- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2008

Shortly after noon on a broiling Friday, Lawrence Cann stood in the middle of a new soccer pitch inside a new tennis stadium located in the middle of downtown and boomed into a microphone, “Welcome to the 2008 Homeless USA Cup!”

From the bleachers, where the 12 teams (representing 11 cities plus an “alumni” team to fill out the field) assembled after parading inside, a voice boomed back, “Thanks for having me!”

Sometimes, it’s good just to have a place to go and feel welcomed, especially when a friendly destination is not always a given in life.

It’s a given here, where about 95 players and coaches are fed, clothed and housed, and playing a lot of street soccer. The trials will produce the eight-man U.S. team, plus alternates, that will play in the Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, in December.

They even went to the movies Friday night to see the premiere of “Kicking It,” produced by Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. The documentary tells the story of several homeless soccer players from different parts of their world who try to overcome desperate conditions en route to the 2006 Homeless World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa.

A year before that, a makeshift team from Charlotte, N.C., under Cann’s direction, flew to the Cup competition in Scotland. They lost every game but took home a trophy for showing the most spirit.

“We weren’t there just to try to win,” said Ray Isaac, a veteran of that team. “We came to serve the cause. The reason we got that trophy, we inspirated. Not just our team, but everybody.”

Winning the tournament is an obvious goal. So is a trip to Melbourne. The players will be picked according to how well they play, their personality and how they interact. But most seem happy simply to play soccer, serve the cause and, yes, “inspirate.”

Mr. Isaac, who is nearing 50, is a voluble spokesman. He said he lived in a graveyard and slept in a tomb after his house, on a farm where he worked, burned down.

“The tomb was safer than laying out on the grass,” he said. “I didn’t have a drinking problem, I didn’t have a drug problem. I didn’t have anything.”

He chuckled at the double-meaning. But even before he became homeless, Mr. Isaac described himself as “no angel.” He went to college and served in the Air Force, but he also was arrested several times for a variety of offenses.

“Ol’ Ray went through all kinds of stuff,” he said.

Today Mr. Isaac works at the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, a nonprofit homeless outreach agency run by Mr. Cann, the U.S. team manager, and his brother, Rob, the coach.

Mr. Isaac has a job, he and his wife have a 6-month-old daughter, with another child on the way. This will be his 11th child in all. The oldest, he said, is 33. He reached into his right shin guard and produced a packet wrapped in duct tape that included keys and a passport. Inside was a picture of his wife and baby. In his left shin guard, he keeps his cigarettes.

“When you can take nothing and have something, you have achieved,” he said.

For some, just getting here was an achievement. Rob Cann said the ranks of the San Francisco team were thinned to two for a variety of issues, including one player’s probation officer refusing to let him go.

But unity prevailed in at least one instance. The Minneapolis team drove 12 hours to Ann Arbor, Mich., slept in a shelter, and then both teams had breakfast together before sharing a van for the 11-hour ride to the District.

When they arrived Thursday, the teams received uniforms, shoes and other equipment, courtesy of the Leonsis family charity, which is funding most of the event. The players are staying at dorms at George Washington University and have been supplied donated food and bottled water.

The U.S. Soccer Foundation donated the blue and red, polypropylene field, a “mini-pitch” scaled down to the 72-feet by 52-feet dimensions of four-on-four street soccer. It took about three hours to install the field and the dasher boards Thursday inside the 2,000-capacity stadium at 11th and H streets in Northwest - built for the Kastles, the new World TeamTennis franchise.

Foundation official Rob Kaler said the event “wipes away the stereotype of what you think a homeless person is.”

There is even furniture, thanks to Mr. Leonsis’ son, Zach, a college student working as a volunteer. He spent hours scanning Craig’s List online and driving to pick up a three sofas and a recliner. All were put to good use as a respite from the heat and travel. After his game, Randal Reackhof of Ann Arbor found the recliner especially useful. He leaned back and soon fell asleep.

If there are stereotypes of the homeless, Mr. Reackhof would seem to defy them. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Michigan and was a successful architect before a bipolar disorder cost him his job and his family.

“Everything got broken in my life,” said the 55-year-old, who lived in a storage shed for which he paid $40 a month.

Now he has his own room in a house, thanks in part to an assistance program at his alma mater. That, he said, and soccer. He said he has played since he was 17, and coached his children’s teams.

“It’s all a process,” he said. “Soccer is a safe place for me.”

Some, like Mr. Reackhof, were happy to share their stories. Boubacar Sarr, a 37-year-old native of Senegal who coaches the Atlanta team, talked about how depression left him “nowhere to go” except a shelter. But he pulled himself together and now works for the homeless task force that helped him.

“The value of [soccer] is definitely self-esteem,” he said. “Self-esteem is a big plus, to do something positive, to meet people from other places, to tell your life story to someone who understands.”

It was oppressively hot until a welcome shower cooled things off almost two hours into the first day of competition. Mr. Leonsis and other officials literally kicked off the proceedings by booting balls toward the goal. Later he told an amusing story about the late comedian George Carlin, although it had nothing to with Mr. Carlin’s riff on this very subject (“Why don’t they call it houselessness?”). Mr. Leonsis scanned the mostly empty bleachers.

“It’s so perfect for the players,” he said, but added, “I’d like to see some more spectators.”

Two who wandered inside from the street were Ray and Sue Veasey, a couple from England on a cross-country tour of the states.

“I’m a soccer fan and I watch any form of soccer, anywhere,” Mr. Veasey said.

But they said they also had read about homeless soccer back home and were curious about it.

“I think the perception is that all homeless people are all on the street looking for handouts,” Mrs. Veasey said. “Alcoholics. But I think the reality is, they’re not all alike.”

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