.
During his junior year, Malki suffered a sports hernia and a torn hip abductor, but opted to play through it. At times, Malki couldn’t sprint or even kick with his dominant right foot.
At 50 percent health, he reinvented his style of play, using whatever strength he had sparingly, forcing him to see opportunities around him instead of dribbling at full speed himself.
“He’s a tough kid,” Holocher said. “He probably didn’t express how serious the injury was to us because he didn’t want to not play at all last year.”
Deep tissue massages multiple times a week kept Malki going through the 2012 season, though he acknowledges that his injuries became chronic.
“I should’ve stopped,” Malki said. “But, just my love for the game, I couldn’t. Injuries wouldn’t make me quit, unless it’s something super serious where it’s a bad concussion or a brain injury or something like that. Injuries would probably never stop me from playing.”
Malki underwent surgeries after the 2012 season, taking winter quarter off from school to rehabilitate in Arizona.
His professional soccer aspirations were put on hold, as well. Malki had spent the previous summer training with Assyriska Föreningen of the Swedish Superettan, which he likely would have played for full-time this year if it weren’t for the injuries.
Holocher encouraged Malki to take the season off, train and get healthy to hopefully create an opportunity to play professionally.
“I didn’t want to sit out,” Malki said. “I was like, ‘I can’t, Coach. I need to play.’”
Though he finished the season strong, scoring the game-winner against UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 3, 2012 Malki would have to man the sidelines during offseason training this past spring.
For a guy who lives and breathes soccer, it was rough.
“I tried to stay positive, and honestly, sometimes I couldn’t,” Malki said. “There was some negativity with like, ‘Am I ever going to play again?’”
What lifted Malki’s spirits was his favorite aspect of soccer: the team.
And over these past two seasons, the Cal Poly soccer team has grown closer than ever, largely thanks to Malki’s leadership. He’s channeled his once-self-destructive energy and expressed it through a different medium.
Inspired by Jerry Lynch, a sports psychologist who often pays visits to the team, Malki leads his teammates in a special pregame ceremony.
Lynch, who shows the team various spiritual exercises and programs, provided the team with a couple of affirmations, or positive sayings.
One of those affirmations in particular stood out to Malki.
“I memorized it; it was stuck in my head,” Malki said. “When we were done warming up, I just told the guys to repeat after me. I said it. They said it back. It stuck with us.”
Now, before every game, the players return to the locker room after warming up. They put their uniforms on, stand in a close huddle, and extend their left hand into the middle of the circle as Malki recites the affirmation.
Their left hand, because it’s closer to the heart.
“We’re a strong team,” Malki said. “The unity between us is something else. I’ve never seen it before in any other team I’ve played with.”
Though Malki wouldn’t reveal the details of the affirmation itself, he touched on its general theme.
“Just our love for each other,” Malki said. “If we play as one, we have love for each other, we put in tackles for each other, we work for each other, we pick each other up when we’re down, it’s very tough to beat us.”
Cal Poly will have to play as one if Malki wants his career to last longer than one more game.
The Mustangs, who finished third in the Big West Conference North Division, will hit the road to face Cal State Northridge in the opening of the Big West tournament Tuesday.
The tournament is single elimination, so a win would propel Cal Poly into the semifinals and a rematch with UC Santa Barbara. A loss would end the 2013 season along with the collegiate careers of eight seniors, including Malki.
“I’m going to miss the atmosphere,” Malki said. “Manglers. Playing at Spanos Stadium. I’m going to miss our coaches. Boosters. Fans and students. I’m going to miss everything about it. The memories that were created at Spanos, I’m going to miss a lot. My teammates I’m going to miss the most, that’s for sure.”
Whenever the season comes to an end, Malki plans to take winter quarter off, train and attend both European tryouts as well as the Major League Soccer combine.
“I’m going to miss his smile, his humor, his love for the program,” Holocher said. “It’s been so nice over the last four years to wake up and have a guy like George meet you at practice every morning. It sets a great tone for everybody, and that’s the kind of guy that you want in your organization.”
In hindsight, Holocher’s words make perfect sense.
When I first met George Malki, I had no idea what Cal Poly soccer was all about.
But, as he sat next to me on the airplane, I could feel his love for the program, and see the nostalgia in his eyes, beaming as fans began to rush the field on his computer screen.
“You’ll never forget about those moments,” Malki said. “The Cal Poly crowd rushing the field during an SB game. That will stick with me for my lifetime. I’ll be telling my kids that, tell my grandkids that, hopefully.”
That flight was my first insight into Cal Poly, which I would accept admission to a few weeks later.
I came to campus that fall to find a familiar face above Mott Athletics Center. Arms crossed, brown eyes staring back at me, Malki’s enlarged picture was posted on the wall, along with the team’s schedule.
I still didn’t know much about the program, but based on my brief knowledge of Malki, I could connect the dots between his stats and the iconic picture in front of me.
In my eyes, that was the face of Cal Poly soccer.