Monday, July 31, 2006

NL31: Victory!

Picture: Chukuyewlu Allen and 3-goal scorer, Dave Mendoza, juggle the ball while their teammates wait for their chance. This is how the team celebrated its first win ever-- by coming back to the Center after the game and playing more soccer. I think they like winning!


Street Soccer 945 of the Urban Ministry Center, represenatives to the Homeless World Cup 2005, defeated their opponent last Wednesday, July 25th, by a score of 6-3. The victory was the first in regulation in 45 tries dating back to September of 2004. In Febuary of 2005 the club (then Art Works Football Club) recorded the first official win when the other team failed to produce the minumum of five players necessary to compete. The club’s record in more than four seasons of local play and one international competition is 2 wins, 43 losses, and zero ties.

The majority of the players on the field and on the sideline could not appreciate the relief that Wednesday’s victory was. In fact, for 8 of the 12 players, the victory moved them to 1-1 overall. For Zenas Fewell, Craig Holly and Chukuyewlu Allen who had eack played through two winnless seasons, victory was sweet. But for Tony Kelley, Ray Isaac, Abdul Wright, and Andrey Wannamaker, the taste of victory was overshadowed by the pervading sense of disbelief. Tony and Ray both attended the very first practice ever held, Abdul joined during the firt season ever, and Andrey during the second season. All four experienced being “skunked” (0-9) at the world cup last year.

The coaches definitely anticipated a victory, but how it came about was true to the club’s nature: predicatably unpredictable.

First of all, old timers Abdul and Andrey, having moved off the street, are rarely around these days, and were a pleasant surprise on Wednesday as the team gathered for the game. It didn’t look like they would see the field much, nor did their fellow veterans, Ray Isaac, having retired to more of mentor and coaching role on the team, and Tony Kelley, recovering from a back injury and an anxiety attack. All that changed right before game-time when the coaches caught a whiff of marijauna as the team loaded on the van. Our team policy is very clear, if you are under the influence of any substance, you don’t play. We therefore scratched three starters from the match who had been dedicated attendees of practcie. The coaches’ forecast of victory now looked to have lost its foundation. In talking with the players, the coaches expressed their incomprehension, why? Why after dedicating so much time would you blow it? The response was, “We wanted to get hyped to play, to get in the zone, to win.” After this reply, we actually had a dialogue about why it might be advantageous or why it might be a problem to get high before a game. If nothing else, we came to an understanding that a rule is a rule, and the players suspended were, to their credit, good supporters of their teammates and accepted their suspension without complaint.

Led by young striker, Dave Mendoza of Panama, the old timers held solid defensive ground. After a much anticipated but frustrating performance in the openning match of the season two weeks ago, Dave found his comfort zone and marked three goals to his credit, leading the team to victory in game in which they never trailed.

When the final whistle blew, Tony Kelley went bonkers, exclaiming in a loud world wrestling federation style voice that Street Soccer was now “champions of the world.” He began hugging the opponents and lifted one coach up in their air. He must have seemed derranged or juvenile or, at best, the antipathy of a gracious winner to our opponents or to the onlookers at the Sports Warehouse. How could they have any idea what a long, largely invisible, journey he had just completed, both on the field and off it?

Monday, July 24, 2006

The House of Dula

Abdul Wright takes a load off his feet in his new apartment. Coach Rob moved him in with the UMC van the other week. We miss big “Dula,” but he still calls us weekly, usually around 11 oclock on a Friday night or a Sunday night just to touch base. You really have to admire Abdul for his courage. For many folks who have been homeless, fear of success is a formidable obstacle. The sudden reprieve from a life of consecutive crises is a lonely silence, and in that silence you suddenly have to figure out for yourself what to do. Abdul has been applying himself to just that task. One thing Abdul has said he wants to stay committed to is soccer. He plans to play for Charlotte in the US Cup this August 17-20th. Way to go Dula!

