When is a dream just that? Is there a time to put away childish things like wanting to be a professional volleyball player? Absolutely not, says Drew Manusharow of Ahwatukee, Ariz.
In September 2011 the 6'7" athlete signed with German professional volleyball team FC Schüttorf 09. Manusharow would now be playing for coach Ralph Bergmann, an Olympian who played on the 2008 German national team. Manusharow’s first game on Sept. 4 was 66 years to the day since his now-deceased father, John, was born in a southern German village. Five days later, Manusharow celebrated his 30th birthday with teammates.
Entering the second half of their season with a record nine wins and one loss, the team’s sights are on now set on the 2012 league championship.
It has been a circuitous route for Manusharow, who owned a marketing company before making the leap to Europe’s professional volleyball scene.
“This has been a dream come true,” said Manusharow while visiting his mother in the Phoenix suburb. “If you want it, and believe in yourself, you can do just about anything.”
These are familiar words for Manusharow’s players. In 2010, at the request of his former Mountain Pointe High School volleyball coach Fred Mann, Manusharow took over the junior varsity program. Players recall what became Manusharow’s practice and game mantra: “If you truly believe it, you can achieve it.”
“Those weren’t just encouraging words, I mean them,” said Manusharow. “To this day I still believe they led me to Europe.”
Manusharow came late to the game of volleyball. He had just completed soccer season when Mann invited him to join the school’s indoor volleyball team – a sport Manusharow admits he’d “never heard of before.”
Coach Mann said when he spied the “big, tall kid” on campus he approached him to join the team.
“I said, ‘you’re a volleyball player now,’” recalled Mann, a South African native. “I got several new players this way, and they helped us win back-to-back state championships in 1999 and 2000.”
Manusharow was All-State both years.
“I won several awards in high school, but the most important [was] winning State Championships because volleyball’s a team sport and I’m a team player,” Manusharow said.
A volleyball scholarship took him to top-ranked Cal State Northridge, where he majored in art. But his time there was cut short when his father was diagnosed with cancer. He transferred to the University of Arizona to be closer; again on a volleyball scholarship.
His father died in 2004, without the chance to see his son graduate, which the younger Manusharow did with honors in 2006. After graduation, Manusharow set his sights on professional volleyball.
“I was excited and looking to play professional volleyball in Europe. Not many guys go on to accomplish such goals, and few from Arizona,” he said. “But then another death in the family happened just a month after graduation…so things changed.”
Manusharow’s grandparents died, hitting him hard, and postponing his dream. After three deaths in three consecutive years, he spent time with uncles in the Midwest to regain his equilibrium.
“I was dealing with so much sadness, but I knew it was right to move back to Ahwatukee. Though I left the idea of playing professional volleyball, it never left my heart,” he said.
With his fine arts degree, Manusharow worked as a graphic designer and then opened his marketing firm.
Manusharow’s career was marked by his altruistic outlook, which included pro bono work. After high school friend Anthony Ameen was seriously injured in Afghanistan aiding a fellow soldier, Manusharow helped with an ad hoc “Wings for Anthony” fundraising campaign. Last year, Ameen turned the fundraiser into a nonprofit organization, and Manusharow helped with the branding. He is now a board member.
Manusharow’s career kept him busy, with little time to play volleyball, but his passion for the sport was rekindled in the unlikeliest of places. An inaugural men’s volleyball alumni tournament at his high school alma mater in 2010 helped Manusharow not only find his way back to the sport he loved but also help revive his dream of playing professionally.
“Ten years after graduating from high school and five after college graduation, I felt the spark relight again,” said Manusharow, whose team took first in the alumni tournament while he was named MVP. “In that moment, I think I came out of retirement and felt I had my volleyball legs again.”
But decisions had to be made.
“I had a small business, I was investing in my future, and I had start-up online businesses and a bunch of entrepreneurship ideas cooking. I was an avid mountain biker and I was coaching high school volleyball. So I thought, how could I find time to leave?”
One morning, he ran up Phoenix’s South Mountain, racing the sunrise.
“I looked out over the valley and said, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ I knew I was capable; I just needed to mentally get ready for a whole new ballgame in Europe.”
Eyes towards Europe, he diligently pursued a strenuous physical regimen, then sold or stored his furniture and personal items, bidding friends and colleagues ciao.
At 29, he headed for the big time.
Nobody said it was going to be easy.
Nearly a year ago, in August, he flew to Rome and traveled throughout Italy on a tour showcasing volleyball players, many newly-graduated NCAA athletes.
“I was playing in front of coaches from throughout Europe. It really drains you physically and mentally spending a month of long hours and competing with some of the best college graduates from the U.S., seeking jobs as volleyball players,” he said.
Manusharow was in communication with teams from Austria, Germany, and Greece, all offering try-outs. He followed his heart, heading to Germany – his father’s birthplace.
“I tried out for a week; they had me play a tournament to see how I worked with the team,” he said. “After negotiations, I signed a one-year contract with FC Schüttorf 09.”
At 30 years old, Manusharow chose 30 as his jersey number. His first game, he wore a yellow wristband given to him by mentor Russ Shasky. It said, ‘Believe.’ and he has worn it ever since.
“Not a day went by while I was looking for teams and trying out that I didn’t give 110 percent,” he said. “I saw blood, sweat and maybe some tears of pain as I wrapped blisters and iced knees and ankles throughout my first months in Europe and the months training prior to my USA departure. It was mind over matter – I set out to do something I believed I could achieve. Now I can say I busted my ass, I tried, and I made it.”
As a foreign player, there are certainly hurdles.
Manusharow’s limited German makes practices, games, and everyday life more difficult.
“Although I’ve picked up some German, it’s still very difficult,” he said. “I have buddies on the team translate when Coach Ralph is speaking. If Coach desires something specific from me, he’ll make a point in his best English, but 97 percent of the time, it’s in German.”
The fans, he says, are like nothing he had experienced in the U.S.
“They can get very loud, beating drums, blowing horns and whistles, beating clappers, and chanting; I love it. Our fan base in Schüttorf is growing as we continue to win. It’s great to have people say hello when I’m out and about in the city.”
Manusharow maintains that every day is a gift and he’s grateful for family and friends worldwide who have been supportive.
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Originally published in June 2012