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Alumni Spotlight:
The Personal Impact of Enabling Leadership PLAY on Upendra

In the sun-baked fields of Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, Santosh Yadav was a champion wrestler, his victories echoing in the dusty air. Two decades later, his son, Upendra, would find his own arena of glory, not on the mat, but on a different kind of pitch.

Between these two tales lies a story of urbanisation, the dreams and struggles of low-income households, and the common desire of parents to give their children a life better than theirs. Santosh moved to Pune in 1996 on the promise of a job that could support his growing family. He joined a private company that worked with batteries and other electronic equipment. Seven years and two daughters later, his son Upendra was born. To manage their expenses better, Santosh and Upendra moved to Pune while the rest of their family stayed back.

Growing up, Upendra was an ordinary student – slightly irregular at school, mischievous but introverted, and energetic without a cause. In his own words, “I was a quiet student with a very small circle of friends. I didn’t do or think a lot. I just went to school and came back.” The introduction of our football program, then known as “Just for Kicks” (JFK), turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Upendra. He joined the program in 7th grade, influenced by the popularity of the students who were already playing. He started out as an ordinary player initially, often playing as a substitute, learning and catching up on the skills and techniques. But his life changed in the second year of the program.

A quote from the Article stating Upendra character when he joined the program

Upendra’s coach noticed the potential that lay behind his introverted persona and made him the captain. “This was the first time I understood the impact I had on those around me. I was heard and followed. Soon, I realized I had to set an example, both inside and outside the field. I had to show up.” Upendra’s personality changed as he grew into his role of a leader. From becoming regular in school to improving academically, football had a major influence on his life.

His principal at the time, Sweta, remembers how Upendra was a headstrong individual who wanted to fight his battles himself. The sport helped him express his emotions better. His focus improved, and his energy had a direction. Sweta remembers, “I saw Upendra lose matches on the field, but I also saw him pick himself up. He didn’t give up. We channeled the same mindset in his academics as well, and his grades improved.”

Upendra led his school team to two runners-up titles before he graduated from the program. The sport was a great addition to Upendra’s life. He was physically stronger, his body language and self-esteem improved, and he enjoyed the sense of accomplishment he got. He realized he wanted to be associated with the game in some respect while also building a future for himself.

Driven by his financial situation, Upendra wanted to stand on his own feet. While still in school, he worked as a coach and in an office. Later, he decided to study psychology and also became a part-time coach in our football program, now known as EL Play. Talking about his journey, he said, “I learned about risk-taking in football, and I applied it to my life. I tried learning German in school and then chose to study psychology.”

Demonstrating his entrepreneurial spirit, courage, and growth mindset, Upendra ventured into a small waffle business with a friend. They handled everything, from choosing the location and interacting with customers to managing finances. Before he turned 20 and at an age when most kids spend time with friends, Upendra was already a self-made entrepreneur, a sportsperson, and a student. He attributes all of this to football. Sweta notes, “It’s incredible how much he could achieve in the same 12 hours every day. Football helped him use his time wisely, putting him a step ahead of his peers.” Although the business closed after a few months, the experience was invaluable.

Today, Upendra dedicates much of his time to coaching students in the same program where he started his journey as a student. At home, he dutifully manages the entire household and is also pursuing his graduation. But what if football hadn’t entered his life? This question always prompts a long pause. He reflects, “I think I would have been aimless, spending most of my time loafing around, picking up fights.” Sweta sees it differently, believing that football would have inevitably found him. “I’ve seen him become his best version on the field—confident and expressive, always holding his head high.”

Observing Upendra now, it’s easier to lean towards Sweta’s perspective. He often serves as the most enthusiastic supporter for his students, guiding them from the sidelines. During sessions, he encourages academic improvement, offers counsel for their problems, and acts as their best friend. His impact is unmistakable as his students instinctively look to him after every victory or defeat. It’s difficult to imagine that Upendra was a shy, introverted student once, and it is extremely difficult to imagine his life without the sport.

As we traced Upendra’s journey, we witnessed a range of emotions. Reminiscing his story often brought a smile, while at other times, we saw tears welling up. His parents, teachers and coaches are proud of the person he has become. Upendra, among the many whose lives were touched by our program, now shapes a community of resilient individuals who come from challenging backgrounds with limited resources. His story, replete with ups and downs, is an inspiration. It fills us with a deep sense of pride, fuelling our commitment to making a positive impact on more lives like his.

By Garima Kumar (Communications Associate)