When he went to Thailand last summer, Anthony Ampaipitakwong was not prepared to see an elephant walk by his table.
The unimaginable sight shocked Ampaipitakwong, a former University of Akron soccer star, during his first month in the country where his father was born. Signing a 2½-year contract to play for Buriram United of the Thai Premier League in July, Ampaipitakwong (pronounced Am-PIE-pitak-won) was eating at a night market when the massive animal, which he compared to a “monster truck,” lumbered by with its owner.
“I’m just eating soup and ‘Oh, my God, it’s an elephant,’ ” Ampaipitakwong said.
The elephant was off-leash, so to speak, directed by a pointed stick his handler jabbed it with if it went the wrong way.
“That’s how he gets tips, he does tricks,” Ampaipitakwong explained on Dec. 12 when he returned to Akron for UA coach Caleb Porter’s farewell. “You pay the elephant; the elephant picks up the money by its nose.
“The elephant is reaching his nose and you give him a dollar, he gives it to his owner, he does a trick like a wave, and keeps going.”
Elephants are common in Thailand, said Ampaipitakwong’s father, Pete, who came to the United States when he was 19.
“A lot of people in Thailand, it’s a third-world country, that’s what they do for a living, they bring trained elephants into the city,” Pete Ampaipitakwong said by phone last week from Carrollton, Texas. “City people never see elephants except in the zoo. When they bring an elephant in, everyone buys food and feeds them.”
Buriram is about five hours from Bangkok, Ampaipitakwong said, and not as heavily populated as the capital. But he said driving is “crazy,” so he relies on “team chauffeurs” and never gets behind the wheel.
Before he returned this month, Ampaipitakwong said he spoke very little Thai, suggesting he could perhaps count to 10.
“The Thai language is not that hard to learn,” his father said. “Eventually he will.”
A member of the U.S. under-17 team who attended the IMG Academy, Ampaipitakwong was Porter’s first big-time recruit. He didn’t know where Akron was when Porter first called, even though his uncle, Tom Strong, used to run the Bridgestone Invitational.
As a senior midfielder, Ampaipitakwong was a co-captain of the Zips’ 2010 national championship team and won the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, given to the Division I player who excels in the community, classroom, character and competition. He finished his career as the Zips’ all-time leader in games played (93), totaling 17 goals and 30 assists in four years.
Taken by the San Jose Earthquakes in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2011 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, Ampaipitakwong started five games and played in 12 before injuries ended his rookie season. Last year he found himself stuck on the bench as the Earthquakes surprised many by finishing with the best record in the MLS.
“It was hard for me to get minutes, our team kept winning,” Ampaipitakwong said. “It was hard to get my foot in the door and show myself. When this opportunity came it was almost a no-brainer. I had to take it. I had to go somewhere and play.”
Ampaipitakwong said the Thai national team started pursuing him when he left UA.
“My rookie season I was going to go, but some things happened with the weather in Thailand and I didn’t attend a camp,” Ampaipitakwong said. “That brought interest from club teams in Thailand. ‘Oh, there’s a Thai-American kid in the United States.’
“The first club team to communicate to my agent was Buriram. They showed a strong interest. I went there to visit. I liked the team, the facility. I watched how they played. They keep the ball on the ground; it’s very similar to Akron. I enjoyed everything about it. I knew it would be a new experience, so I said, ‘I’m just going to go for it.’ ”
To explore the opportunity, Pete Ampaipitakwong went with Anthony to Thailand, where he still has relatives. The elder Ampaipitakwong said his son joined Buriram in an effort to pursue a soccer career in Europe. He said the club’s owner is a partner of Leicester City of the English League and at least two of Buriram’s players have gone there in the past month.
“The chance to go to Europe from the U.S. is really slim,” Pete Ampaipitakwong said. “You have to make the national team. In Thailand you don’t have to.”
Ampaipitakwong will be in Thailand from February through October for two more years. To keep in touch with his family and girlfriend, he emails and occasionally talks to them via Skype. His parents watch his matches on the Internet and hope to see one in person in September. His father was excited about a big game, which the Thunder Castle won last week, to put them in the AFC Champions League group stage with teams from South Korea, China and Japan.
But for Ampaipitakwong, 24, making the move wasn’t easy.
“It was hard to leave the United States. This is the country I’ve lived in my whole life,” Ampaipitakwong said. “It wasn’t the MLS. It was living a lifestyle in a different country. So many things there are just different. The whole experience.”
That said, he believes playing for Buriram was a “huge step” he’s glad he took.
“Because my club is affiliated with Leicester City, it’s always a possibility I could go train there, get exposure there,” Ampaipitakwong said. “Right now I’m just trying to get a solid spot on the team and other things will come.”
He was talking about his soccer future, not the next elephant rounding the corner in search of another dollar.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.