Jul. 7—Kevin Mendoza's feet have barely been able to touch the ground, and his mind is still racing with joyous thoughts about everything that's happened in the past week.
Flying back to Atlanta on Tuesday, the 18-year-old from Murrayville was still riding the high of being part of the Under-20 World Cup qualifying team for Guatemala.
After a brief nap on the four-hour plane trip back to the United States, he took time to reflect on everything that had happened in such a short window of time.
And with these lifelong memories so fresh on his mind, he couldn't help but take a deep breath and smile.
"It feels like a movie," said Mendoza, who has lived in northern Hall County his entire life.
The speed at which things happened for Mendoza was from zero to 60 in just a little more than a month.
One moment, he was trying to find a place to stay, while working part-time this spring at a convenience store.
After playing with Atlanta United since age 12, the former Chestatee High player was wondering if his dream of professional soccer was done as an 18-year-old free agent.
However, a tryout in November with the Guatemalan national squad proved fruitful when he got the call back on May 6 from the club's management.
With everything to gain, Mendoza took a leap of faith and defied the odds to make the 20-man roster for Guatemala, which is where he also holds citizenship since his father, Julio, is a native of the Central American nation.
"We're all really excited for him, extremely happy," Kevin's father said. "It's been a long process with lots of sacrifice.
We know how hard he's worked to get here."
Once in Guatemala and feeling unready to compete at the highest level, Mendoza threw himself into conditioning, thinking that it was the pinnacle of his experience.
However, it was just the beginning.
With a CONCACAF quarterfinal win against Mexico on June 30, Guatemala has qualified for only the second time to the Under-20 World Cup, which will be held next year in Indonesia.
And, just like that, Mendoza was thrust into celebrity status in the most prominent sport in Guatemala.
Upon arriving back in Guatemala from the Pre-World Cup competition, in Honduras, he was greeted by throngs of fans at the airport after touching down from a private-jet return trip with team members.
That's when everything started to sink in that his life had changed — all for the better.
Always an ultra-talented soccer player from a modest working-class family, playing on the pitch was his only plan in life.
Once he was swamped by fans, signing '100-200' autographs in about an hour span, with tight security for protection by local law enforcement, Mendoza realized he was definitely on the right path.
"It's something that you can't explain in words," said Mendoza, who played for Chestatee High as a sophomore during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. "I was a regular person and just like that, my life had changed."
Mendoza was still tired when he got back to his parents' home Tuesday.
However, he was in for another surprise: a small party to celebrate with his parents, Julio and Yolanda, his two older sisters, girlfriend Litzy and a couple of close family friends.
These are the people most crucial to his journey that became perilously close to being cut short just a few months earlier, when Mendoza said he found himself homeless after a brief falling out with his parents over missing a tryout.
However, all that is now water under the bridge.
For Mendoza, he doesn't get to this stage without the unwavering support of his family.
With soccer meaning everything at such a young age, he had to grow up fast.
There was no time to be a normal teenager when a chance to become a professional was on the horizon with Atlanta United.
Each day, Mendoza's sister, Stacy, would take him straight from school to a gas station near Interstate-985.
And right after clocking out from a long day's work from a chicken-processing plant, his mother would then pick him up and drive him to Atlanta United practice in Marietta.
With such a packed schedule that revolved around soccer, every minute of the day was already filled.
He would get home at 11 p.m. every night, worn out from practice.
Get some sleep.
Do it all again the next day.
Through it all, Mendoza said his father has been his constant encouragement — through the good times and the bad.
"My pops said, 'Never stop believing,'" Mendoza said. "Even when things don't make sense, believe in God and his timing."
Mendoza still gets choked up thinking about winning the match against Mexico to secure Guatemala's first Under-20 World Cup berth since 2011.
"I was crying tears of joy in the locker room," Mendoza said. "I grabbed the phone and called my family and was still crying."
And this journey wouldn't be successful for Mendoza without the support of his girlfriend.
Not only did she provide a place to stay earlier this year, when he needed it most, but she also purchased two fresh pairs of cleats against credit cards, so he would be in the best chance to be successful.
"It leaves me speechless," Litzy said. "He's been through a lot and I'm really proud of him."