Newsletter30: Red, Whyte, and 19

Red, Whyte, and 19

About 7 or 8 weeks ago coach Rob and I had a conversation about the group of young kids we had noticed hanging out more and more around the periphy of the Urban Ministry Center. These were young kids, 19 and 20 years old most of them. In fact, we wondered if they were even homeless. In the past I have always noticed that the young kids that hang around are normally dealing drugs to the older folks, so I’m less likely to try to engage them. Actually, I am more likely to reach out to them in an effort to get them to move on. This group, I learned, is part of the growing phenemona of kids this age ending up on the street. In the weeks prior to the conversation with coach Rob, I kept the center open late, just to see who desired a safe place to be after dark. Mostly it was this group. They stayed as late as I did, drawing, keeping mostly quiet, and were very suspicious of me. For the most part, I spent that time just doing some drawing of my own or some work on the computer, being observing and analysing as best I could what I was seeing.
One of these kids calls himself Whyte. He is Asian and 19. The first time I saw him, I was visiting traffic court. I actually was there early and sat on a bench eating an organge and Whyte sat across from me. Somethng intrigued me about him. His gaze always remained downcast, and he seemed to be very deliberate in all of his actions, whether it was the way he openned a door, paused, and entered it, or the steady heel-toe rhyhtm of his carefully meted out steps. I remember stopping in my tracks when I saw this fleeting object of my minds’ curiosity walk through the cafeteria area of the Community Works building when we were still serving lunch there this winter. I ate lunch that day at his table, thinking I would approach him about playing on our team, but he was completely closed off, and didn’t event acknowledge my question. I wondered if he was deaf or if he even spoke English. Today Whyte was one of the fifteen players who suited up for Street Soccer 945’s first match of the summer league. In fact he was also one of the group of six or seven young kids who mopped the floors and strengthed his forearms by scraping clean, sealing, and buffing the ceramic tile floors in Community Works to get the place ready to reopen as a workshop, frameshop, and gallery space.
Some of the others who volunteered to clean and who were also in uniform tonight were Aubrie, the only girl, Junior and Dave Mendoza, 14 and 16 years old Panamanians staying with their mother in the shelter, Craig Holly, Pop, LA, Amil, Ray, and Shawn. Others included Tony Kelly, goalies Scythe Fewell and a new player Dave “Red Wolf” Macnorton, plus Matt Jules and the coaches. Cleary the group was our most diverse ever, featuring Caucasions, African Americans, Whyte, the Panamanians, and “Red Wolf” who is part Native American.
Looking at our group all seated around a table to eat dinners that the InnerVision program on Tryon Street gave us from their clubhouse, coach Rob and I reminisced about six weeks ago. A lot of territroy had been forged between us and this group over the past two months, but we were clearly looking at the very same dubious pack of loners up to no-good, and they were now talking about how “Urban,” their pet name for the Urban Minsitry Center, was going to win tonight. This was at 6pm. They had been having the same conversation since 11am that morning and had been kicking the soccer ball around even earlier than that.
In light of all the street soccer experiences over the past couple years, many of them bizzare, many challenging and frustrating, more still uplifting and joyful, none forgetable, and all of them losses, tonight’s loss has to be termed the most delightful.
Our inclusive policy brings different skills levels, different sexes, different mental operating systems, different degrees of sleep deprevation, etc. together and can often pose difficult if not intreaguing interactions among the players and with the coaches. Learning to work as a team is one important aspect of the program; anotherother is going out to the sports facility and relating to the spectators, referees, and other teams. Our team excelled on all levels tonight. They chatted it up before the game, telling the people they met what the Urban Minsitry Cetner was, and then when they went out to warm up they stood in a large group and surprised me even with their ability to keep the ball up in the air. The Manager of the facility was impressed at the new faces and the expression on his face was one of delight when he asked about Abdul and Stephanie and I was able to tell him that they have both moved off the street and into their own places. “One thing is for sure, he said, you all get better every time you come out here; it’s really amazing. I remember the first season when you guys could barely kick off and I had to tell the referee not call any fouls.”
The game itself was tough. We played against a team of Brasilians. We managed three goals, one by newcomer LA. He said, “I’ve haven’t played on a team since I was in elementary school, and I don’t even think that was a real team.” Otherwise both goalies played well and kept us in the game, while Craig Holly was a clear standout on defence, especially making a great adjustment to play a new position in the middle of the game. After a rough first half we made a tactical shift. Our defenders were pushing up and getting caught out of position in the transition back to defence, yet we needed goals and keeping these defenders withdrawn was not the answer. We decided to push them both into midfield and pull our center midfielder back to play a sweeper roll. Craig played that sweeper position and single handedly held off the opposing attackers while we hustled back. Although we didn’t catch up, we scored all three of our goals in the second half and reduced their goal output, losing by a final tally of 3-7. Kudos goes to everyone who cheered positively, especially Matt Jules who for missing practice did not play but kept our spirit up, and for those who had never played in an indoor league game before, which is everybody but Tony, Ray, and Scythe.
Postgame the team was upbeat and supportive of one another. Shawn, who had scored a goal during a pick up game at practice when we joing a group of Haitians and other internationals, got a lesson in celebration from one of the Hatians. The Hatian got on one knee and asked Shawn to give him his foot. Shawn didn’t get it. The Hatian then placed Shawn’s goal scoring foot on his knee and played as if he were shining his shoe. As we gathered as a team after the game Shawn came running up to LA and said, “give me your foot.” LA didn’t understand. Shawn then grabbed his foot and placed it on his knee and began to play as if he were shining his goal-scoring shoe. We all laughed.
When we were back at the Soup Kitchen Pop and Whyte asked me how they could improve. They said, “We know we’ve got to do more footskills, but aren’t there plays we need to learn.” “Yes,” I said, “there are plays and lots of strategy, but it might be different than what you think of when you think of NFL. Football, American football, is like a scored piece of music, like a symphony, everyone has their part and it is planned and they execute their various parts according to the design of the movements. Soccer is more like Jazz. There are elements in soccer, overlaps, give and goes, takeovers, crosses, etc. which can be combined in the run of play, but according to a genral idea like a melody, but executed completely improvisationally, and many times a player has to come up with a completely creative solution to his or her situation. Our players real-life situations are trying ones that evince a dis-connect with the larger part of society. At times that disconnect frustrates them and depresses them. Tonight, in their interaction with each other and with an opponent which, we were warned, was hot-tempered, our players cultivated a delightful harmony. I’d say they escaped their situation quite artfully, As Matt Jules said, “This was the best Urban Ministry Center soccer game I ever watched.”
Next game is is next Wednesday. Check for the specific game time.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Street Soccer hits Atlanta

