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Minium: ODU Women's Soccer Player Ece Turkoglu Saw Her Life Change When Her Father Passed Away


NORFOLK, Va. – Ayhon Turkoglu was a very enlightened and progressive man.
His oldest daughter, Ece, was a gifted athlete who as a child wanted to join the local football club, or soccer team as we know it in America. This was nearly two decades ago, when many in Turkey considered it un-lady like for young girls to play soccer.
Things have changed in the years since. More and more young girls are playing sports now.
But during the time it was frowned upon, Ayhon not only encouraged her to play, he went to all of her games. When she she made the Turkish National Team, and began to travel all over Europe, he followed her as much as he could.
And for those who thought it wasn't proper for a young lady to play on the pitch, he always had her back.
"I was playing soccer with the boys," said Ece Turkoglu. "And I was fighting at times with the boys.
"But he always supported me. He was always proud of me."
Which is one of so many reasons why it was so difficult for Ece in the summer of 2021 when Ayhon, then just 56, died of a heart attack.

Ece Turkoglu and her father, Ayhon, hold a championship trophy. 
At the time, Ece was preparing to leave for her third season with the Old Dominion women's soccer team. She was so devastated that a few days after her father's death, she told her mother, Selda, she wasn't going back to Virginia.
"I sat down in front of her and was crying," Ece said. "I told her I don't want to go back.
"She listened but then said, 'no, there's no way you're staying here. That's not what your father would want you to do.
" 'He would want you to go back and finish your school. If he was here, he wouldn't let you stay.' "
It took several days of quiet contemplation, but Ece eventually realized her mother was correct. So she took a flight back to Norfolk, and the rest is ODU soccer history.
Ece was an All-Conference USA selection in 2021 who helped lead the Monarchs to the Conference USA title, their first championship in 13 years. She also made the all-tournament team.
She was again all-conference and all-tournament in 2022 when the Monarchs won the Sun Belt Conference title again last season.
This season she is again the star of the team – even though she's a midfielder, she leads the team in scoring and was again an All-Sun Belt choice. And last weekend, she led the Monarchs to their third consecutive conference title.

Ece scored a critical goal that send the championship final against James Madison into overtime, and the Monarchs prevailed, 2-1.
Would ODU have won three championships without Ece? That's impossible to say. But ODU head coach Angie Hind says "she is everything to our team."
"And I don't mean just her talent. Everyone knows her talent.

Ece Turkoglu and her teammates gathered clothes for victims of an earthquake in Turkey

"The thing that makes her special is that she's such a team player. She's such a caring individual. She takes care of her teammates. She's humble. She's always trying to lift others up.
"A player with her ability, sometimes you would expect her to want to take the glory. But she doesn't want that. She will do the hardest work, the least fun part of the job and she will do it to try to help the team win.
"When we're in a tough spot, she's the one who always says, 'Hey guys, we love each other. We're going to be OK.'
"She's just that type of kid."
Ece grew up in Eregli, a town in the Zonguldak province about an hour east of Istanbul on the Black Sea. The nearby city of Zonguldak is a seaport whose primary export is coal and has several shipyards.
"It is not all that much different from Norfolk," Ece said.
Ece had a choice of high schools to attend. She excelled at math and unlike so many of her female friends who took general courses in high school, she enrolled at Karadeniz Eregli Science High School, a school designed to produce high caliber STEM students – those who aspire for careers in science, technology, engineering or math.
Her grades were outstanding and she knew she wanted to attend college. But she also wanted to play soccer, and only in America are there colleges that pay your tuition, room and board for you to take classes and also participate in a varsity sport.
Her father also wanted her to go to America.
"He loved America," she said. "He loved everything about the United States.
"He loved to watch cowboy movies. He loved movies about Texas. He would watch anything American."
Finding a college in America was no simple task. Turkish soccer teams aren't scouted by American coaches quite as much as their European counterparts.

Ece Turkoglu with her father, Ayhon, and sister Selin

Ece needed help and got it from Naci Bilgeturk, a Turkish citizen who lives in Richmond where he is a soccer coach and scout. 

