WRITTEN BY MARK HOUSER
For the fishermen who haul heavy nets into their dugout canoes each morning, the crashing waves at Robertsport, Liberia, are mainly a nuisance and potentially a threat. Legend says underwater spirits called “neegees” will pull victims out to sea, and if you don’t believe in neegees, the undertow can do it too.
But for surfers — especially those looking for unspoiled waves far from tourist crowds — this small beach town on the West African coast is a wonderful discovery. And for Musa Shannon ‘97, it’s a business opportunity. Shannon, a former professional soccer player and member of the Robert Morris Athletics Hall of Fame, is the owner of Nana’s Lodge, Robertsport’s surf resort.
The rustic collection of cabins and wood-floored permanent tents with a staff of 25 has been featured in The New York Times and on the National Geographic Channel. A simple, sand-floored bar and grill at the resort serves up the crab, lobster, and fish hauled out of the Atlantic by those same surf-defying fishermen.
The story of how Shannon came to Robertsport has as many twists and turns as a hot-dogger doing tricks in the foam. The oldest son of American-educated Liberian parents, Shannon and his sisters and brother spent their formative years in Liberia, living next door to the soccer stadium. In a country of big soccer fans, the biggest might have been their father, a former minister of lands, energy, and mines who also played in amateur leagues and taught his children to love the game.
While Americans are still new to professional soccer, Liberians boast one of the world’s biggest stars: George Weah. The only African ever to be named FIFA World Player of the Year, Weah played on legendary European clubs including AC Milan, Chelsea, and Manchester City. He is so popular at home that he ran for president in 2005 after retiring, and got the most votes in the first round. (Weah lost the run-off to Ellen Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Africa’s first elected female leader.)
Shannon idolized Weah, and matured into a talented soccer player himself. The family moved to New Jersey in 1990, when Musa was 15, because of civil war in Liberia. Robert Morris recruited Shannon, and he majored in business while scoring 44 goals for the Colonials, still the school record. “Robert Morris was a big part of my life, and I’m very grateful to the people there,” he says.
After graduating, Shannon played professional soccer for eight years, globe trotting with teams in Tampa, Portugal, Colorado, China, Azerbaijan, Sweden, and Vancouver. “I learned a lot of languages along the way,” he says. “It’s been a great journey.” The most memorable moment came when he was asked to come home to play for the Liberian national team as it aimed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. His roommate: George Weah. “It was a dream of mine to play with him,” Shannon says. “When I got to be his roommate and really get to know him, he’s quite an individual. What surprised me was how hard he would work and how serious the game was for him. Superstars are superstars, and there’s all kinds of off-the-field stuff going on. But when it was time for business, it was 100 percent dedication and effort.”
In a match against West African rival Ghana, Shannon kicked the biggest goal of his life, finishing the Ghanaians off 2-0 in their own stadium. People still stop him on the street and in airport lobbies to talk about his goal. And Shannon talks about soccer a lot, as vice president of the Liberian Football Association, where he works on corporate sponsorships and on bringing a more commercial mindset to Liberian soccer. He travels frequently, organizing matches agains tother African teams and trying to persuade talented Liberian players to come home like he did and play for their country.
It was Shannon’s American teammates who introduced him to surfing. When he found out surfers were starting to buzz about the awesome waves at Robertsport — where his grandmother used to live — Shannon and a business partner opened Nana’s Lodge in 2008 and named it after her. While he spends a lot of time at the resort, Shannon admits he is still not too sure of himself on a board. “I haven’t graduated yet,” he says.“I’ve got a lot of respect for those people. Surfing is an incredible experience. I wish I’d gotten into it a lot younger. It’s addictive.”
Coming back to Liberia has led to more than just sports and business ventures for Shannon. He was introduced to a pretty Liberian law student in 2006, and they quickly realized they’d already met years ago, in a New York restaurant. They started dating, and in 2010, he proposed — naturally, on the beach. Last month, Idella and Musa welcomed their first child, Zuri, a baby girl. Soon enough Musa surely will be teaching her how to kick a ball. But it might be Zuri Shannon who eventually teaches her dad how to surf.