The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports:
For Sasha Doran, the transition this football season has been smooth. The junior at Wayzata High School took over as the starting quarterback for the defending big-school state champions and has helped the Trojans remain undefeated through the first three games.
Doran was a defensive back two years ago, so in a football sense he’s come a long way. But go back seven years – to when Sasha and his two older sisters were wards of a Russian orphanage – and the story seems too unbelievable to be true.
The unlikely journey hit home for Sasha’s adoptive parents last season, when he took a few snaps with the rest of the backups during one of the Trojans’ blowout victories. As John and Mary Ellen Doran of Plymouth watched Sasha on the field, they thought back to the little boy who spoke no English, who had lived on the street before being taken to the orphanage, who uttered “nyet” when handed a mysterious object – a football – for the first time.
“I looked out there and thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, six years ago he was in an orphanage in Russia and he didn’t have enough food to make it,'” Mary Ellen said. “Now he’s the quarterback at Wayzata.”
Sasha was named the starting quarterback two days before the season opener. His debut was impressive, as he completed 14 of 15 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-7 victory over Eastview. For the season, he has passed for 457 yards and six touchdowns in three victories. But after that first game, he admitted to being nervous.
“Oh, I was really nervous,” he said with just a hint of an accent. “I looked up at the crowd and that kind of froze me up a little bit.”
Mary Ellen Doran said that game “was a fairy tale.” As is the story of Elena, Nadya and Sasha Doran.
John and Mary Ellen had tried for years to have kids. “We had been married a while and thought we might like to add to the deal,” said John, who owns a concrete business. “It just didn’t work.”
They turned to adoption, hoping to find two older kids. European Children Adoption Services in Plymouth showed them a photo of three siblings from Russia who had been born in St. Petersburg and lost both parents.
Sasha had run off at age 6 and survived on the streets for a year until police brought him to an orphanage in the small town of Petchori near the borders with Estonia and Finland. His sisters were moved from another orphanage to join Sasha a year later. They lived there for three more years – Sasha remembers meals of porridge and water – before being adopted and moving to Minnesota in 2002.
“It was kind of a rocky deal,” Mary Ellen said of the siblings’ early lives.
Because the kids were older when they met the Dorans – Elena and Nadya were teenagers and Sasha was 11 – they had to agree to the adoption.
“They just gave up every single thing they knew and went off with two people they didn’t know,” John said.
The gratitude in Sasha’s eyes is apparent as he talks about his life, past and present.
“We came from nothing and then we met these two great people who gave us this opportunity in life,” he said. “And I have a lot of friends who care about me.”
The kids are now 24, 20 and 18. The girls graduated from Wayzata High School; Elena earned a degree from the University of St. Thomas and is an accountant for Hennepin County, and Nadya has taken college courses while working for her father’s concrete company.
John Doran played high school football in Bemidji, was an assistant coach at a high school in California and is a well-known Wayzata youth football coach. When he and Mary Ellen went to Russia to meet the kids for the first time, John brought Sasha a football. The youngster said “nyet” and tried to kick it like a soccer ball.
“It was hilarious,” Mary Ellen said.
As part of the warmup routine for all Wayzata football teams – youth through high school – jumping jacks are performed while the players rhythmically yell “W! A! Y! Z! A! T! A!” In Sasha’s first year of football as a fourth-grader, he came home from practice in tears because he hadn’t learned the English alphabet well enough to spell Wayzata.
The rest of the family literally jumped in to help, spontaneously doing the jumping jacks routine every so often until Sasha had it down.
“None of the kids spoke English,” Mary Ellen said. “For reasonable conversation, it took them about six months.”
Sasha, who now is 6 feet tall and weighs 160 pounds, was held back in school for a year when he arrived because he was smaller than other kids his age. But he quickly became popular. During a fourth-grade bowling party, all the kids wanted to be on Sasha’s team. The youth football players wore their jerseys, but Sasha came home that day without his jersey. He had given it to a girl with autism; she was the first person he picked to be on his team.
“He’s got a good heart,” said his mother.
In some ways, the transition was easier for Sasha than for his sisters.
“The first couple years were tough,” John Doran said. “The kids couldn’t read, write or speak English. Sasha was the luckiest, I think, because kids in our neighborhood came over and knocked on the door and he just went out to play. I don’t know if the kids were using hand signals or some kind of code, but they hit it off right away.”
Among Sasha’s first friends was classmate Abbey Kaine, whose family lives across the street. Before Sasha and his sisters even came to America, she drew a paper likeness of herself – a “flat Abbey” – for John and Mary Ellen to show to the kids in Russia. She was in third grade.
“So technically, Sasha knew me before he ever met me,” she said with a laugh.
Abbey learned a little Russian in order to help Sasha learn English.
“He was so cute,” she said. “He would come to school and wave to me and my friends, he was so happy to know someone. Everyone liked him right away.”
Many of Sasha’s first friends are now his football teammates.
“I remember the first year or two he was here, we had to draw up the plays in the dirt for him,” junior center Aaron Berg said. “He would break down in tears every so often, but we told him it was OK. He fit right in.”
Among Sasha’s first English words were “Skittles” and “pickles.”
Junior safety David Boegel remembers watching young Sasha eat an orange, including the skin. “I thought that was kind of interesting,” Boegel said. “I was like, ‘You don’t have to eat that.'”
Boegel also remembers hearing Sasha, for the first time, properly pronounce the lunch menu at school. He told his friend, “Good job.”
“He still has problems pronouncing English,” Boegel said. “He comes to my house and he makes me say every single play and he pronounces it back. He’ll keep doing it and doing it until he has it down. We do it before every game.”
Said Sasha: “I repeat them to get the pronunciation right in the huddle. They’re hard plays, like ‘Deuce Right H Boot Flood.'”
Sasha always has been a confident athlete, but being named the starting varsity quarterback unnerved him. He came home from practice that day and told his dad: “I’m scared. I don’t know if I will be able to do it.”
John told him the coaches wouldn’t have picked him if they didn’t think he was up to the job.
“He always has been, up until that point, very confident,” John said. “He’s surrounded with so many quality people, coaches and teammates. He’s been so gifted that his talent alone has been able to take him quite a ways. Now he’s on a level where talent alone isn’t enough. Those coaches are doing such a great job with all those kids.”
The first time Wayzata coach Brad Anderson saw Sasha, the youngster was in a middle-school confirmation class taught by the coach’s wife, Maari. Later, Anderson saw Sasha playing flag football.
“He was running and catching and doing different things,” Anderson said. “You could see he was a really good athlete. He makes really good decisions. With some of the learning of the terminology and some techniques, he’s still developing. He makes a lot of good decisions with the ball.
“When you look at how far he’s come in a short period of time, it’s pretty encouraging.”
And not just in football skills. Any way one measures it – from Russia to Wayzata, from orphan to quarterback – Sasha Doran has come a long way.