This article appeared in The Monitor, a Uganda-based newspaper, on Jan. 23, 2000.

‘Smokie’ eyes MLS draft, dreams of success in Europe

By Ed M. Odeven

After a recent visit back home, Peter “Smokie” Byaruhanga returned to the United States to begin preparations for the upcoming Major League Soccer draft.

According to Bob Gransler, head coach of the Kansas City Wizards, Byaruhanga will be selected in the first round of the February draft.

The reason?

“Forwards with the knack of putting the ball in the back of the net are the hottest commodity in any draft. Peter will be picked up by somebody in the first round,” Gransler told Kaleidoscope, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s student newspaper.

Byaruhanga, who led the UAB Blazers to the Elite Eight (quarterfinals) of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Soccer Cup in December, finished the 1999 season with goals in 14 consecutive games — the second-longest goal scoring streak in NCAA history. He was selected Conference USA Player of the Year and post-season tournament MVP. And he was named to College Soccer Online’s All-American Team.

In short, Byaruhanga was Mr. Fantastic all season for the UAB Blazers. And perhaps as fitting as it may seem, his electrifying final goal as a Blazer was one of the most improbably plays in recent college memory.

During the Dec. 5 showdown with visiting Santa Clara University, the Blazers trailed 2-1 with time running out on their storybook season, which included 13 wins in a row.

The elusive Ugandan raced down the right side of the field, fought off several Santa Clara defenders and blasted a shot from 20 yards away at an improbable angle.

Despite Byaruhanga’s magic, UAB lost 3-2 in overtime and finished with a 16-6 record.

“What can you say about Peter?” UAB soccer coach Mike Getman said after the season-ending defeat. “He’s done that again and again and again and again. It seems like everything was going against us. He beats about six of their players and hits a rocket into the far side netting. That’s been Peter all year long. He’s going to make a very good professional. He had a great season. We are certainly proud of everything he’s done.”

As a youngster, Byaruhanga grew up idolizing the talented local players.

A memorable meeting with a local superstar changed that.

Two summers ago, Byaruhanga accompanied Ugandan soccer star Majid Musisi to dinner. While dining, Musisi offered words of encouragement to Byaruhanga.

“I looked up to him as a role model,” Byaruhanga said. “If a guy like that (compliments) my ability, I respect him for that even more. I really looked up to him. I played much harder after that.”

Byaruhanga initiated a challenging, intense five-days-a-week workout routine. His 4 1/2-hour schedule includes lifting weights, conditioning, running, and vigorous ball-handling, shooting and passing drills.

Furthermore, another thrilling experience last summer motivated Byaruhanga to pursue greatness. When the UAB soccer team traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, he had the opportunity to meet another one of his childhood heroes:

World Cup legend Diego Maradona.

Byaruhanga and his UAB teammates stopped by Maradona’s mansion and practiced soccer on the field at his luxurious property.

“To me, it was like going to heaven,” Byaruhanga said of the Aug. 18 encounter with Maradona. “That was one moment I’ll never forget in my life.”

The hard work has paid off. In two seasons with the Blazers, he scored 34 goals and was clearly the team’s No. 1 player.

Perhaps Byaruhanga’s self-confidence will help him as he makes the jump from the collegiate to professional ranks. He said he plans to play in MLS for a couple seasons to improve his skills, and then go to Europe.