Leading On and Off the Field – Elma Nfor ’16 Pays Forward the Positivity he Brought to SMC
By Samantha Wagner
This article appeared originally in the Fall 2019 issue of Frontiers Magazine.
Elma Nfor first learned to play soccer in Cameroon, the country in which he was born. “In Cameroon, everyone plays soccer. It’s basically a religion,” Elma says. “I learned to play as a child and fell in love with the sport. When we moved to the States, I remember my dad encouraging me to keep playing through all of the changes. He taught me that if I focused and put in the work and the time I could play professionally.”
For an 8-year-old boy living in a new country and a new culture, soccer remained comforting and consistent. “In those early months, everything was so overwhelming. I had lived in a small town in Cameroon with a few restaurants and a few stoplights but nothing else. Frankfort, Kentucky, in contrast, was so busy. The American world progressed at a much faster pace than I was used to.”
Public school was a particularly overwhelming experience. The teachers spoke quickly and often praised academic success while neglecting athletic achievements. To a young Elma, it seemed that the academic and athletic worlds were highly polarized. This belief persisted throughout his early education, with school remaining challenging, frustrating, and uncomfortable as he aged. That perspective changed, however, when Elma found Spartanburg Methodist College. “I knew I wanted a smaller school because smaller schools allow you to know everyone, but I also knew that I wanted to play division one (D1) soccer and eventually pursue a professional career. Coach Nolan, the men’s soccer coach at Spartanburg Methodist College, saw me playing club ball in the Disney Soccer Showcase and assured me that SMC could offer me incredible opportunities on and off the field.”
Elma took a chance and enrolled. What followed were some of the most incredible years of his life both academically and athletically as he played against D1 and D2 soccer teams, built lasting life-long friendships, and discovered a passion for entrepreneurship.
From the moment he arrived on campus and met the guys on the team, Elma felt at home. Coach Nolan was a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. He challenged his team to rise to the occasion, pitting them against competitive D1 and D2 schools to refine and develop their abilities. “He was incredibly passionate and adamant that we could take on the bigger schools that frequently looked down on us for being a small college. He always believed in us and his faith gave us an edge that allowed us to play against some of the strongest teams and come out the victors.”
Career-wise, this training was invaluable with his time at SMC placing him on a trajectory that led to his current position as a forward with the Lansing Ignite team — part of the United Soccer League One.
Growth for Elma, however, was not limited to the soccer field. Where once school had overwhelmed him, Elma loved his time in the classroom at SMC. With encouragement from his professors, he began to excel academically, leaving behind the negative thought patterns that had plagued his youth. “I never saw myself as the best student,” Elma says, “and I was used to feeling like athletics were second to academia in the eyes of my teachers. At SMC, I had professors that wanted me to succeed in all of my endeavors. They were there for me and for my success both academically and athletically.”
He remembers vividly the first time he entered a classroom carrying a soccer ball. His professor laughed, said, “You would bring a soccer ball to class!” and started teaching.
At SMC, questions were welcomed and professors were always available to offer insight and advice on everything from coursework to Elma’s budding entrepreneurial pursuits. “I’ve always loved inventing things and puzzling out creative solutions to common problems,” he states. “I’m sure I drove my College friends nuts with all of my different ideas.”
Those ideas were varied and often involved late nights full of discussion and laughter as he roped his friends and long-term girlfriend, Bailey Wilson, into his schemes. One of his more elaborate ideas revolved around musical composition, with he and his roommate Zorrie Green staying up until 5 a.m. penning songs. While his musical endeavors never left the dorm room, however, his more serious inventions did. “So many of the professors at SMC listened to my ‘pitches’ and encouraged me to develop and refine them. I never had professor Keisler in class, but I remember bringing ideas to his office and watching his enthusiasm. He often seemed more excited for me than I was for myself!”
Since his time at SMC, Elma used the values instilled by his College and has grown into an incredible servant leader dedicated to his athletic and entrepreneurial careers. After SMC, Elma attended Wingate College, where he played soccer and developed his first invention, the Bonding Tie — a tie that buttons to a dress shirt and stays in place even in windy weather conditions. His ideas, however, didn’t stop at practical inventions. Drawing on his own memories of school and its struggles, Elma launched a school lunch club in the Asheville area called Kingsman. The club is dedicated to creating positive experiences for students by teaching them how to present themselves confidently. “The mind is so powerful and I want kids to have a positive mindset at a young age — particularly those who have been bullied and struggle to feel confident. Volunteering with the schools reminds me to stay positive, focused, and confident, myself. I love soccer, but I think my calling lies with kids and with my endeavors in public speaking.”
For now, however, Elma continues to enjoy professional soccer, playing as a new forward for the Lansing Ignite team. He loves his job and already has plans to start another school lunch club for students in the Lansing area. It seems his entrepreneurial mind never sleeps as he strives to make life better for those around him — a desire he developed at a small, southern college. When asked what advice he would share with college students today, Elma said simply, “Get to know the people around you and they will become your community. Their real-life stories will not only impact you but will also change your life.”