The Guardian Footballer of the Year is an award given to a player who has done something truly remarkable, whether by overcoming adversity, helping others or setting a sporting example by acting with exceptional honesty. Khadija “Bunny” Shaw is our third winner following Fabio Pisacane in 2016 and Juan Mata in 2017.
There is a warmth and gentle magnetism about Khadija “Bunny” Shaw that is immediate and fills the room, a personality as towering as the nearly 6ft frame that pounded in one goal after another during a breathless year of double duty for the Jamaica women’s national team and the University of Tennessee.
She has just finished the last of her final exams when we meet on the school’s sprawling Knoxville campus, where the senior communications major is on track to graduate in the spring and become the first member of her family to earn a degree from an American university. For now, a plane ride home and a well-earned break is afoot.
Life, in short, is good for the Guardian’s footballer of the year for 2018, a one-time teenage prodigy turned lethal 21-year-old striker who delivered on her long-held promise in powering the Reggae Girlz into their first ever Women’s World Cup and the Lady Volunteers to the best season in their history.
The accomplishments on their face are remarkable enough. But the breadth of Shaw’s achievement is nothing short of extraordinary given the unspeakable personal tragedy she has overcome along the way, losing four brothers – three of them to gang-related violence – in a short period of time.
Shaw grew up alongside seven brothers and five sisters in Spanish Town, the gritty former Jamaican capital on the western outskirts of Kingston, the youngest child of George, a shoemaker, and Monica, a poultry farmer who raised chickens. She recalls in vivid detail a picture-book upbringing – neighbours playing dominos on the corner, music echoing down the sidewalks, children kicking the ball about in the streets – largely sheltered from the ever-looming threat of gang violence that reached a grim peak during her childhood. Through the good and the bad, Shaw’s parents held the family together.
“It was a struggle growing up, to grow up in such an environment and see how they persevered, what motivated them to want to motivate me,” she recalls. “Literally sometimes I don’t know how they did what they did, but they managed to get it done.”
A prominent set of front teeth and a prodigious appetite for carrots inspired Shaw’s brother, Kentardo, to coin her leporine nickname, which she loathed at first until she “grew into it”. She made the three-minute walk from the family house to her primary school with her father every day and enjoyed her classes – especially social studies.
After school, Shaw would return home and watch her older brothers kick the ball around in the street in front of the house before they headed to a nearby field for practice. Monica forbade Bunny from joining in, wary of her youngest daughter spending too much time on a sport thought to be too rough for girls. Eventually, Shaw coaxed an introductory lesson from Kentardo, who told her she had to start by juggling the ball.
“That was one of the hardest things to do, because you got to learn to keep the ball up,” she recalls. “I would kick it up and then let it bounce and I would count, count, count. And I would try to go to two and I would try to go to three. He was like the more technical you are, the better you are playing on a soccer field, because the less technical you are, there are certain things you can’t do on the soccer field.”
Over time Shaw’s mother relented and allowed Bunny to play with the boys in front of the house, where her innate speed, touch and creative flair earned her a measure of notoriety. Word spread around the parish and beyond. Then one day Monica received a phone call from Vin Blaine, the Jamaica Football Federation’s director of football, who wanted to invite the precocious seventh-grader to a national team camp.
“That’s when my mum was like: ‘OK! You go play! Go to the soccer field!’” Shaw recalls with a laugh. “That’s when I got more involved because at my school, I was the best player. But then when I went to the camp there were players like me.”
From there Shaw’s development accelerated and her ascent was rapid. She played in Jamaica’s under-15, under-17 and under-20 teams at the age of 14, coming up alongside present-day teammates Konya Plummer and Deneisha Blackwood. But it was not until the scholarship offers from American universities began pouring in around 11th grade that Shaw viewed football as a career path.
After navigating her options with the head coach of Jamaica’s national team, Shaw gave a verbal commitment to play for the University of Florida but, after missing the date of the SAT college entrance exam, spent two years playing in junior college, where she was spotted and recruited by the Tennessee coach, Brian Pensky. The adjustment to American life was tough at times, not least because she has yet to find a place that makes her beloved jerk chicken like the corner spots back home.
“You got to just be in the environment and see for itself,” she says. “I knew America was a big place for me in terms of the capacity. And I know it was pretty from what people would say. And I know it’s just way more organised from back home. Sometimes, there are some things that are unexplainable.”
Yet as Shaw came of age and flourished on the pitch in the United States, an unfathomable streak of misfortune took hold of her family in Spanish Town. Gang-related gun violence took the lives of three of her brothers. A fourth was taken in a fatal car accident. Then while attending Eastern Florida State College in 2016, Shaw lost two nephews in quick succession: one to a gunshot, the other when he was electrocuted on a football field. The accumulation of grief rocked the tight-knit family and put Bunny’s indefatigable spirit to the test in previously unthinkable ways. Alone in a foreign land, she considered quitting the sport entirely.
“I wanted to go home,” Shaw says. “I didn’t want to play soccer. And it was just hard because you lost four and then you come back again and lose two nephews. It’s just like: ‘What more to come? I want to go home because I didn’t get to say goodbye to them and now they’re gone.’ They say you’re not supposed to ask God why, but sometimes I would be like: ‘Why? Why did this happen?’
“I would say it definitely got me stronger. And even though it was a rough time, it helped me. You know, in the moment I wouldn’t have thought that. But now, to see what I’ve accomplished, knowing I’ve lost so much, I would say it definitely helped me. But it was rough. I couldn’t focus in school. I was just thinking about it all. And my mum would constantly call me. I would tell my family I want to come home and they’re like: ‘No, you’ve got to stay! You’ve got to make it better for yourself and better for us! So I was like: ‘All right, take a deep breath.’”
Hardened but unbroken Shaw leaned into her grief and redoubled her commitment to her craft, taking heart in the belief her loved ones are with her still. “The hardest part is they’re not there,” she says. “I know they’re watching over me, but they’re not in person so I can see them and tell them [things] and get their feedback. When I accomplish something I’m always happy, but I’m thinking I wanted them to see this. I’ll say that’s the biggest thing.
“But I’ve learned, because it was hard, that you just got to look past it. You know it happens. Everything happens for a reason. It’s what’s happening now, that’s what I’ve got to focus on.”
The uncommon blend of physicality, quickness and vision that sets Shaw apart and elevates her teammates has been on full display since her senior international debut in July before World Cup qualifying. She has answered the call with 11 goals in nine appearances, including the opener in the climactic 2-2 draw with Panama that went to a penalty shootout, where the Reggae Girlz punched their historic World Cup ticket.
Shaw also finished with 13 goals in 14 appearances for Tennessee as they reached the last eight of the NCAA tournament for the first time, landing in the year-end top 10 of all three national rankings, another first for them. After graduation and next summer’s World Cup, she plans to pursue a professional career either in the United States or Europe. The sky is the limit and these days, after what she has persevered through, there is every reason to smile. But even as her career soars to new heights, family remains the core of her support system – and the lessons passed down from her parents keep her grounded.
“Remain humble, stay focused and just do the best you can,” she says. “They’ve been there from day one, even when people said: ‘Oh, soccer is a man’s sport.’ They never said maybe you should change your sport and play netball or volleyball. They’d always be like if that’s your dream, try and see if you can achieve your dream. They’ve been there even when we’ve lost games or didn’t make it to where we wanted to. They’d say OK, the next one. You’ll get it on the next one. So with them, having them behind me, pushing me, encouraging me, motivating me, that’s all I need.”