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.”
Elliot helped spread word through the Kiowa Tribe, welcomed media opportunities and watches every moment of games with fixation. Earlier this week, Wondolowski texted Elliot from the heart of the Amazon to say thank you for putting together the Kiowa watch party.
Wondolowski’s family showed up Thursday in Lawton wearing custom shirts with a cutout of Wondolowski, along with his American Indian name and its translation. Dupoint’s 2-year-old son, Zane, ran around the room holding a miniature American flag.
While most of the family gathered and talked while watching the game, Elliot sat by himself, intently watching the game.
The U.S. lost to Germany, 1-0, but was still able to advance to the round of 16. Wondolowski didn’t play, but it didn’t have much effect on the family’s support.
Wondolowski’s Oklahoma relatives make sure to see him at least once or twice a year. And when he comes home, Cozad said you wouldn’t guess he’s a national soccer star. The family still calls him by his childhood nickname.
“When he comes home or we see him, it’s always, ‘Hey Critta,’” she said. “It’s not like he’s this big, untouchable athlete. He’s just home.”
For Elliot, that’s only another reason to be proud. The Kiowa people place great value on family, on sacrifice and on remaining humble. Even on a national stage, family members say Wondolowski has upheld those values and stayed true to his heritage.
He has “Bau Daigh” tattooed down his arm, and he remains active in American Indian groups in California. He’s even leading a line of Nike products with American Indian-inspired designs.
“I’ve got a lot of pride in his ability; that goes without saying,” Elliot said.
“But I’m just as prideful in what kind of man he’s grown up to be. He’s very honest, compassionate, congenial, good to his family. I’m equally as proud of him that way.”
More than a star
Sixty-four American Indian children took part in a soccer clinic Sunday that coincided perfectly with the Kiowa watch party.
Steve Quoetone, director of the Kiowa Nation Youth Activities Sports Club, helped add soccer to the tribe’s sports program in the past year.
More quickly than he ever fathomed, interest in the sport skyrocketed. He said Wondolowski was the sole reason.
“Two years ago, you would never catch a Kiowa watching soccer,” Quoetone said. “Soccer was almost on the same level as water polo.
“It seemed the whole Kiowa world came together to support him. That’s something that is good about our people. When we have something like this, we set aside all our differences. We set aside everything, and we help one another. That’s the glorious part about being Kiowa.”
The Kiowa Nation Youth Sports and Activities Club has given awards to its top athletes in a variety of sports for years. Sunday, it gave a different kind of award at its soccer clinic.
It was called the Wondo Award, and it went to those who showed the most effort and didn’t give up.
“I guess you could say he’s an inspiration, especially to the kids,” Quoetone said.
Quoetone said his plan for next year is to expand the tribe’s soccer league from Carnegie to Anadarko and Medicine Park. He wants each age group to have at least one team. Thanks to Wondo, it just might happen.
LeBron James and Peyton Manning remain sports heroes in Carnegie, but Chris Wondolowski is more than a sports hero. He’s a cultural icon.
“The Native Americans in relation to the general population, we’re not too numerous,” Elliot said. “To have a role model for Native American kids, plus all kids, is very special.
“Going back to Jim Thorpe, Sam Bradford, it’s very special for us to have our own successful pro athletes.”
The Kiowas are trying to get Wondolowski to come to Carnegie later this year. And if the warrior arrives over the hill, a hero’s welcome will be in order.
“We’ve already decided when he does come down, we’re going to have an honor powwow for him,” Quoetone said. “We’re going to get the whole tribe together and invite all the neighboring tribes to come and join in with us in the celebration.”