Eleven years and six months ago, I took notice of a Facebook post stating that a new organization was forming to engage homeless and formerly homeless men and women through soccer. There was a Saturday organizational meeting and kick-around taking place at Monroe Park around noon.
I wandered over there at the appointed hour and saw Daryl Grove, who called out “Hello Thad, are you here to play with us?” I knew him, a native of Halesowen, England, a bit already from playing with the Richmond City Football Club. His warm welcome was all it took for me to join the action and become a volunteer for the fledgling effort. Fittingly, “Hello and welcome” became the opening catchphrase for “The Total Soccer Show,” the Richmond-based soccer podcast Daryl co-hosted and built a global audience for.
Over that first summer, I got to know him a whole lot better. In a short period of time I gained immense respect for him. We ended up playing together on what became Richmond Street Soccer year-round from summer 2009 to fall 2016.
The project in the early days was a very fluid affair. At first it operated somewhat like a social program with rules and participant contracts. The intent was to help men and a few women use soccer to gain a sense of support and self-confidence from being part of a team, while recovering from a variety of traumas. It never lost that broad goal: Some people stayed with it for several years, some for briefer periods.
But as it evolved it became less like a formal program and more like an extended family, a network of supportive people that played soccer together. Later on, it established a formal affiliation with The Healing Place, an addiction recovery program, and the team was renamed “THP FC.”
Through all these iterations and the dozens of people who passed through Richmond Street Soccer as participants, volunteer players and coaches, or just supporters, Daryl was the rock-solid constant. His engaging manner and charming English accent won people over quickly. He held people’s respect by his steadiness and by being able and willing to demand accountability from others while maintaining his own cool.
Daryl was the unelected leader of the whole operation, without anyone really ever having to say it. He had steady judgment that everyone respected and it would be a rare moment when we went ahead with something he thought was a bad idea.
This was important because the program involved a lot of challenging situations. We entered a team in the lowest division of the Central Virginia Soccer Association in the fall of 2009. Half the team consisted of participants who had never played in a competitive 11-on-11 league before. Daryl managed the team skillfully to make sure there were enough volunteer, experienced players on the field to be competitive or at least respectable, while also having at least five or so of the participants on the field.
Playing decent soccer was the official task but being a team and acting like a team was the real goal. We actually did official warm-ups. We had structured substitution patterns. And we handled any number of situations in which guys got frustrated or tempers frayed. At some point virtually everyone involved including me lost the plot – except Daryl.
That was just the at-home routine, which included not only Sunday games but weekly, structured practices. There were also the on-the-road adventures to Washington and New York. There was the time when we rode the bus as a team to New York, arrived at 1 a.m. to learn that the tournament’s housing plans had fallen through. We spent what was left of the night in a homeless shelter with several other teams from around the country, then played a full day of soccer the next day on limited sleep in 90-degree heat.
Daryl was unflappable in situations like that, which is why we all made it through that trip back to Richmond in one piece. When guys messed up, he insisted we hold them accountable. But his baseline was to be incredibly patient and supportive of everyone. He made this team one of the centers of his life, and he stuck at it, with very little fanfare, for a decade. He impacted dozens and dozens of people – participants and volunteers – through his commitment.
And yet there was so much more to the man. He was full of wit, intelligence and laughter, which is a major reason people loved hanging out with him.
His combination of soccer skills and people skills made him a great soccer coach. He encouraged people. He designed formations and lineups for teams with wildly different skill levels. He was passionate, intense and demanded attention to the moment from his teammates.
He recognized and encouraged what was good and named and criticized what was bad. People listened to him because they knew he was fair and almost always right. I can see him clapping his hands together while making a point and looking around into the eyes of every single person on the team.
And that’s the thing: As much as he loved the sport, for Daryl soccer was the medium not the end. He mainly cared about people. He was intensely interested in politics and policy for the same reason: He cared about people and hence he cared about the injustices of our society and wanted to do his part to address them. And he did.
He used the game he loved to build community and made a long-haul commitment, week after week, year after year. Even his stage IV colon cancer diagnosis in early 2019 couldn’t slow that commitment, and his fight against the disease again drew in and inspired people near and far, up to the very day of his passing on Oct. 22.
Daryl Grove was an amazing human being and a shining example of Richmond at its best: unique people using this unique city to make a life out of their passions while drawing in and helping others all the way.
Thad Williamson is associate professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. Contributions in honor of Daryl Grove may be made to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance at ccalliance.org.
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