am actually a very good welder” is not a phrase you expect to hear from junior soccer player Sam Ebstein.
But clearly, Ebstein has to be at least decent at this niche activity, as the functional swingset he made from scratch that still stands at Vincent Academy in Oakland would attest. The process involved not only welding, but also woodworking for the frame, metalworking to make the swing chains and a genuine desire to devote time and physical effort to craft a playground item for a children’s elementary school.
After learning more about his intriguing background and varied interests, however, his welding skills are far from a surprise. Aside from being a primary contributor to the Cal men’s soccer team, Ebstein reveals himself to have a myriad of attributes — he’s also a world-class golfer and a global citizen with dual citizenship in Germany. And his role as a star midfielder on Cal men’s soccer isn’t a bad finish to the list.
And all of these interests have played a significant role in the formation of Ebstein as he is today: a meticulous, hard-working competitor with a humanitarian side, an international outlook and the mental toughness to overcome years of adversity.
t the end of eighth grade, Ebstein started to experience an ongoing, intense pain in his legs that was exacerbated every time he ran. After visiting several physical therapists, he was diagnosed time after time with a severe case of shin splints. But despite the precautionary measures, the agony persisted.
Ebstein was forced to stop playing soccer — a sport he had played all his life. It was a heartbreaking decision, considering that he was talented enough to gain attention from an English club team in his early teens.
“I wasn’t able to run for the next three years, and we couldn’t figure it out,” Ebstein says. “If I ran, I was in pain for a long time. I stopped playing, and we went to this doctor we had been to 100 times.”
Trying to distract himself from the fact that he couldn’t play his favorite sport, Ebstein turned his attention to other activities during his first three years at San Francisco’s Lick-Wilmerding High School.
It was at Lick-Wilmerding, a school that values hands-on educational experiences, where Ebstein’s affinity for metal and woodworking began. The school encouraged its students to pick up hobbies aside from the core academic subjects. For Ebstein, this was his metalworking and woodworking. He started simple, making chairs and tables — items that he thinks people would find useful. He’d also make his mom a vase, or desks to donate to schools.
While Ebstein was unable to run, that didn’t mean he was completely out of luck when it came to sports. Ebstein found that he immensely enjoyed how golf, a very different sport, took him away from his phone and into nature — he wasn’t half bad, either. He, in fact, competed in the Maccabiah Games — better known as the “Jewish Olympics” — in golf in 2009, finishing third in the world when he was only 13.
But despite his newfound passion for these activities, it couldn’t replace his unwavering affinity for soccer.
onvinced that Ebstein’s injury was no common shin splint, internet research led Sam Ebstein’s father, Jeff Ebstein, to believe that the injury was a rare case of fascial compartment syndrome. Sound familiar? Probably not. The fascia is a thin muscle that surrounds the muscle compartments in the leg. During exercise, the fascia should expand as the muscles enlarge from internal heat to reduce pressure.
“The doctor said there is a 1 percent chance he could have compartment syndrome,” says Jeff Ebstein. “(He) said, ‘I will give you the title to my house if he has this.’ ”
After the results, the doctor should’ve handed his keys over. Where a normal leg pressure is between 0-20 mmHg, Sam Ebstein’s was determined to be a dangerous 78 mmHg, according to a pressure gauge needle (one so large, Ebstein can’t help but still mention it today).
Surgery was in order immediately — an extremely simple operation: Just go in and cut the fascia. Just over a month later, Ebstein was running again and successfully tried out for the San Jose Earthquakes Academy.
“The doctor created a whole case on me and presented my case to a bunch of other doctors, like, ‘How is this possible?’ ” Ebstein says.
Even more rare is the fact that Sam’s older brother, Jeremy, who played soccer at UC San Diego, was later diagnosed with a similar case of fascial compartment syndrome.
But for both, the recovery was seamless. Seeing Ebstein today, you wouldn’t know that he once had a crippling injury, unless you saw the footlong scars running down each of his calves.
