LAWTON — In the small office lobby of St. James Apartments in Lawton, seven Kiowas gathered around a TV hoping to catch a glimpse of Bau Daigh — a warrior coming over the hill.
Thursday, Bau Daigh’s battlefield wasn’t the plains. It was a stadium in Brazil.
The warrior coming over the hill is Chris Wondolowski, a forward for the United States men’s national soccer team. In a tribal ceremony a few years ago in Anadarko, the Kiowas gave the young man with the European surname the title of a warrior.
Two centuries ago, he might have been a Koitsenko, a real dog, one of the 10 greatest Kiowa fighters. In today’s Kiowa world, he is the pride of the tribe’s 12,000 remaining members.
‘A tencity that is special’
Wondolowski, 31, grew up in California, the son of a Kiowa woman and a college soccer star.
Amy Cozad, Wondolowski’s aunt, baby-sat him for years and knew early on the boy was destined for something great.
Wondolowski’s first word was “ball,” and his parents had him involved in sports before he could walk.
“At the age of 2, he was already scoring and kicking goals,” Cozad said. “He was like Tiger Woods with the golf club.”
Bill Elliot, Wondolowski’s 82-year-old grandfather, lived close to the family in California until he and his wife retired and moved to Oklahoma during Wondolowski’s junior year of high school.
He said Wondolowski was born with an athlete’s drive.
He would stay outside dribbling the soccer ball in the summer heat for hours on end. He made his brother, Stephen, join in when he was only 3 or 4.
Stephen, who also became a pro soccer player, would run inside and hide behind the couch to escape Wondolowski’s relentless practices. Wondolowski would come in, search the house, find Stephen and drag him out for more.
“He was just born with a tenacity that is special,” Elliot said.
Wondolowski went on to star in soccer and baseball in his teenage years. He earned a full-ride scholarship to Division II Chico State, became an All-American and went to the San Jose Earthquakes with the 41st overall pick in the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft.
By 2012, he was the MLS’s top goal-scorer, and he tied the league’s record with 27 goals in a season en route to earning MVP honors. In May, Wondolowski officially made coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man World Cup roster, sparking a World Cup frenzy that went far beyond his immediate family.
Center of a tribe
Days before the U.S. played its World Cup opener, Keith Vasquez — the Kiowa tribe’s public relations director — got a call from CBS San Francisco asking if the tribe would be hosting a watch party.
Vasquez hadn’t thought of the idea and decided it was too short of notice to put one together. But Sunday when the U.S. played Portugal to a draw, Vasquez made sure to put plans in place.
Word of Wondolowski spread gradually throughout the years, but the World Cup made Wondo — as fans affectionately call him — the center of Kiowa Tribe.
More than 100 tribe members gathered in the Elders Center in Carnegie to watch. Before the game, Wondolowski relayed a message back to the tribe to be read aloud before the Kiowas:
“Big shoutout and thanks to the Kiowa nation and all the family and friends supporting the U.S. team. We really appreciate you support. Thank you.”
After halftime, Wondoloski entered the game as a sub. With that, tribe members were hooked.
“At first it was slow,” said Kiowa Dupoint, Wondolowski’s cousin. “A lot of people didn’t know a whole bunch about soccer until they watched. Then they got really into it.”
Elliot has no intentions of hiding his pride for his grandson. Thursday, the family held its own watch party, and though the scale was smaller, the excitement was just as high.
“My dad is just beaming,” Cozad said. “And we’re all feeling that excitement.”