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Opinion: Can something as simple as kicking a ball and being on a team really help turn someone’s life around?

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Richmond Street Soccer players KC Fisher, Will Williams, Andre Winston and Shawn Jensen competed in the national Street Soccer USA tournament in New York, July 20-22.
  • Richmond Street Soccer players KC Fisher, Will Williams, Andre Winston and Shawn Jensen competed in the national Street Soccer USA tournament in New York, July 20-22.

Adults struggling with homelessness and substance abuse have many needs, but perhaps none is as deep as rebuilding self-worth and gaining the sense of being valued by others. The insight that soccer could help meet that need has turned into a global social movement with a local manifestation, Richmond Street Soccer.

The concept first came here in 2008, and a year-round program launched in 2009 in conjunction with the Daily Planet. At the time, most of our players recently had been living on the streets and few had any soccer experience. With that cohort of eight to 10 players, the emphasis was on basic teamwork and soccer skills, and trying to connect the individual players to a wider community.

When those teams participated in the national Street Soccer USA Cup, our collective goals were modest but important: to make the trip together successfully, to get along with one another, to enjoy being part of the unique community that forms at each tournament, and to do our best to try to win one or two games.

The current team consists of 10 players, most of whom are in recovery from substance abuse. All have made significant progress in their lives in the past couple of years.

Some have come to Richmond to restart their lives with the help of local recovery programs. Others have reconnected with their families. Players work in construction, coffee shops, food trucks, print shops, the cleaning business and as handymen. One player is enrolling at the University of Virginia in January.

As it happens, many of them have previous experience playing soccer, raising the standard of play. At the same time, the organization’s core group of volunteers decided that the primary goal wasn’t in trying to replicate the work of social service and treatment providers, but to provide the opportunity to play soccer together on a team of equals.

The aim is to create a community between the players and volunteers based on mutual acceptance, within a framework of guidelines on conduct. Ideally, the team provides support for players just one or two steps away from having their lives put back together, or whose recovery process is still fragile.

Can something as simple as kicking a ball and being on a team really help turn someone’s life around? Ask Will Williams.

Williams’ involvement in street soccer dates back to a late spring afternoon in 2009 when a soccer ball was kicked in his direction in Monroe Park and he turned around and caught it. On the spot, he decided to join in. He immediately became one of the team’s most gung-ho members.

That enthusiasm came with its share of challenges. A Georgia native, Williams is an Army veteran who’s lived for years on the economic margins, picking up odd jobs and impromptu housing arrangements. Anger management has been an ongoing issue for him, and something we as coaches and volunteers have worked with and counseled him on for years. At the same time, Williams’ loyalty to the team and his teammates has been beyond question.

In the past year, Williams has made giant strides. He’s found stable housing and made plans to return to school. He even picked up an audition at a local studio after someone heard him singing karaoke. We’ve seen him get better at not only restraining his temper, but also responding with more calm to setbacks on and off the field.

Which brings us to a remarkable Monday morning three weeks ago in Times Square. The Richmond team took six players to New York for Street Soccer USA’s annual national tournament of affiliated street soccer teams. It features three days of intense play in a four-on-four, indoor format. It’s also the platform from which the U.S. national team is selected for the annual Homeless World Cup.

Because of injuries, only four players were able to play for Richmond on Monday. Williams often plays goalkeeper, but we decided the team’s best chance to win two games and a trophy would be with him in the field. With just 1:30 remaining in the semifinal, Philadelphia led Richmond 3-2. Williams fired home a goal from a tight angle to tie the score a few seconds later. Then, with just 12 seconds left, he managed to poke the ball past the keeper for the game-winning goal.

Richmond players and coaches swarmed the court to congratulate an exhausted Williams and his equally spent teammates. But what should have been a crowning moment in a few minutes turned to panic when Williams’ bag containing his camera and wallet was misplaced. After spending 10 minutes looking for it, Williams decided to come across the street to a McDonald’s to join two teammates and me. “I could get upset, but I’m not going to,” he said. “I’m not going to mess it up for these guys and this team. It’s going to be OK.”

I was prouder of that statement than I was of Williams’ winning goal. I assured him his bag probably would turn up, and a few minutes later it did. Williams went on to score three more goals in the playoff final game against Los Angeles, but the team fell just short, losing 7-5.

On the bus back to our dorm room, I sat next to Williams and asked him what he’d gotten out of playing street soccer. “Everything,” he said.

I asked, “Do you think you’re better in a place now than we first met, kicking a ball in Monroe Park?”

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “Now, I feel like I have a much better hold on things.”

Williams pointed to one of his teammates, Andre Winston, an inexperienced soccer player who’d tallied three goals in the two games in Times Square. “That right there did wonders for Andre. His confidence just went through the roof.”

Will isn’t a philosopher, but he captured a great truth: We often get better in dealing with our own problems by being aware of and caring about the struggles of others.

Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and a volunteer and coach with Richmond Street Soccer. To learn about Richmond’s Street Soccer program email Richmond@streetsoccerusa.org.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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