Street soccer goalie to play for U.S. in Homeless World Cup

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Cliff Byrd concentrated on the soccer ball before a shot came full-force to the corner of the net. He dove with his arms extended, reaching the ball with his fingertips and deflecting it into the corner of the small street soccer field.

The goalie grimaced as he fell on the rubber surface, but he sprung right up, pleased about making the stop during the drill.

Byrd was the center of attention at the St. Louis Roadies' practice July 14 because his coaches had been asked to prepare him for his appearance with the U.S. National Team in the Homeless World Cup Aug. 29 to Sept. 5 in Oslo, Norway.

The 25-year-old client of Peter & Paul Community Services — a Catholic-rooted, ecumenical organization that sponsors the local team — will be on the U.S. team competing in street soccer with 70-plus teams from around the world.

Street soccer has four players on a side playing on a field the size of a tennis court with boards similar to a hockey rink. The goals are 12 feet wide and 3 feet high. Games, played in two 7-minute halves, are high-scoring and fast-moving.

Byrd is honored to play in Norway, though the seven-hour plane ride is a little daunting. "Sure I have a little goosebumps every now and then, but I think I'm ready," he said.

He enjoys the camaraderie of being on the team with what he called "just a bunch of good guys to be around," and calls it "wonderful therapy" that helps him deal with stress. A highlight of his time on the Roadies was a shutout in the first game of Street Soccer USA's National Street Soccer Tournament in Philadelphia earlier this summer — a difficult feat considering the number of shots a goalie faces in street soccer. He also appreciated meeting Hope Solo, goaltender on the U.S. women's national soccer team, and Heather Mitts, who played defense on the national team.

Byrd also played in tournaments with the team in San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C.

After learning that he was losing his apartment, he sought help from Peter and Paul Community Services. He moved into Peter & Paul's Labre Center — a transitional housing program for homeless and mentally ill men named after their patron saint, St. Benedict Joseph Labre. Recently he received the keys to a new apartment. Lindsay Young, an occupational therapy assistant with Peter and Paul Community Services, helped him pick out a bed, four-drawer chest, kitchen supplies and groceries.

Byrd credits the staff and his faith in God with helping him. His team's coaches have been a big help as well.

Byrd has played on the Roadies for about two years. The Florissant native played soccer informally throughout his life but never as a goalie. He took over the position when the previous Roadies goalie quit because of health issues.

St. Louis Roadie Head Coach Joe Campanella, a parishioner at St. Cletus in St. Charles, said the players "make a heck of a commitment." A few players even juggle their work schedules to ensure they make practices. Some players no longer are eligible for the national homeless soccer tournament.

"It's a good problem to have," Campanella said. "They do exactly what you want them to do — get help and get back in this game of life. But the coach side of you regrets losing another one that is not eligible to play in the sanctioned events."

Players who have become independent still come to practices and serve as role models for the newer players.

The team this year includes a couple of political refugees from Africa. Keith Deisner, another coach and a founder of the team, said volunteer coaches bring many skills in helping the players in legal matters and getting work, for example. Some players are recruited from soup kitchens and shelters. The current players all have a place to stay but in the past they've gone from practices to sleeping in abandoned buildings or under overpasses.

"Soccer is a window to services for them," said Deisner, a member of St. Augustine Parish in north St. Louis.

Byrd, unpacking his groceries in his new apartment, agreed. "I'm finally on my own," he said.

For information or to watch the Homeless World Cup, visit www.homelessworldcup.org

>> Connections

In 2009, Peter & Paul Community Services founded St. Louis' first homeless street soccer club — The St. Louis Roadies.

The team helps those who have been homeless connect with others in their community, including professional Peter & Paul staff and volunteers who assist players with supportive services. The experience of being part of a team renews their sense of self-esteem and empowers participants to change their lives for the better.

About 160 homeless adults have played on the St. Louis Roadies since the club was established, with more than two-thirds ending their homelessness for good.

Stefan Easter has less time for the St. Louis Roadies these days since he works full-time for an airline, but he enjoys showing up for practices and supporting the team even though he isn't eligible to play in tournaments anymore.

The tournaments generally are for teams with players who have been homeless in the last two years.

"I used to be homeless myself," Easter said, explaining how Peter and Paul Community Services helped him get back on his feet following a serious head injury. He was hurt in a massive tornado in Joplin, Mo., in 2011, and was brought to St. Louis for surgery. "I lost everything I had and went to two homeless shelters," he said. "This place helped me get back on my feet and taking care of a lot of my finances."

The St. Louis Roadies helps the homeless or formerly homeless make friends, be part of a group and have fun, he said. He also plays soccer on a regular basis elsewhere.

Don Hamilton, a resident of Peter and Paul's Garfield Place Apartments supportive housing who also plays goalie, said one of the coaches, Keith Deisner, has been "a great friend and great supporter. The first day I met Keith we bonded and he talked me into playing soccer."

Douglas Carter is one of two players on the first Roadies team who still come to practices. He now works two jobs — at a library and at a homeless shelter — and holds the soccer team and its coaches in a special place in his heart. He's pleased to see so many former players like himself get housing and jobs and put their lives in order. 

>> How to help

The St. Louis Roadies are sponsored by Peter & Paul Community Services in St. Louis. Players have found jobs, reconnected with family, become debt free, fulfilled parole expectations, remained sober, found and maintained housing, received counseling and volunteered in the community.

To make a donation to the Roadies through Peter & Paul Community Services mail checks (payable to PPCS) to Peter & Paul Community Services, 2612 Wyoming St., St. Louis, MO 63118-2402. Specify Roadies in a note accompanying the check. For more information, call (314) 338-8188 or email shane.taylor@ppcsinc.org. 

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