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When Soccer is Not Just a Game….

By David Gardner

THE boy with the heavily bandaged arm was back at school just days after nearly being killed in a gang fight just down the road in Lake Forest.

If the stab wounds still hurt, he wasn’t showing it. “It’s fine, miss. I really want to play.”

It’s just past 9am on a Tuesday morning at Alicia Park in Mission Viejo and it’s P.E. time for the young men and women of the Access School, located a couple of minutes walk away.

They amble across the field in an untidy bundle, looking little different from any other kids their age. Perhaps a couple of extra tattoos, a well-practiced indifference, more reason than most to frown. Some have taken three buses to get here.

These are the teenagers the regular district high and middle schools don’t know how to handle. A number of them got caught with drugs, some had serious disciplinary problems, others were bullied or simply didn’t have enough credits.

Of one thing you can be sure; none of them saw soccer as their salvation.

“You can’t help anything with soccer. It’s stupid.” A teenager with short dreads and colorful red sneakers wasn’t convinced. But he’d only just arrived at Access and this was his first session with The Pure Game. Nobody tried to correct him; he would learn for himself.

Tony Everett, the “Chief Play Maker” and founder of the Orange County-based non-profit, has already set up with the help of his assistants, among them World Cup winner Joy Fawcett, the highest scoring defender in US WNT history.

He gathers the students around him. Tony is a talented player and a former club coach but he has no intention of teaching them any technical skills. He wants to know how they’re feeling; if they have any issues. He’s not talking about soccer.

They smile and appear slightly uncomfortable in the way of teenagers the world over at being asked a direct question. But Tony’s not finished. He wants them to understand why they’re here.

He remembers the life lessons he learned growing up playing soccer in England. Respect for one another, tolerance, fun…joy even.

These are the principles preached by The Pure Game.

The pay-to-play youth system in the United States and its focus on development and results has left behind many poorer income kids; some talented, some not so, who either cannot afford to play club or who see the sport as a mere game when their harsh lives are all too real.

These are the kids The Pure Game is trying to reach.

“We use the most popular sport in the world to teach kids how to break free from their current circumstances and negative mindsets,” says Tony. He tells the students they need to trust their own instincts and take control of their lives, not follow other, sometimes negative, influences. Doing the right thing makes for success in soccer, as in life.

The kids are split into four 4X4 games using mini-net goals and small-sized fields. It’s warm and the students are wearing their street clothes. Nobody is doing too much running and that’s okay.

This has little relation to the heated all-or-nothing professionals games you watch on TV or even to the average, frantic club or AYSO games.

Every so often Tony, Joy or one of their assistants – called “Field Champions” – will stop the game to talk. An over exuberant tackle will beg the question to both kids involved, “How do you feel about what just happened? Put yourselves in the other player’s shoes.” There may be apologies, a hand shake and then on with the game.

They have to option to sit it out if they choose but everyone plays. Everyone except the boy with the bandaged arm.

“He was stabbed on Friday but back into school on Monday,” said Susan Phillips, who teaches one of the two Access classes. Their ages range from 6th to 12th grade – 12 to 18. “It was gang related. Apparently he could have died.”

Susan’s gentle touch belies her long career seeking to reconnect the kids who fall adrift of the school system. In some cases, students have asked to stay in her Access class rather than return to their old classrooms with all the old temptations and potential pitfalls.

She takes her classes to visit food banks, homeless shelters and do beach clean-ups. “It’s good for them to see that some people do have it even tougher than them and that they can help.”

The Pure Game focuses on children from more vulnerable communities, going into regular elementary, middle and high schools as well as Access. Tony also takes his program into juvenile halls and to special classes organized by the anti-gang police unit GRIP (Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership).

“I have always loved soccer and it really helped me growing up,” says Joy. “But this isn’t just about playing the game, it’s about helping these kids lead better lives. You can see it working as you work with the students.”

As a key member of the Legendary all-conquering US women’s team, Joy’s advice and coaching is much coveted around the world. I ask her if she thinks she’s a role model to these Access kids. She smiles. “Probably not so much. They can see that I can play, I suppose, but that’s not really what this is all about.”

As the students trudge slowly back towards their classrooms, one youngster, Luis, who is 18, stops to tell me how The Pure Game helped him get a job at a party planning company. “I remembered the things Tony tells us when I went to the interview and I remembered to be confident …and I got the job.”

And that, really, is what The Pure Game is all about. Offering hope where there is precious little; igniting potential to lift a life out of poverty; putting a teenager back in charge of his or her destiny…giving a lost kid the confidence to get himself a job.

It’s why soccer truly is a beautiful game.

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