Street soccer takes on a different meaning this Saturday. The St. Louis Roadies will host a tournament, shutting down a block of Morgan Ford Road. This team, made up of men who are homeless or have been homeless at some point during their lives, uses this annual event to raise funds so The Roadies can travel to San Francisco to compete in the upcoming national tournament for homeless soccer teams.
Last Friday, The Roadies met at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Hyde Park to practice one last time before their St. Louis tournament. A white, 15-passenger van pulled up to the church, and out stepped about a dozen members of the team. Some were dressed in work clothes; some in full, soccer uniforms. Lance Holmes, a tall, skinny man who had eyes that widened as he spoke, was dressed to the nines in khaki pants and a dark, collared shirt.
“I’ve got a hot date tonight,” he told me with a wink as he walked into the church gymnasium.
“Yeah, you’ve got a date with 12 sweaty guys!” joked one of the other players.
The team members continued to joke and chat as they formed a circle and started stretching. Keith Deisner, a coach and development director at Peter and Paul Community Services Inc. — an organization that aids the homeless and started The Roadies seven years ago — introduced new players. During the warmups, he asked each player and coach to describe how his week went using a percentage: 0 was a bad week, 100 was a good week. A player who had trouble getting medical care put his week at 65 percent, another confidently claimed a 105 percent week. The average was about 93 percent.
Practice itself was everything you would expect: passing drills; scrimmages; erratic, flying soccer balls, and coach mantras such as “If you’re smiling, you’re not working!”
Homelessness was never mentioned.
Street Soccer USA, the national organization of homeless street soccer teams that inspired Deisner to start The Roadies, encourages this separation. The Street Soccer USA coach’s guidebook reads: “Traditional gateways into homeless services are designed in a way that the person accessing these services is reminded throughout the experience that they are homeless.”
Soccer, instead, provides a brief respite from that reality, said Michael Stout, who has been playing on the team since February and is living in Peter and Paul Community Services Inc. housing. “After the tournaments, everybody goes back to their lives, but when we’re there, it’s all about soccer and that’s it.”
Street Soccer USA says that promoting soccer skills like passing and positioning naturally translates to what it calls “street skills,” such as giving and receiving help. Plus, playing soccer is cheap. A street soccer game lasts 14 minutes and is played between teams of four in enclosed areas roughly the size of a tennis court.
Deisner intends to continue the program, which he says has had positive results. Of the more than 130 players that have participated since the team began, two-thirds are no longer homeless.
One of those is Holmes — the team captain of The Roadies and the player who claimed before Friday’s practice to have a “hot date.” After Holmes’ wife was killed in a bus accident, he fell into a deep depression. He lost custody of his 3-year-old daughter, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and struggled with homelessness for four years.
Seven years ago, Holmes was running to catch a bus to make it to a shelter on time. He missed the bus, but his athleticism caught the eye of Deisner, who started talking with him. The coach eventually pulled a soccer ball from his trunk and threw it at Holmes. Holmes caught it and has been The Roadies’ goalie ever since.
“Practice is one of the highlights of my weeks,” said Holmes. “I can come here and be who I really am and know that these people have gone through the same stuff I’ve gone through.” Holmes has not been homeless since 2010. He makes a living by certifying lifeguards and teaching Jazzercise, gymnastics and water aerobics. Last year, he was finally granted full custody of his daughter.
Dave Whitener, another player, experienced a similar transformation. He had been in and out of jail over the past two years, mostly recently for writing a bad check, but currently has his own apartment and is enrolled in classes at Forest Park Community College. Last year, he was recognized for his life achievements — and soccer talent — by being placed on the international homeless street soccer team, which traveled to Poland to compete in the Homeless World Cup.
All of the players now on the team either have their own place or live at a shelter. One of The Roadies’ 10 coaches, Pete Companella, joked before practice, “We like to take all the credit for it.” Team members’ success is due to a wide variety of factors, but it’s clear that soccer has played some role in it. When the biggest question on a Friday night for players like Holmes is not where he is going to sleep, but what movie he should go to on his first date, something must be working.
See video about the 2013 national tournament held in Times Square.
When: Begins at 11 a.m. June 7
Where: 3175 Morgan Ford Rd., 63116
Registration: $250 a team; call 314-588-7111 ext. 203 or e-mail Emily Wanner at email@example.com