Monday, April 2, 2012

Dan: Soccer is just the head fake

As a high school graduation gift, one of my best friends’ parents gave all of us the book “The Last Lecture.” It quickly became possibly my all-time favorite book and I have read it every summer since. The author, Randy Pausch, was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer when he was asked to give the symbolic “Last Lecture,” which turned out to truly be his last lecture. Throughout the book he talked about living life to its fullest and learning lessons along the way. A lot of what he talks about has stuck with me, but in particular one of his points has been creeping into my life here in South Africa. It’s called a head fake. The head fake is the underlying message and agenda that someone implements in whatever activity they are doing. For Randy, his head fake during his speech was that his purpose for speaking was really for his kids, as they wouldn’t have their dad around to tell stories and teach those life lessons. 

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Recently, I came across possibly the best head fake I’ve seen so far. One of my good friends from Cape Town is Bongi, who coaches the Khayelitsha Fire Fighters, a local youth soccer team. The thing is, what Bongi and the other Firefighter coaches do is so much more than coach. They are leading, they are serving as positive role models, they are teaching life lessons. On Wednesday nights the older boys get together to do their homework and receive tutoring when needed, which the UConn students have been helping with. After tutoring we run life orientation classes, which essentially teach different life skills and life lessons. The players love it; they embrace everything we do, to the extent that they asked Amanda, Bongi’s friend and an aspiring teacher who is running the Wednesday night sessions, if they could get together to do homework more than once a week.

Casey Bridges, advisor to the Boys and Girls Club of South Africa and
supporter of Fire Fighters Football Club, with coaches Abongile and Power

The Fire Fighters started as just an idea that the head coach, Power, had years ago to throw together a soccer team to give kids something to do after school and keep them off the streets. It has evolved into an amazing program that uses the few resources they have to put together amazing teams. The boys are incredible players, from the U11 to the U17 teams, and they do incredible work off the field too. This past weekend I spent at a tournament for the U11 and U15 teams, where most of the other clubs there were well-established soccer academies with corporate sponsors, meaning they had all the funding and resources one could want. Both teams went 2-1 in normal play and qualified for the playoffs. The U15s won a hard fought quarter finals match but fell short in the semis 2-1. They played well and showed maturity beyond their years in their lost, keeping their heads up and reflecting back on it later in the day. The U11s won their first match with ease, but the semi finals came down to the wire, ending on penalty kicks, where our goalie made some great saves and our players some beautiful goals. It was on to the finals game, against one of the afore mentioned “corporate” teams sponsored by Old Mutual, a company that sponsors EVERYTHING in South Africa (including my race next weekend). The two teams were well matched, they played neck and neck, but Old Mutual came out on top 2-1, scoring on a free kick and a questionable penalty kick from a handball in the box. 

Fire Fighters
Picking up crying ten and eleven year olds off the field and telling them they have nothing to be ashamed of is as heart wrenching as it sounds. I wasn’t lying to them though. These kids played as if they were twenty years old and had been playing together since they were eleven. They are a group of township kids who practice on a small strip of dying grass littered with rocks and broken glass, who share their cleats, shin guards, socks, shorts, jerseys, water, food, and literally anything else you can think of because they can’t afford their own. Yet despite all this they can play with the teams who have all the funding in the world.

U11 team on break between games

No one likes to see the Fire Fighters win. I lost count how many times this weekend opposing coaches would make a query on the age of certain players or the legitimacy of their paperwork after we beat them. It was enough that by Sunday afternoon the tournament directors knew me by name. Yet despite all of this the players were good sports, they barely complained and they won and loss with class. I’d like to end this rather long blog post with one of the most rewarding moments of my weekend. A random fan had talked to me a couple times throughout Sunday, saying he liked the Fire Fighters and was rooting for them. At one point he stopped me and asked me where the team was from, so I responded with Khayelithsa, knowing he wouldn’t be expecting us to come from such a far off and “poor” township. Then he asked if we were an academy and who our sponsors were. I smirked and responded, “They’re just a group of kids who get together and play in the park, no academy, no sponsorships.” All he could say was “damn, they’re good.” If only he knew just how amazing the players really are. 
Dan and Power at weekend tournament

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