“He’s almost — indestructable — well, I don’t want to say that. He’s doing very well and I am very proud of him,” Jeff Ebstein says, willing himself not to complete the word.
bstein’s delay in soccer development due to his injury led him to play club soccer in Germany during what would have been his first semester in college.
Most Division I-bound soccer players start to get scouted in their sophomore year of high school. Unfortunately for Ebstein, soccer was far from his mind that year, as his family was still attempting to get to the bottom of his leg pains.
When Cal head soccer coach Kevin Grimes finally saw Ebstein play his senior year of high school, all the freshman spots on the Cal 2014-15 soccer team had been filled. Still, Grimes saw talent in Ebstein and promised him a spot on the team for the next season.
To enhance his experience before returning to Cal, Ebstein took off to Bamberg, a small city in Germany, to play with a higher-quality club team in fall 2014.
“So that’s why I went there, wanted to see if I could get different sorts of coaching,” Ebstein said.
The experience was made possible by the German Citizenship Project, a program that grants German citizenship to the male descendants of Jewish refugees. Through his grandfather, Sam, Jeff and Jeremy qualified for dual German citizenship.
Speaking only conversational German in a less cosmopolitan area of the country made Ebstein’s transition challenging. He was living in an apartment for the first time, alone, and on top of that, he took the train for an hour or more every day to an even smaller suburb of Bamberg to practice with his team, Memmelsdorf.
Ebstein was grateful when his coach, a fellow English speaker, took him under his wing, facilitating his transition into this unfamiliar life — after all, soccer is a universal language.
“After a little while you meet a few people who turn out to be super helpful,” Ebstein says. “And once you meet someone who speaks English, they kind of show you the way to go about things.”
fter spending four months with soccer as his main focus, Ebstein returned to the Bay Area and began training with Cal in the spring 2015 semester. His hard work and passion for the sport have propelled him to the high ranks of the team. While he played occasionally his first season and suffered a minor injury that limited his second, Ebstein now consistently plays nearly all 90 minutes of every game.
Interestingly enough, Ebstein’s unconventional path onto a Division I soccer team can be compared to the career of his role model: N’Golo Kanté, a French player who played on lower-level club teams for the first 16 years of his soccer career. Kanté waited patiently to make his debut on a senior team until he was recruited by Chelsea in 2016, becoming one of the most celebrated defensive center midfielders in the English Premier League. (But to be clear, although Ebstein roots for Kanté, he still pledges himself as an Arsenal fan.)
“(Kanté) does all the work that no one else wants to do, but he does it better than everyone else,” Ebstein says. “I relate to him in maybe not getting recognized as much when we were younger and trying to emulate his path of working his way up just through hard work.”
After trying a few different potential field placements, Ebstein settled in as Cal’s primary defensive center midfielder, a position that suits his every skill but is not necessarily the most glamorous on the field. You’re not receiving through balls from the midfielders in scoring position or diving in front of zooming shots. But Ebstein’s contributions would stand out to a seasoned soccer fan who values both vision and precision in balls coming from the center of the field.
Ebstein’s motivation to play as a defensive center mid comes from his willingness to work for his team unconditionally. By proving energy on defense and doing the dirty work, as he says, Ebstein opens up opportunities for his teammates. Cal’s harrowing path to the playoffs this season, after going below .500 last year, fueled him to stay on top of his fitness and stay serious about practice.
Soccer is now the only sport in which Ebstein participates competitively. He golfs in a casual way (except when challenged by his father and brother), appreciating the beautiful scenery and time away from his phone.
As he walks around the course, perhaps he is daydreaming about his final season with the Bears, contemplating his desire to play soccer professionally or even planning his next project.
While it is impossible to predict what is going through Ebstein’s head, given his range of interests, one thing is true: If and when the curtain falls on soccer, he’ll have no shortage of other passions to fall back on.
Lucy Schaefer covers men’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]