When Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw graduated with a communications degree from the University of Tennessee in May, it wasn’t hard to spot her.
As she collected her diploma, the Jamaica forward burst into her trademark “infectious” smile and repeated three simple words: “I did well. I did well.”
For anyone already acquainted with Shaw’s story, it was an understatement as huge as her grin.
The 22-year-old, nicknamed ‘Bunny’ because of a fondness for carrots at an early age, had completed her degree while simultaneously helping Jamaica reach their first World Cup.
She did so after a young life touched by tragedy in her native country, where she lost three brothers and a nephew to gang violence.
She also had to contend with her mother’s preconceptions about whether she should play football at all.
“It has taken a lot of sacrifice and sleepless nights, but you just have to take it step-by-step, otherwise things will crumble,” Shaw says.
“Sometimes you have things replaying in your mind, and you start thinking: ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore’.
“But if I stopped, would they be happy? If they were alive would they want me to stop? Are you going to let that define you as a person?”
Shaw grew up as the youngest of 13 brothers and sisters in Spanish Town, 13 miles west of Jamaica’s capital Kingston, on the banks of the Rio Cobre.
It is the birthplace of singer Grace Jones and sprinter Yohan Blake, who, like Shaw, attended St Jago High School, a stone’s throw from the river that dissects the town.
Jamaican journalist Kayon Raynor calls it a “hard” place where two rival gangs are often responsible for the violence that has blossomed there. Recently, he says, gunmen shot at local police on a Sunday morning in broad daylight.
In 2018, 1,287 people were murdered in Jamaica, which has a population of about 2.9m. The UK’s Foreign Office states “gang violence and shootings are common, although usually confined to inner-city neighbourhoods”.
“Anywhere in the world you have places like this,” says Raynor. “But when you get out of Spanish Town, whether it’s via sport or business, it’s a good thing. Shaw has demonstrated that.”
Shaw plays down Jamaica’s violence but, in all, she lost four brothers. A fourth died in a car accident, while a second nephew was electrocuted on a football pitch.
The hardest thing, for her, was not being able to say goodbye. The deaths of her nephews came while she was studying and playing football in Florida and, understandably, she wanted to quit and go back home.
“Soccer is a way for me to forget a lot of things,” she says.
“It was a big risk leaving home and leaving my family, but sometimes you have to take chances and see how far it leads you. In the environment I was in, I knew I had to do something to help myself and my family.
“I lost four brothers and two nephews, and it was just… tough, especially at a young age seeing all this stuff happening around you. Sometimes you have to pull yourself together and my family played a big part in that. We have been through it all.
“Jamaica is not the same as a lot of places in the world but violence is everywhere, so you just have to try and make what’s best for you. That’s what helped us get through it. You have a lot of negative thoughts but if you let them overthrow the positives, I would have stopped a long time ago.”
That ability to deal with “struggles” and move on has already led to great success in football and academia, despite humble beginnings.
Born to father George, a shoemaker, and mother Monica, a chicken farmer, a year before the Jamaican men’s team qualified for their first World Cup in 1998, as a child Shaw would help out with her dad’s business during the summer holidays.
She was also keen to play football with her older brothers. Her mother stopped her because she thought the sport was too rough.
But once her brother Kentardo began to teach her, aged 10, it wasn’t long before her rare combination of speed, power and skill began to be noticed and when the Jamaican federation came calling, her mother soon changed her mind.
It was also around this time that Kentardo gave her the ‘Bunny’ nickname. It stuck.
“I enjoyed my mum’s carrot juice and carrots and I had two big teeth, so my brother would always say: ‘You eat them like a bunny rabbit’. He started calling me that, and initially, I didn’t like it. Everybody laughed at me, and I would cry and get mad. But then I thought, you know what, I’m going to embrace it.”
Aged 14, ‘Bunny’ was playing for the Jamaican under-15, under-17 and under-20 teams. While representing her country during a game in Florida, she was spotted. That led to scholarships at Navarro College in Texas and Eastern Florida State College before she was alerted to the University of Tennessee.
The soccer coach at Tennessee, Brian Pensky, got a text from a friend saying he should go and watch Shaw play. When he did, it was a “slam-dunk moment”.
