Stamford’s Edona Thaqi surprised with basketball scholarship from Fordham

Edona Thaqi, a walk-on player on the Fordham Women’s Basketball team, was embarrassed thinking she had screwed up and was already drafting an apology letter in her head for making her teammates run sprints at the end of practice.

Thaqi’s mood was about to change.

Fordham coach Stephanie Gaitley asks her players to remember an “emphasis of the day.” If a player is asked and doesn’t remember? Sprints for the whole team.

Last week it was Thaqi who was asked at the start of practice.

“Coach Gaitley asked me what the emphasis of the day was and I said ‘success starts at practice,’” said a Stamford native and graduate student at Fordham. “She said I was wrong. I was sure I was right, but I’m not going to argue with the coach. She made us get on the line to run.”

“She gave me the correct answer, but I said she was wrong and told them to go run. That was hard because I hate lying to them,” Gaitley said. “I asked my assistant coach to go get the paper with the emphasis of the day on it and give it to Edona so she could read it. It read S=Scholarship. The team started cheering and hugging Edona. They were so happy.”

“It was amazing,” Thaqi said. “I was crying tears of joy. Could not believe it after everything I had gone through.”

The moment was recorded and posted on social media. The scene was an emotional one for Thaqi, who had tears streaming down her face as she was embraced by teammates. Most watching on social media had no sense what it took for Thaqi to get to that moment.

Thaqi’s parents, Mete and Hatman, immigrated to Stamford from Kosovo, speaking no English but seeking a new home to start their family away from their war-torn homeland.

“My parents came from Kosovo with nothing,” Thaqi said. “The strength they instilled in me will never leave me. They had nobody to help them but they did what they had to do. I am first generation in this country and the first in my family to get a college education. It is something I take very seriously.”

Thaqi was raised in Stamford, along with one sister and two brothers, and she quickly found her way to sports.

She swam and played soccer but it was on the basketball court where she found her passion playing on youth teams in the city and eventually on the Stamford Peace AAU team.

At Westhill, she tore her ACL as a junior before returning and being named All-FCIAC Third team as a senior.

Wanting to play in college but needing more experience she planned to attend Suffield Academy before tearing her ACL again and instead opted to attend UConn-Stamford as she rehabbed her knee.

She then attended UConn-Avery Point where she started 15 of 32 games as a true freshman, finishing second on the team with 14.5 points per game. Thaqui stayed for one year before transferring to Fordham as a preferred walk on.

“I had heard so many great things about Edona from her AAU coach, I said ‘sure we will give her a chance to walk on,’” Gaitley said. “It was a win-win. Edona understood she was not coming here to play a lot but, that we needed her to fill a role on the bench and at practice. Her personality fit perfectly as a selfless, team-oriented person.”

Thaqi played her first game for the Rams against George Washington on Jan. 5, 2019 and played three minutes in the A-10 Championship semifinal win over Duquesne. She appeared in nine games her junior season, scoring her first points against St. Bonaventure. Then, in October of her senior year, it happened again.

For the third time, her ACL was torn.

“I was devastated because I had worked so hard and I didn’t want an injury to end my career,” Thaqi said. “It felt like a mountain and I was disappointed but you have choices. I would not wish three ACLs on anyone, it was a lot physically and emotionally but it changed me. It gave me an appreciation of every minute I get to be on the court.”

Thaqi came back one more time, repeating one phrase in her head.

“Who are we when it’s not our turn?” Thaqi said. “I kept thinking it was all for a reason but it is so hard to go through obstacles and challenges like that. I was going to do everything I could to get past it.”

Thaqi made it back this season and has assumed her role on the bench and in practice.

When Gaitley found out there was a scholarship made available, there was no question who it would go to.

“Nobody sees the sacrifices kids like her make,” Gaitley said. “I didn’t want her to go out that way. I wanted her to be able to close out her career with the team. It turned out that a scholarship became available and I talked to the assistant coaches and we all agreed it should go to Edona. I asked the captains to help figure out how we could get her and we came up with the emphasis of the week plan.”

Scholarship or not, Thaqi is happy being back in the gym with her teammates, doing her job to help the 10-4 Rams.

“This year is going well but it’s about way more than playing. It’s all about the great relationships and memories,” Thaqi said. “I’m part of this team and I do whatever they need to help the starters. No job is too big or too small.”

And as for the impression she will leave with Gaitley, who has been coaching at Fordham for 11 years.

“We will be friends for life,” Gaitley said. “I have really enjoyed getting to know her and her family and learning their story. Winning is great of course, but these are my favorite moments with kids. Edona is such a great kid, she’s so positive and has a great attitude and energy every day.”

Sericson@stamfordadvocate.com; @EricsonSports