Teenage Hadebe's golden ticket was a soda his mom bought him as a treat.
As a child growing up in Zimbabwe, the Houston Dynamo defender would improvise to play his favorite sport, fashioning whatever was on hand into a ball because his family didn't have the money for one.
But in a truly Willie Wonka-esque twist, the cap of that soda had a code that won Hadebe a real soccer ball.
“We saw there was a competition on the television and I went to my mother and said, `Just buy me a Coke and you never know, maybe I'll win something,' so that's what she did," Hadebe laughs, recalling the moment when he was about five years old.
That ball put Hadebe on a path that would take him across the globe playing the sport he loves. In honor of his mom, Selina Ndlovu, who died in 2017, Hadebe always wears a shirt under his jersey that says “My Mother's Blessings.”
When he scored his first goal for Dynamo last month, he doffed his jersey to reveal the shirt.
“I dedicate everything to her, that’s my strength,” he said.
Hadebe was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. Soon after he got that first soccer ball, he knew he had a knack for the game.
“I was sure I was talented because -- you know when you are a kid, you want to show which position you’re playing -- but me, I was playing all the positions. Sometimes you could find me in the goals, in the midfield, playing as a striker, playing as a defender, playing as a goalkeeper,” he said. “I wasn’t sure which position exactly, but I had many coaches and they saw I had potential, so that’s why they kept on telling me to work hard, never give up on my dreams, and that’s what I did and now it pays me, so thank God for that.”
He was 17 when he embarked on his professional career, playing for several teams in his native country before ending up with the South African first-division Kaiser Chiefs.
Hadebe was set to play his final match in Zimbabwe, with his proud mother in the stands, when he got the devastating news: She had collapsed and died suddenly outside the family home.
Hadebe eventually played in South Africa, and that led to a stint in Turkey. In 2021 he was signed by Dynamo as a designated player.
Houston struggled in his first season, finishing 6-16-12 and at the bottom of the Western Conference. The team parted ways in November with coach Tab Ramos, whose contract was not renewed. Dynamo hired Paulo Nagamura, a former MLS player who previously coached Sporting Kansas City II, in January.
While defenders aren't generally goal scorers, Hadebe's height— he's 6-foot-2 — and skills make him a dangerous aerial presence. More than that, he's become a key leader on the team and charmed Houston fans with his broad smile — and his keen fashion sense.
In addition to Dynamo, Hadebe also plays for Zimbabwe's national team. However, the team is currently suspended from international competitions because of government interference in the running of its national soccer federation.
The T-shirt isn't the only reminder of his mother that Hadebe carries. He's got a tattoo that also says “My Mother's Blessings” on the back of his neck.
Just 26, Hadebe is now a parent himself. He and his wife, who were high school sweethearts, have three children.
He hopes he's made his mother proud.
“Every time I play, I ask for guidance with everything I’m doing, even when I’m on the pitch, because she used to like watching me play,” he said. “But I’m sure in spirit she’s there with me.”
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Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press