Friday, June 18th, 2010...7:32 PM
Soccer: So Much More Than a Game
by Chris Heidel
Typically, when an event captures the attention of the whole world, it tends to be one tragedy or another. Thankfully, we periodically have the opportunity to participate in global community via a sporting event: the Olympics, the Tour de France, and, currently, the World Cup. Is it possible that we can find a way to translate the goodwill and community we feel during these times into our everyday lives? Better yet, can we use that energy to empower those less fortunate than we are? That is precisely what the North Texas Stars street soccer team in Ft. Worth, Texas accomplishes every week, transforming the lives of the homeless through soccer while bridging the gap between a misunderstood and often ignored population and the rest of the community.
The team, founded in October 2008, by Dr. Warren Wilson and Karla Gray, is part of a larger homeless soccer movement that began in Austria in late 2001. From the team website: “The street soccer program is designed to encourage and guide homeless individuals to improve their lives and achieve goals that are set each week at practice. Players learn valuable life lessons that will assist them with future employment, maintaining a home, family commitment, and self worth. Accountability, responsibility, commitment, setting and achieving goals, being part of a team, learning to manage anger, staying away from drugs and alcohol, making healthy choices, asking God into their lives, and learning to trust are just a few of the lessons our players learn.”
I first found out about the team about a year ago while reconnecting via Facebook with the coach, Ryan Robbins (far right in the above photo), a long-time friend. I was immediately inspired. I am honored to have had a chance to interview both Robbins and one of his long-time players, Mark Benjamin, for this blog post.
LF: Tell me a little about how you got involved with the NTX Stars.
LF: Who are your players, and how has being on the team impacted their lives?
Robbins: Most of these guys (not always male, but mostly) seem to have their life together when you first meet them. After building a relationship with them, they will open up to us about just how scared and lost they are. These meaningful, honest relationships are our biggest focus. They aren’t going to change their lives until they are able to face their fears and move past them. We are there to try to give them the encouragement they need. We have plenty of guys who come down sparingly, but we have always had a handful of guys who are very dedicated to the team. It doesn’t take long for them to start referring to the team as their family. For some guys, it might be the only days of the week that they are sober. (They know we don’t allow them to play intoxicated). Others have been driven to attack substance abuse much more seriously. We had one player just get out of 35 days of rehab that he decided to do on his own, and he has come out with a whole new outlook on life. We have stories of guys getting jobs, housing, mending relationships, etc.
LF: Tell me more about the religious component of the program.
Robbins: Spiritual faith is very important, but we try to be more subtle with it. That’s the point of soccer. It’s harmless. It’s just a place to hang out and have some fun and get to know others. It’s a little less intimidating than trying to get these guys in pews. I like to try to preach the gospel by example. We pray at the end of practice, and I will gladly get into spiritual conversations with those who are open to it, but mostly it’s about being a consistent positive role model that they desperately need. They know I will do anything for them, but it is not about handouts.
LF: As a personal trainer, I watch physical exercise transform the health of my clients. What physical changes have you seen in your players?
Robbins: Physical health is greatly needed. They don’t seem to be underfed, and the chemical abuses aren’t helpful either. The regulars are noticeably improving their physical health via weight loss along with increased strength, stamina, and coordination. I’m also providing Mannatech supplements to all of them. Some of them are very serious about getting their supplements each time.
LF Note: Robbins’ father, Ray Robbins co-founded Mannatech, a food technology company.
LF: Do you have any players who are more of a challenge?
Robbins: The tough cases are those who are homeless for mental reasons, and it is really hard for me to even see how they will be able to escape this world on their own. I just love them and pray for them.
LF: How does your family play into all of this?
Robbins: This is who we want to be. My wife and I love to serve, and we want to teach our kids what that means and why we are called to do it. I have been proud of how my kids describe what I do, and they have gotten to know some of the players.
LF: What have been the biggest highlights of your tenure as coach?
Robbins: We have gone on a few trips with the guys to play in soccer tournaments. Participating in the Homeless USA Cup in Washington DC last summer was the biggest highlight, and we are returning again at the end of July. These are great opportunities to spend extended time with the players and build some special memories and deeper relationships. These are moments where they can start to see that they are people of value too, and it gives them the confidence they need to face their demons and make an effort to join (or rejoin) society.
I have a player, Mark Benjamin, who joined me and my church on a one-week mission trip to Nicaragua last summer. It was awesome to have him there. He is an incredible man. He just left me a voice mail tonight thanking us for all we do. He’s giving us encouragement. I love it. He’s been in housing now for more than a year and has held down the same job at one of the shelters longer than that.
LF: I actually had a chance to speak with Mark (#9 in the above photo). He said that you and Karla are tremendous inspirations to him. Before joining the team, he had a history of being homeless, unemployed, and partying too hard. Mark is so honored to have had the opportunity to travel with the team to DC and with you to Nicaragua, his first trip out of the US. He was sure to point out that the team placed 6th out of 16 teams in DC. Pretty good for your first time out! Most importantly, he appreciates the accountability, and he sees himself now as a team player both on and off the field. What a testament to the success of the program! Thank you for all you do.
The NTX Stars accept no government funding and don’t intend to. If you are interested in contributing to this amazing program, please send your donations to:
Kickin’ The Streets
3017 Creekview Dr.
Grapevine, TX 76051
About the Author:
Chris Heidel is the owner and primary personal trainer with Libra Fitness in Austin, TX, a private, in-home studio. Chris focuses her business on developing mentoring relationships with her clients built on trust and meaningful support to help them set, achieve, and maintain realistic fitness goals. Chris truly believes that while getting in shape isn’t easy, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Chris is certified through the American Council on Exercise.