SAN ELIZARIO, Texas (KTSM) – Long before he was a soccer wunderkind, before he ever scored a goal for a European club team, or a game winner for the United States Men’s National Team, Ricardo Pepi was just a kid with a big dream at San Elizario’s Alarcon Elementary.

“He was good in every sport. I knew he was someone special,” said Alarcon teacher’s aid and coach, JoAnn Moreno.

Moreno coached Pepi in fifth grade in basketball, flag football and soccer and still keeps in touch with the 20-year-old FC Groningen striker on a regular basis. When Pepi returns home to visit his grandmother in San Elizario, he always makes time to see Moreno at the school, or to get lunch with her. He even gave her an autographed FC Dallas jersey.

She tells her students about Pepi and posts photos of his exploits in Europe and with the USMNT in her classroom for them to see. He once wrote a letter to her for a class assignment saying she was his favorite teacher.

He has also come back to speak to students at Alarcon about his journey through the ranks of professional soccer to serve as motivation for the kids there now.

Pepi spent his early years at Alarcon as a model student, before moving to Dallas as a teen to chase his soccer dreams.

“As far as I remember, he was quiet, well-behaved and never gave us any problems. He was just a very good boy,” said PE teacher Frank Flores.

Flores and Moreno both highlighted how involved Pepi’s family was in his upbringing, both in school and in athletics. That shone through in how Pepi interacted with his peers and with teachers at school.

“He was a very respectful student and an A/B student. Then out on the field, it was like, ‘Wow!'” said Moreno. “I just knew he was going to make it because he was so special.”

Those who knew him back then think that his youth in San Elizario helped to shape him into the man and internationally-known soccer phenom that he is today.

“He appreciates just life and where he came from. His grandparents, his grandpa meant the world to him. They said, ‘give it all you’ve got,'” said Moreno.

Pepi had a career-year on loan from FC Augsburg (German Bundesliga) with FC Groningen in the Netherlands, netting 15 goal involvements (12 goals, three assists) in 2022-23, as he hopes to move to a bigger club for next season. He’ll also play for the USMNT in the CONCACAF Nations League Final Four June 15-18 in Las Vegas.

Wherever he goes, San Elizario and Alarcon Elementary are watching and looking up to a young man who was in their shoes less than a decade ago.

“We’re able to discuss it with our students and they know who he is. He’s seen as a role model. They see that if he can do it, they can do it,” said Alarcon principal Leticia de Santos.