“You could tell she was unique straight away,” he says.
“She’s 5’11”, strong, quick, technical and smart – in many ways the complete package. Tall women in soccer tend to be target players or centre-backs but her ability to change direction and her passing ability and vision made me think she was different.”
Pensky wasted little time in signing Shaw up, converting her from a midfielder to a striker. The move paid off massively – both for his team and the Reggae Girlz.
The University of Tennessee reached the NCAA quarter-finals for the first time, and Shaw was the team’s top scorer in both 2017 and 2018.
For Jamaica, she scored 19 goals in 12 games en route to France, making her the tournament’s leading scorer in qualification.
Shaw was “incredibly popular” on campus, Pensky says. He talks fondly of her “infectious” smile and how he would get texts from fellow athletic coaches and directors after Shaw had paid them a visit.
“They’d be telling me that Bunny had just left their offices and their faces were hurting because they’d been laughing so much,” he says. “Her character and wit are sensational. She’s a leader but she’s incredibly humble.”
Pensky got an immediate insight into the tragedy in her personal life the day she arrived at the University of Tennessee as a shy student in the autumn of 2017.
“When I met her, she told me that her cousin had been shot, a drive-by shooting, that morning. Thankfully, he survived. What she’s been through is well beyond anything I’ve seen, so really during the time she has been with us, I’ve just tried to lend an ear when she wants to talk.
“There are no kids in her team or probably in the whole university who have suffered the repeated tragedies she has been through. To manage that all herself speaks to another level of maturity and how goal-driven she is. She’s just proud.”
Having scored twice against Scotland in Jamaica’s final pre-tournament friendly, a 3-2 defeat last month, Shaw now stands on the verge of making an even bigger name for herself at the World Cup.
In France this summer, Jamaica face Brazil, Italy and Australia in their opening group games – starting with Brazil on Sunday (14:30 BST). It will be a special occasion for a player who counts Ronaldinho and Marta as her footballing heroes.
Shaw has already signed a contract to join French team Bordeaux next season, and has been dreaming of playing on the biggest stage ever since Jamaica qualified.
The fact Jamaica have reached their first World Cup is a massive story in itself. In 2008 and 2016, the federation disbanded the Reggae Girlz because of a lack of funding. Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella helped raised sponsorship to get them back on track.
“When Jamaica made it to France in October, I told Khadija that she could wake up every day for the next eight months and tell herself she’ll be at the World Cup. That’s how she’s carried herself since then,” Pensky says.
“There are no words to express her excitement about competing there. I can’t wait to see what she becomes five years from now. The sky is the limit and she can become something special.”
Although Shaw was a leading light in qualifying, she credits the “togetherness” the Reggae Girlz have shown in matching the men’s team, who also travelled to France for their first World Cup 21 years ago.
“A World Cup is a big stage but we can’t let that overthrow what we have done for ourselves,” she says. “This is a game-by-game team.
“We needed to qualify for the World Cup to open the eyes of a lot of people to see that we can play and compete. They think that women’s football is just kicking a ball around, but it’s much more than that. Playing in France will have a massive impact.”
Despite her story of overcoming poverty and tragedy, leaving home to earn her family’s first degree and helping Jamaica reach their first World Cup, she doesn’t regard herself as a role model, even if she has “hero” status back home, according to Pensky.
“I don’t focus on stuff like that,” she says. “I focus on being as professional as I can, because I’m in an environment where people are looking towards me. I try not to let certain achievements overthrow who I am. I’m not going to let that define who I really am.”
Looking back can be difficult. Shaw’s focus is the future, but she understands why her story needs to be told.
“It’s important because other people might be going through the same thing that I did,” she says. “Some of them might not be brave enough to talk, so for me to talk on behalf of them and talk about similar things they’ve been through is good.
“There are other times when I want to bypass that question but I say hey, if I’m inspiring others when I’ve been through all this and they see me laugh and being successful, then that’s all I need.
“I want to make my friends, my family, the people who know me and my country proud.”
On that front, she has already done better than well.
|Fifa Women’s World Cup|
|Host nation:FranceDates:7 June – 7 July 2019|
|Coverage:Live across BBC TV and Red Button, Radio 5 Live & Sports Extra and the BBC Sport website & App|
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