There is a warmth and gentle magnetism about Khadija “Bunny” Shaw that is immediate and fills the room, a personality as towering as the nearly 6ft frame that pounded in one goal after another during a breathless year of double duty for the Jamaica women’s national team and the University of Tennessee.
Life, in short, is good for the Guardian’s footballer of the year for 2018, a one-time teenage prodigy turned lethal 21-year-old striker who delivered on her long-held promise in powering the Reggae Girlz into their first ever Women’s World Cup and the Lady Volunteers to the best season in their history.
Shaw grew up alongside seven brothers and five sisters in Spanish Town, the gritty former Jamaican capital on the western outskirts of Kingston, the youngest child of George, a shoemaker, and Monica, a poultry farmer who raised chickens.
Shaw’s development and her ascent was rapid. She played in Jamaica’s under-15, under-17 and under-20 teams at the age of 14, coming up alongside present-day teammates Konya Plummer and Deneisha Blackwood. But it was not until the scholarship offers from American universities began pouring in around 11th grade that Shaw viewed football as a career path.
After navigating her options with the head coach of Jamaica’s national team, Shaw gave a verbal commitment to play for the University of Florida but, after missing the date of the SAT college entrance exam, spent two years playing in junior college, where she was spotted and recruited by the Tennessee coach, Brian Pensky. The adjustment to American life was tough at times, not least because she has yet to find a place that makes her beloved jerk chicken like the corner spots back home.
The uncommon blend of physicality, quickness and vision that sets Shaw apart and elevates her teammates has been on full display since her senior international debut in July before World Cup qualifying. She has answered the call with 11 goals in nine appearances, including the opener in the climactic 2-2 draw with Panama that went to a penalty shootout, where the Reggae Girlz punched their historic World Cup ticket.
Shaw also finished with 13 goals in 14 appearances for Tennessee as they reached the last eight of the NCAA tournament for the first time, landing in the year-end top 10 of all three national rankings, another first for them. After graduation and next summer’s World Cup, she plans to pursue a professional career either in the United States or Europe.The sky is the limit and these days, after what she has persevered through, there is every reason to smile. But even as her career soars to new heights, family remains the core of her support system – and the lessons passed down from her parents keep her grounded.
“Remain humble, stay focused and just do the best you can,” she says. “They’ve been there from day one, even when people said: ‘Oh, soccer is a man’s sport.’ They never said maybe you should change your sport and play netball or volleyball. They’d always be like if that’s your dream, try and see if you can achieve your dream. They’ve been there even when we’ve lost games or didn’t make it to where we wanted to. They’d say OK, the next one. You’ll get it on the next one. So with them, having them behind me, pushing me, encouraging me, motivating me, that’s all I need.”