CINCINNATI — Long before he became “Big Cat,” Omar Cummings was best known as “Freegent.”
The FC Cincinnati forward likes to think the nickname he was given growing up in Jamaica says more about him as a person and soccer player than the one he earned here in Cincinnati — even if it doesn’t actually bear any real meaning.
“Big Cat” — or sometimes just “Cat” — is just a funny name his coaches and teammates call him because he played for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats.
“Everyone in Jamaica, literally, has a nickname,” Cummings explained Friday at Nippert Stadium, as third-place FCC (11-4-4) wrapped up preparations for Saturday’s United Soccer League Eastern Conference game against fourth-place Charleston Battery (10-4-5). “This one evolved from nothing. My cousin started calling me one thing, and a bunch of people started mispronouncing it, and it evolved into ‘Freegent.’ When I explain it, it means something like a free spirit, but I don’t think he intended for it to have that meaning.”
Long-time friend Ewan Blair, whom Cummings grew up with in Jamaica and played with at UC in 2005, only knew Cummings as “Freegent” when they first met as kids.
It’s a name Blair described as “fitting” of the way Cummings plays, based on the description of how it sounds.
“He has energy all the time, and he’s always gone like the wind, you could say,” said Blair, who still lives in Cincinnati and considers Cummings like family. “He loves to roam on the field. He wants to be involved in the game at all times and be free to do what he wants to do to help his team.”
FC Cincinnati coach John Harkes said Cummings is a free spirit in the way he thinks so positively — he always seems to have a smile on his face, even when he’s working hard.
Cummings said that’s because soccer has always been his retreat.
“I try to remind myself, especially when playing in a special environment, sometimes it's more business-like: This is your role. This is your job,” Cummings said. “But, to me, I want it to be enjoyable. It has to be enjoyable. Yes, it's your job, your career, but it's also my fun time. This is what I love.
“No matter my mood, I can get into soccer and get away from that.”
Soccer provided an outlet he has especially needed the past two years after seeing his wife, Viola, experience difficulties in pregnancy while carrying triplets, then feeling helpless while watching them struggle to survive when delivered at 24 weeks.
Gianna didn’t make it. His other daughter, Kayla, and son, Kymani, spent months in the NICU at a hospital in Houston, where Cummings played with Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo at the time.
But, just a month before their second birthday, Cummings said the twins have made “tremendous progress.” They still need a tube to feed but are active and weigh about 22 pounds. Cummings remembers how long it seemed to take for them just to reach two pounds. They weighed one pound, two ounces at birth.
“That was the scariest moment of my life,” Cummings said. “You're weak, but you get strength from it at the same time. It breaks you down and builds you up because you can't let something like that affect you to the point you can't be there for your kids or your wife.
“It's been a tremendous journey to see where my kids are now and how far they've come. It’s crazy sometimes just watching them like, 'It's a miracle for you to be where you are at and doing what you're doing at this point.' They are thriving. They have some ways to go, but they are making it.”
Cummings’ MLS career — which had started when the Colorado Rapids selected him in the third round of the 2007 SuperDraft — came to an end after the 2014 season.
He had a successful stint last year with the North American Soccer League’s San Antonio Scorpions, scoring 10 goals in 29 games. But when an opportunity to reconnect in Cincinnati with the closest thing he has to a family in the United States, it was an easy decision to relocate.
“Just being on campus and back in Cincinnati has been great — familiar territory, people I know,” Cummings said. “Being away from home in Jamaica, you don't really have family here, so when I came to Cincinnati, I had a very good core group of friends who essentially became my family. It was tough to move away from that, but I got tremendous support from the guys over the years, whenever they could make it out to a game.
“They would come to Columbus, Chicago, Denver once a year or choose a random city they had never been to (to) come watch a game. It was really cool to have those guys supporting me, and to be back and know any given day, they could swing by my place or come support me on home soil.”
Blair encouraged Cummings to come back, knowing the support he would have for his family. So did others, like Kidus Tadele, another former UC player who got to know Cummings before he even stepped on campus. The two met through a mutual friend when Cummings was at Cincinnati State, where he played two years before signing with UC.
Tadele, who is from Ethiopia originally but has lived in Cincinnati almost 15 years, has enjoyed witnessing first-hand how FC Cincinnati and fans have demonstrated their support for Cummings. It’s hard for people not to want to rally around Cummings if they get a chance to know him, Tadele said.
“When people see Omar, that’s the first thing they notice is his smile,” Tadele said. “He’s down-to-earth, friendly, kind — that attracts a lot of people.”
The way Cummings plays has something to do with why fans are drawn to him, as well.
“Big Cat” missed the first seven games while working through injuries that followed knee surgery in November, but he has been an asset since working his way back as a reserve, and lately, as a starter. He has two goals and four assists in 12 games.
“I’ve seen him come up through a lot of hardships,” Tadele said. “He puts in all the hard work. When he went to MLS, he had to prove himself. People saw him there and then here, but when they see him work and his movement, they know he can play.”
At age 34, Cummings is the oldest player on the team, but Harkes didn’t doubt he could contribute more than just leadership skills.
“For me, it was just injuries holding him back, but once we got him back to his fitness level and saw his confidence, his attitude, his leadership — the way he shows it, he's still one of the quickest players on the pitch and he just loves the game,” Harkes said. “You can see how hungry he is. He just plays for the love of the game. He's been tremendous. I think he has potential to still finish with 10 goals by the end of the season.”
FC Cincinnati isn’t just another stepping stone for Cummings. Cincinnati was always a place he knew he could come back to even without soccer.
For now, he’s just enjoying being able to play in a city he never imagined would provide a soccer career opportunity for him.
“It's a chance to be a part of something special,” he said. “Not many players can say they were part of a startup in this way. Not many players can say they are playing in an environment where they went to school and have support around them. Being back at UC, at Nippert, playing in front of 17,000 people every game, it's been awesome. It's been mind-blowing. You come into the stadium, and what they're preparing for and then you walk out on the field before the game and you see all these people going nuts, and when a goal is scored, there is a frenzy. You're just like, "Oh my gosh. This is crazy.’ In such a short amount of time, it's awesome, and it came out of the blue. It's like, 'Where has this been?' It's a buzz and I love it.
“Right now, I wouldn't want to go anywhere, especially uprooting my family. Being back where I'm so familiar with my surroundings and having the support, it's hard to go anywhere else and get that. For me, I'm not thinking of anything else. This is where I want to be.”