Chris Katona and Hani Nasr (right) celebrate defeating Cosmos B and winning the NPSL Northeast Region crown. (Photo courtesy of Hani Nasr)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Life can take us on some unexpected and unusual paths and journeys.

If FC Motown center back Hani Nasr hadn’t endured several hip injuries during high school, he might not be pursuing a career to become an orthopedist.

“I think that’s where it first started,” Nasr said. “I had some pretty bad injuries in high school that I had gone to orthopedists multiple times throughout the course of two yeas. When I was in their offices and talking to them I could really see myself in their place. So that was original thought was going into medical. After this past year, it kind of really solidified that.”

The former Freehold Township High School resident who is in his fourth and final year of medical school, making rounds at Jersey City Medical Center will put aside his medical concerns for one night. Instead, he will focus on helping FC Motown moving on to the National Premier Soccer League playoffs. The club hosts FC Mulhouse Portland at Ranger Stadium on the campus of Drew University in Madison, N.J. Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

“By day he is a medical student and by night he is an NPSL shutdown defender,” FC Motown head coach Sacir Hot said.

Nasr made such an impact that he was a finalist for the NPSL National XI honors after earning Keystone Conference and Northeast Region accolades. He was not named to the national side, but that doesn’t diminish his importance to the Morristown, N.J.-based club.

“It’s unbelievable how he’s able to shut down international players and not having played for four years, not playing in your most pivotal years of development,” Hot said, referring to the ages of between 17 to 22 which “is kind of important if you’re going to be something at 28 or 27. So that’s pretty cool on how he is able to do that. I’ll tell you myself, just those two years I came off from work and I came back, those two years finished me, it ruined me. I came back, and I was nowhere near I was before.”

No doubt the 6-1, 200-lb. Nasr is in his prime time, at least for soccer.

“He knows how to get the job done right,” Hot said. “He’s a no-nonsense defender. I think he is special in his athleticism That’s probably his strength. He’s also savvy enough tactically to be in the right spot. He also will put his head where I wouldn’t put my foot. He’s a true warrior. There’s nothing pretty about him. Nowadays you don’t find many center backs like that. You don’t find the hard-nosed defenders anymore. Every center back wants to be pretty now. That’s his strength, that he’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.”

So, who is Hani Nasr and why haven’t we heard of him too much until this NPSL season? Where did he play college soccer? Club soccer?

Well, he didn’t play college soccer, believe it or not. He got his early kicks performing for the Howell Strykers, who won the New Jersey Youth Soccer State Cup and competed at the Region I tournament. In high school, Nasr was moved to center back, which he did not originally greet with great enthusiasm.

“I was just going back from one of those hip injuries and we were losing most of our defense and I just hit my growth spurt,” he said. “So our coach came up to me before the season had started and said, ‘I want to play you at center back.’ I had never played that position before in my life. I was against it, but it was for the team. So I said I would do whatever the team needs. I kind of fell in love with the position and had a pretty good year.”

But apparently not good enough to get a college scholarship. Since he wanted to pursue a career in medicine, Nasr grabbed an academic scholarship at Rutgers University.

“It was always my goal,” he said. “It was always between either I wanted to pursue something in soccer or I’m going to go into medicine. I enjoyed the sciences coming up through middle school, high school. It was always a thought of mine. I was getting some offers to walk on, but I got a lot of offers for academic scholarships, so I picked that up and ran with it and focused on the medical school.”

But soccer had a way of pulling Nasr back into the fold. At Rutgers, he played club ball at the school. In his senior year, Nasr was the vice president of club soccer and changed the culture of the club. “We kind of changed the program there,” he said. “Had a head coach., had a very successful year with the limited talent that we had. It was a good experience. It helped build the team.”

He played with some local teams, including Jersey Shore Boca and the Jackson Lions in the Garden State Soccer League. Nasr attended medical school at St. George’s University in Grenada and wound up playing in some intramural matches before he was approached by someone who ran the campus store in the university and asked Nasr if he wanted to play in a tournament. It essentially was Grenada’s version of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

“I helped with the training because we didn’t have a set coach,” he said. “So I got some of the medical students after class and we’d go out to the field and do some training drills. We were pretty competitive. We won a couple of games at the national stadium, played against some of Grenada Premier League teams, beat one of them, lost in the quarterfinals. That was a good experience.”

Nasr returned to the states to finish med school and began playing with the Lions again. Chris Katona, now an FC Motown teammate, asked him if he was interested in playing with Cedar Stars Academy in the Cosmopolitan Soccer League.

“Sure, I guess,” he told Katona. “I can find some time.”

It was worth it. Cedar Stars reached the CSL Division I finals, losing to Lansdowne Bhoys in penalty kicks.

“We had a really good season with the finals and Oliver [Papraniku] who’s one of the owners of FC Motown said: ‘Hey, do you want to come play for us in the NPSL? And that was the first time I had heard of the league. I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot, sure.’ And I just took it and ran with it and that’s where I am now. It’s an interesting journey.”

To say the least.

Of course, Nasr has embarked on two journeys.

He is in his fourth and final year of medical school. He is working through the summer with his sights on graduating in May. He will find out which hospital he will discover his hospital residency in March.

And yes, he has medical school commitments in the summer because it is year-round. The first two years are pretty much in the classroom.

“The second half of medical school is all clinical rotation, so you’re going to be in different fields for a certain amount of weeks,” he said. “It goes year-round. Right now, I am in internal medicine elective. Then to emergency medicine elective.”

Dealing with patients and clinical work is what Nasr and his classmates lived for and then some.

“I’ve been in a classroom pretty much my whole life, so it feels like so…. an extra two years in lectures was getting very grueling and boring,” he said. “Everybody was just kind getting kind of antsy, trying to get into the hospital to do clinical work and see patients and applying what we’ve learned. Last year has been great. I’ve learned so much. It’s completely different than reading a book.”

As stated before, Nasr will apply for orthopedic surgery as his specialty, especially after what he had endured in high school. So, he would have empathy for any athletes on which he would operate.

“Just makes sense for me,” he said. “I want to work with athletes. I am an athlete myself. That one always drew me in from day one.”

This particular athlete has needed to find time to train and keep in reasonable shape.

“We don’t train too much as a team, so I worked out on my own, going out for a run, going out to one of the fields in Jersey City,” Nasr said. “I try to get at least five times a week, do something different. Go to the gym, get some weightlifting and strength and/or go to the field and get some agility or go for a long run. It depends on my timing, if i have an exam coming up soon. I’ll always to try to get somethings to myself in good shape.”

After getting past Cosmos B, FC Motown is only a win away from hosting the NPSL final next weekend. But first things first, the Jersey side must get past Portland.

Nasr is hopeful his team will emerge as winners Saturday and be in position to win a national title.

“It’s the mixture that we have of experience and youthful hunger that is really driving this team,” he said. “We have people that still have aspirations to go pro. They’re out here trying to make a name for themselves and then you have professional experience from the coaches and some of the players. Everybody is really hungry. Everybody knows that we can do it and believe in themselves and believes in their abilities to drive this team forward to win a national championship. It all starts at the top. The ownership puts full faith in all of the players and the whole coaching staff. They believe we can win it and makes us believe that we can go all the way as well.”