Lost and Found
Early on the morning of July 15, 2005, a young man stepped over the guard rail and stood on the edge of the Cold Spring Bridge in Santa Barbara, California. He was spotted by Ken Rushing, a local deputy sheriff. Ken said at the time, “He gave me a thousand-mile stare. He basically looked right through me.” And then the young man leaned back and just faded away into the fog-cloaked gorge below.
Andrew Popp was a 6’9″ basketball and volleyball star who had recently graduated from San Marcos High School. He was a fine athlete and excellent student. Prominent universities were pursuing him, and his future was, seemingly, bright. His family wrote in his obituary, “Anj began coloring outside the lines in everything he did, much to our delight and dismay at times. He delighted us with his wit, warmth and easy-going nature. From early on, he had a quick smile for anyone he encountered. Despite his large stature, he was a gentle guy who loved music, sports, the beach and his friends…Andrew is in God’s court now and we look forward to seeing a perfect slam dunk someday.”
Very soon afterward, his family started The Andrew Popp Memorial Scholarship Fund to support education for children living in the slums of Uganda, Kenya and other countries. They said, rightfully, that nothing could ever fix the sorrow and pain of losing their son: “Our own son lost hope but now many others’ children are getting a chance to hope. The fact these children are getting the chance our son was unable to take for his life does not address the hole in our hearts but does add a bit of joy in the midst of our sorrow. Our desire is to demonstrate and offer resources so that these children know every life is worth living and there is hope to be had.”
In the year that Andrew fell to his death, Phiona Mutesi, a nine-year-old girl living in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, discovered the game of chess through Robert Katende, a local soccer coach and missionary. He calls chess “a test of survival through aggression” and thought the game might be a way to engage some of the children. Robert is a staff member of Sports Outreach, a ministry supported by The Andrew Popp Memorial Scholarship Fund.
That same year, Phiona competed in her first match. She was a natural, winning by instinct – not years of training. Tim Crothers, the author of the book, “The Queen of Katwe” wrote, “She was good at chess, really good. I played her and she destroyed me.” She “destroyed” others as well, beating Bill Gates in less than a minute. By the time she was 11, Phiona was Uganda’s junior chess champion. She competed in the 2010 Olympiad in Russia, a prestigious tournament with 1,000 players from 149 countries, and Phiona surprised the world. She ended up losing to Canadian National Champion Dina Kagramanov, who said of Phiona, “Anybody can be taught moves and how to react to those moves, but to reason like she does at her age is a gift that gives her the potential for greatness.” At 15, she became Uganda’s national champion. One year later, Phiona was named the first titled female chess player in Ugandan history.
The story of how this young, uneducated girl living in the slums became a world chess champion captured such worldwide interest that Disney Pictures optioned the rights to make a movie of her story. The story also caught the attention of award-winning actors Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo.
“Queen of Katwe” premieres this month, and thanks to Sports Outreach and Disney Pictures, The Gathering in Naples, Florida, has been chosen as one of the first screenings.
It would be cruel to say glibly that Andrew’s fall has been reversed or redeemed by his family’s investment in Phiona and hundreds of other children like her in the last 11 years. The death of Andrew is a permanent wound in the life of his family and friends. But, what The Andrew Popp Memorial Scholarship has made possible is a fitting tribute to his life and the gift of his parents to our world.
The director of the school in China where Andrew spent his junior year wrote, “Picture the 6’9″ Caucasian male barreling down the concrete court, launching himself into the air for the mother-of-all-slam-dunks, and then… dishing the ball off to one of his local 5’4″ teammates who then sinks a lay up, to the thunderous applause of the villagers, squatting around the court. Andrew gives the beaming teammate a high five. Off the court he was equally graceful, connecting with local people-peasants, monks, school kids, old men-with an enviable ease that I concluded cannot be learned. At the end of the year he received an award from the faculty as our best ambassador.”
And so he is even now.