Double blessing for Amer Delic

Double blessing for Amer Delic

CHAMPAIGN – Muharem and Sadina Delic were absolutely giddy Saturday, beaming as they posed for photos with their son the tennis pro and their daughter, a doctor of philosophy in community health, both University of Illinois graduates.

Amer Delic, 27, of Tampa, Fla., standout tennis player for the University of Illinois from 2000 to 2003, received his bachelor's degree in recreation, sport and tourism, delayed by a few years of playing professional tennis. His sister, Lejla Delic-Ovcina, 29, of Chicago, received her Ph.D. in community health, having done her dissertation on the mental health of Bosnian refugees in Chicago, a community near and dear to her heart.

Fourteen years ago, the family of four fled war-torn Bosnia and arrived in Jacksonville, Fla. They had only four suitcases and $1,000 – what many Americans might take to the Sunshine State for a vacation, not a new life.

"I paid $475 for the rent for one month, $75 for the phone, about that for the power, tennis shoes for Amer for $100 and the rest for food," said Muharem Delic, 53.

"And the next month it was food stamps," added his 52-year-old wife.

But none of the pain and struggle associated with leaving their homeland and family was apparent Saturday as the proud couple, married 31 years, watched their children graduate from the College of Applied Health Sciences in a ceremony at the Assembly Hall.

"I'm definitely living the dream. I'm not sure if it's American or mine. It's a dream," Muharem Delic said. "There is no words to explain the feeling. I wish everybody is as happy as I am."

"Great. Great," was how Sadina Delic was feeling. "We knew United States was a big opportunity for our kids. That was the major reason we came – to give them a better future."

The entire family set about insuring that immediately after their arrival in 1996.

Muharem, formerly an air-traffic controller in Bosnia, and Sadina, an accountant, first got factory jobs in a book bindery. Lejla, the only family member with decent English, accompanied her mother to job interviews to translate.

Sadina eventually landed a job with a mortgage company. Muharem also worked for a mortgage company and delivered pizzas for Papa John's for the first four years of their life in the U.S.

For the last 10 years, he's been with Gate Petroleum in Jacksonville, where he's a service technician. Sadina works in the mortgage division of Chase Bank. All four Delics are U.S. citizens.

After high school, Lejla started college at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville studying international business.

Amer, a tennis star in high school, was recruited in 1999 by former UI tennis coach Craig Tiley and started at the UI in 2000.

"Tennis has opened a lot of doors for me, especially going to a great school like the UI. When I was recruited by Tiley, I told him my parents can't afford anything. They were making $7 an hour. Other kids were coming in with cars. Once I committed, I flew up here with two bags," Amer said.

Missing her brother and hating international business, Lejla moved to Champaign in 2002. She attended Parkland College while establishing residency so she could afford the tuition at the UI, then transferred to the UI in 2003.

"I literally came because of him. We were never apart prior to him coming to school. I liked the university and everything came together," she said.

The two shared an apartment.

"I even lived with some of his teammates for a year, which was interesting to say the least. They were really a family," she said.

After winning the NCAA singles championship in 2003, and earning UI and Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year honors, Amer set aside his studies to pursue his professional tennis career.

Lejla stayed in Champaign and got her undergraduate degree in 2004 in community health. Her respect and admiration for her department head, Reginald Alston, kept her at the UI for her master's and doctoral studies.

Along the way, Bosnian friends introduced her to her now-husband, Amir Ovcina, who graduated from the UI College of Law and practices corporate law in Chicago. Although Bosnian in heritage, Ovcina was born and raised in Chicago. They married in 2008 and last October, their son Omar was born.

Lejla was teaching until May 2009, then took a few months off when Omar was born. In January of this year, she turned to writing her dissertation full-time.

"There were months of sleepless nights. During the day I was taking care of him and nursing full-time and at night when my husband got back from work, I would work. (Amir) is just amazing. I literally couldn't do it without him," she said.

Meantime, Amer Delic could no longer ignore the pain in his left knee. Diagnosed with having tears in his patella, he decided in 2009 that he would take six months off to heal.

"In the back of my mind, I always wanted to finish my diploma. I called up Jan Glosser, who was a secretary for Tiley. She's pretty much like a mom to all of us on the team. I told her I think this would be the perfect time for me to ... finish up while rehabbing. She was able to connect me up with the right people. I left on good academic status so was able to come back and jump in," Amer said.

Boy, did he.

To finish his degree, Amer took 22 hours of courses during the fall 2009 semester.

"It was not necessarily hard (coming back after six years away). It was different. The academic part was easier. I had great structure, zero distractions. I had classes in the morning, rehab and classes in the afternoon, then I would drive back to Philo, do my work, and go to bed," he said.

Did the tennis pro really say Philo?

Glosser, his 58-year-old self-described second mother, knew all about the Delic family's humble background. Without hesitation, she and her husband, Steve, invited Amer to live with them in Philo while she was working full-time at the UI and working on her own undergraduate degree at Eastern Illinois University.

"I would do it again in a minute," Glosser said.

Calling him one of the most talented tennis players ever at the UI, Glosser giggled as she told stories of Amer's temper and tendency to break rackets. She recalled the circumstances under which he broke his hand – for a second time – during his sophomore year in 2001.

"He was at Michigan State and he was winning. Amer wasn't happy with his play. He hit what he thought was a door and it was a concrete wall," she said.

Glosser said Tiley was so upset with Amer that he didn't speak to him for a week. She eventually loaded Amer in her car, dropped him at Tiley's front door and forced the two to make amends.

By the end of his knee rehab in Champaign, Amer said it still didn't feel right and no doctors here were willing to cut it open for a look.

"The MRIs showed one thing but it was not what I felt," he said.

He eventually went to Croatia, where a doctor opened his knee eight weeks ago and found a cyst that was covered by inflammation and not showing up on the MRIs.

The surgery behind him, Amer is currently back in Tampa in rehab and training. He hopes to be back on the pro tour by July and playing in the U.S. Open at the end of August.

"It's pretty cool," he said of having his degree. "A lot of athletes don't finish. Not only do I get a diploma, that's a chapter of my life I can close."

He also remarked how special it was to sit across the aisle from his successful sister at the graduation ceremony.

April 2 was the day she defended her dissertation about the need for more mental health services for Bosnian refugees. It was exactly 14 years to the date that her family arrived in the U.S.

"Now that I look back, I have no idea how we went through what we went through," she said. "It was just normal at the time. When life puts you in a difficult situation, you just have to suck it up and do it.

"I think one lesson everyone can take from the war, from any difficult situation, is that education is something no one can ever take from you. Education is the best gift any parent can give to a child. Our parents sacrificed a lot to give us that gift."

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis
Categories (3):Illini Sports, Tennis, Sports