‘Survivor: Africa’ winner fights AIDS through soccer charity

“Survivor: Africa winner” Ethan Zohn, brought charisma, energy and charm to NKU students as he detailed the highs and lows of his life that inspired him to start the GrassRoot Soccer foundation during his talk at the Otto M. Budig Theater on April 7.

Zohn had a handful of anecdotes from his time battling a rare form of cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which ultimately shaped the outlook on his life and those who were less fortunate than he was.  

Pouring much of his $1 million earnings from his victory on “Survivor: Africa” into his charity, GrassRoot Soccer, Zohn created a unique and effective way to battle an epidemic that spans across the African continent.

“Forty percent of children ages 15 through 24 are HIV positive,” Zohn said. “GrassRoot teaches coaches and children on how to prevent the disease.”

By combining soccer and the teachings of HIV prevention, children will be able to have fun and learn about AIDS. Due to the popularity of the sport in the region of Africa and the rest of the world, Zohn added that students in Africa spend most of their day with their coaches which is why it is important for them to have information on HIV prevention.

“Kids in Africa aspire and look up to coaches and their players,” Zohn said. “Soccer is the hook, but the education is the important concept.”

One moment in Zohn’s life catapulted the GrassRoot movement.

“When I was playing professionally in Zimbabwe, there were all these graveyards. [Some were] perfectly organized while other areas had crosses piled high,” Zohn said. “Why were some people buried here and others there? – That’s where all the people died from AIDS.”  

Zohn opened his eyes on the impact of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. But the unexpected death of his close friend, who died from the disease at the age of 24, made Zohn realize that there was something that he had to do.

“Milton stopped coming to training. It started with one day, then a week, then a month,” Zohn said. “I received a letter from Milton’s brother, after returning to the United States, saying that he had died – It hit me hard.”

From there, GrassRoot Soccer was founded. Since its installment in the region of Africa, there has been 700,000 graduates from the program.

After “Survivor: Africa,” Zohn’s arms became itchy and for four months his cancer went undiagnosed. He went to hospital and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

While reflecting on his time with cancer, Zohn states that there were times he wanted to stop fighting.

“My whole body turned against me, hair falling out, body ached, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep,” Zohn said. “There were times I didn’t want to fight anymore.”

Zohn believed his core values and beliefs helped him through these troubled times.

“By being a member of the community, I had the support of them when I needed them most,” Zohn said.  “It made me refocus, made me realize that we are all survivors on this earth for a short time.”

Thinking of all the people who started charities for cancer research that ultimately developed new ways to fight cancer made Zohn excited.

“Think about how cool that is,” Zohn said. “People are out there doing what I’m doing but what they did helped me beat cancer.”

Stem cell transplants were performed on Zohn and he received cells from his brother.

“I am not my mother’s favorite son anymore,” Zohn said. “If you take my DNA sample, it’s like my brother.”

When asked about if he had any tips for students to better themselves, he responded with, “It’s scary to take the first step. Leaders take that step and break down stereotypes.”

According to Zohn, breaking down stereotypes is something that can be done without $1 million or celebrity status. Students will need to be passionate about changing an issue that needs to be solved.

“The key is to leave here motivated to make a difference in yourself, and a difference in others,” Zohn said.