He reached out to VCU and to ODU about Ece and sent both schools some video. Ece was also aided by Necla Gungor Kirogasi, her national team coach, and Alkim Karontay, one of her mentors.
Hind watched a few minutes of video of Ece while waiting for a flight in the Atlanta airport, and that was all it took.
"There wasn't anything that she didn't do well," Hind said.
Hind phoned Bilgeturk and told him that ODU wanted Ece to visit. He made a trip to ODU first to see if it was someplace Ece would like to play.
"He looked around and told us he thought Ece would love it here," Hind said.
She came to ODU on a two-day visit and committed on the spot. She enrolled at ODU in the fall of 2019 and as with many international students who come to America, she struggled early-on.
She took English in high school but quickly realized the classroom English she learned wasn't necessarily the same English spoken in Norfolk. She could read and write English well. But she found it difficult to converse with people.
"Some of the phone calls we had with her during the recruiting process were hilarious," Hind said. "I would ask her a question and she would say, 'I don't know because I didn't understand the question.' "
Shortly after Ece arrived on campus, the team went on an overnight stay at a log cabin state park just outside of Richmond. The entire team had been together during summer school working out. All except for Ece, who didn't arrive until August.
That evening, all the players were singing a song around a campfire.
"Except for Ece," Hind said. "She was sitting all alone, smiling but not singing. I was worried about her.
"Ece was so shy."
Soccer eventually took care of her shyness. She started as a freshman and in spite of missing seven games while playing for the Turkish national team, was tied for fourth in scoring.
"She's gained so much confidence since her freshman year," Hind said. "It did not take long for her to become one of our team leaders."
Ece's move to America did more than build her confidence. It made her relationship with her father closer.

Ece Turkoglu says she plays for her father every time she steps on the soccer pitch. 

She went home that first summer and saw that her father had changed. Although she had two loving parents, her father was reserved. He wasn't always the hugging kind of guy.
When she returned to Turkey, he hugged her. And when she left again to return to ODU, he cried.
"Me being away from home changed him," Ece said. "He started showing his emotions. He was talking with me about stuff we never talked about.
"When I came home the first time, he was crying because he missed me. That was super nice. We got so close."
Ece was asleep early one summer morning in 2021 when she got a phone call. She was on the road two hours from her home playing with the national team. You need to go home now, she was told.
She knew something was wrong and asked one of her long-time friends to drive home with her home.
She called her older brother, Ataken, and he told her to go straight to the hospital but refused to say why. One of her friends grabbed her phone and wouldn't give it back.
It took nearly the entire two-hour drive for her to realize that her father was dead. He had no history of heart problems, but he died of a massive heart attack that morning in the family's bathroom. Ece's younger sister, Selin, found him.
"I knew I needed to prepare myself," Ece said.
Even when she got to the hospital, her family still would not tell her. But she knew. The tears in their eyes told her.
Finally, a doctor broke the news to her and asked her if she wanted to see her father one last time.

"Seeing him was hard," she said. "But the hardest part for me, the thing that really left me sad, was that my younger sister found him. That was so difficult for her."
When she returned home and saw her grandmother, Ayhon's mother, and they both broke down into tears.
"She had already lost her husband," Ece said. "But she said losing her son was so much harder.
"I'm a lot like my father. I don't show my emotions that much. So I tried to be strong for the entire family. I was going to stay and take care of my sister, my mother and grandmother."

Young Ece Turkoglu with her father, Ayhon

Her mother is in a sense the hero of Ece's life story so far. Convincing her to return to America has changed Ece's life.
Ece will graduate in December with a degree in computer science. She will play professionally after graduation and when she is done playing plans to find a job doing analytics for a soccer team.
None of that would have been possible had she remained in Turkey.
"Staying in Turkey would have been the easy thing to do," she said. "Leaving was hard.
"But I'm so glad I chose the hard path.  My dad was so proud that I was going to graduate. He was going to come to my graduation. He talked about if for years."
While not poor, her family now doesn't have the financial means to attend her graduation. They will have to be satisfied with watching via Zoom in December.
Ece is Muslim and although she says she doesn't pray nor fast as often she should, "I believe in God and I pray to God," she said.
She prays that her family remains safe and overcomes the loss of their dad. And she prays for her father, who she says she thinks of every day and especially every day on the pitch.
"Every time I step on that field, even when I practice, I do it for him," she said. "Every trophy, every championship we've won, I played hard for my father.
"I know that I will see him again. And I know he is proud of me."
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