"Hey Chookie, wanna go to Atlanta?"
"Whaaaa, no doubt,when do we leave.?"
"Tommorow, Ill pick you up at 8:30."
Chookie Allen had just finished a 45 day treatment program and I wanted him to take his first free day to go to Atlanta. What a good guy I am. Actually I wanted to take him to Atlanta to help me spread the workd to the Task Force for the Homeless about Homeless World Cup-USA.
So, on Wednesday, June 28, Ray Isaac, Chookie Allen, and I traveled to Atlanta in hopes to see the city, have some laughs and talk to some fellow street dwellers about playing soccer. We were excited for a breath of fresh away from Charlotte and to see what the big city further south had to offer. The trip started out behind schedule because Ray was up until five o'clock moving apartments becuase his old one was deemed unlivable due to termites and infestation. After a couple hours of sleep he got re-energized, but on his way to the Urban Ministry Center he ran out of gas. Knowing the impact Ray can have when speaking to a crowd we knew we could not leave him behind, so we had to make a move and rescue him if we were going to make it to our appointment in Atlanta on time. After locating him and returning his car to his new place and listening to a litte bit of complaning we finnally hit the road. Chookie spent most of the trip in the back seat enjoying himself, as you can see,
while Ray and I spend the majority of the trip philosophizing about God and life. It felt like a classic road trip. The Task Force for the Homeless is an amazing facility which hosts an array of different services to the men and women on the streets of Atlanta. Inside their 95,000 sq. foot building the Task Force offers emergency services to over46,000 people annually. There is an overflow shelter that hosts as many as 600 men nightly as well as a transitional housing section for up to 28 men. In addition to these services the Task Force is in the process of creating a community garden on the roof of the facilty and they already have in place an art studio and gallery. They are in the process of transforming the area to make room for their new Cafe, that will teach culinary arts and invite anyone and everyone into purchase coffee and pastries and the crafts produced by the artists. The Task Force is truly seeing out their vision of creating a "community where homeless, formerly homeless, and never-been-homeless people can live, work, eat, get to know each other, find resources to help eac hother, and discover what makes our (their) hearts sing."
It is not shocking that after touring the facility and meeting the folks that live and work at the Task Force that we were going to be accepted warmly.
Eric Heflin, the drug treatment counselor there, after hearing our words and passion about our soccer team and our excitment about Homeless World Cup -USA immediatley was intrigued by the idea. We were escorted to the basement of the facilty to make our announcement to the dinner crowd of about 200. We were all a llitte nervous about the reception of the crowd at our request for them to join into our love for our soccer team, but Eric, only knowing about the tournament and street soccer in general for about ten minutes stepped up and delivered a passionate speech to the clients of the Task Force that left little for us to cover.
Communities like ours at the Urban Ministry Center and ones like the Task Force understand that creating relationships and building communites are essential to our well-being, and so, Eric instictively knew that bringing a soccer team from Atlanta to the tournament fit into the mission of the Task Force. After I reiterated Erics words and Ray told everyone of traveling to Scotland with a quarter in his pocket and Chookie expressed his first hand appreciation for his soccer teammates back in Charlotte, we waited for guys to sign up. It was one, the slowly another, and other, and then the gates opened and Chookie had to keep asking me for more handouts until we ran out. We were hearing stories about old high school goalies and another about a man who used to play back when he was in the military. Guys were posing for pictures and the idea of Charlotte in August was set.
When we left we got one final word that solidified that my feelings all day were correct as Eric shook my hand andlooked me in the eye and said "we will definatley see you in Charlotte, thank you."
Members of Street Soccer 945 have spoken in front of many crowds and we have continued to try to make people feel what we feel about our soccer team. On Wednesday it was a long day. Ray was fading from lack of sleep and peace of mind and Chookie was fresh off 45 days of drug treatment and looking for relaxation. We wanted to go to Atlanta though, so we got in the car and went. Both guys fighting their own battles to keep their heads above water went to Atlanta to tell other guys fighting the same stuggles to play soccer. Nothing else, just to play soccer. Sounds a little crazy when you think about it. But the soccer team is what we have and it is what we hold onto. We were excited to see a new place or for Chookie and Ray revisit and old pace and we love any chance we can get to tell our stories because it makes us remember the hard times and the good and funny ones that we all shared together. Sometimes people think we are crazy and sometimes, like this time, people understand us and can't get enough of us.
Seeing others that buy into community and helping each other grow it makes our drive even greater to push and keep showing everyone what we can achieve. We are not going to stop playing because we are going to meet more people like those at the Task Force and eventually our crowds will get larger and our communities stronger and we will all enjoy more moments like Chookie is having in the picture at the top.