At 15 years old, Callum Stretch had no choice but to discover himself. If he missed the morning bus into town center, he was fined. If he got lost in the large, industrial city of Aston, Birmingham, England, he had to find his own way home. If he underperformed with the Aston Villa Football Club Academy team, he could be cut from the roster.
For three years, Stretch, now an IU men’s soccer transfer, navigated the complicated, often harsh world of professional soccer in Europe. The practice days were long, and the bus rides on Aston’s public transportation seemed even longer. The weeks often blurred into months as Stretch’s adolescence withered away under the pressure of his athletic potential.
After an agent discovered Stretch in his hometown of Los Angeles, the opportunity to play with some of soccer's top talent in England was too great to pass up. It also meant leaving his family behind in the United States.
All the while, his maturation and independence remained elusive, but his career depended on it.
“You were kind of just thrown into the deep end and had to learn to swim,” Stretch said. “I got things wrong a lot of times and I had to pay the price for it, but you learn.”
Stretch, who left Los Angeles after his freshman year of high school, became one of the youngest American-born players ever to sign with an English club, joining the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in 2015.
For a brief moment, the California native felt at home in London, a city nearly 5,500 miles away. It reminded Stretch of Los Angeles.
But for all the glitz and glamor London provided, Stretch needed a city that would push him out of his comfort zone and introduce him to a previously unseen lifestyle. So when former Tottenham coach Tim Sherwood was fired, he followed Sherwood two hours northwest to Aston, a town burrowed inside of England’s second-largest city, Birmingham.
Birmingham was vastly different from the trendy, modern aesthetic of Los Angeles or London, though. It was the complete opposite, and it was only a matter of time before the culture shock caught up to Stretch.
“It was a very interesting culture,” he said. “It was very much industrial, it was very much hard workers. It was very different, not much to do.”
Stretch saw it on the frustrated faces of Aston Villa’s fans. He saw it on the calloused, hardened hands of his blue-collar host family — one of several host families that took him in — who worked overtime just to earn enough money to attend Aston Villa’s games.
For every London, there are thousands of lesser-known towns. For every Los Angeles, there’s an Aston. And it was there, at just 16 years old, that Stretch discovered himself — not because he wanted to, but because he had to.
“There would be times when I was like ‘Why am I doing this?’” he said.
The arduous travel days, the months spent away from his parents, the aches and pains, it all began piling up in Stretch’s mind.
For a teenager who should’ve been living out his final high school years, he was instead living independently, halfway across the world, with what amounted to a full-time job.
“Is this all worth it?” he’d often ask himself.
But without those moments of self-doubt, self-discovery wouldn’t have followed. And for a young teenager who was thrown into a bottomless deep end at just 15 years old, Stretch said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“If I could do it over again, I would’ve,” he said. “It was hard, but it was all for the best.”
Five years, a move back to the United States and two accomplished seasons at Denver University later, a 20-year old Stretch is once again searching for something more.
But only this time, maturity isn't what he’s looking for. It’ll be what guides him toward unfulfilled dreams in Major League Soccer.
“I want to go first pick in the draft,” Stretch said. “I want to win a national championship.”
In his first season with the Pioneers, the 6-foot-4-inch defender was named the Summit League’s 2018 Newcomer of the Year in addition to being ranked No. 2 in Top Drawer Soccer’s Midseason Freshman Top-100 list. Denver eventually advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with Stretch starting all 21 games at centerback.
The promise and opportunity that Stretch longed for seemed to be on the horizon with Denver coach Jamie Franks leading the up-and-coming program. But in his sophomore season, Stretch continued to flourish, adding an All-Summit League Second Team selection to his trophy case, while the Pioneers took a step back, finishing with a 6-12-3 record and failing to win its opening round NCAA Tournament match.
If Stretch wanted to reach the peak of his potential, he knew he had to look elsewhere.
“I just felt like I did everything I could at Denver,” he said. “I just wanted that little more next step up, a little more exposure, a little more of stuff like that to help me get to the next level.”
In January, Stretch entered his name into the transfer portal, and within days, nearly 30 schools reached out to the coveted transfer — including IU.
“The best form of knowing is playing against someone,” IU head coach Todd Yeagley said. “And he, after playing against us and watching our team, he said this really fits the way he likes to play and the DNA of our team.”
All it took was a single official visit to Bloomington and an understanding of the elite defenders such as Jack Maher and Grant Lillard that have passed through IU’s historic program, for Stretch to choose the Hoosiers.
By mid-March, his transfer papers were filed and his name etched in as Maher’s successor at IU.
“He fits so much of what we’re about,” Yeagley said.
Bloomington isn’t exactly Los Angeles or London though, and Stretch understands that. To turn his fantasy of championships and a professional career into a reality, he needs to keep challenging himself.
Stretch dives headfirst into the deep end. Aston taught him how to swim.
“You have to peel the layers to get me,” Stretch said. “All my experiences have defined me.”