- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pfc. Nick Madaras, of Wilton, Conn., loved to play soccer. Before his deployment to Iraq, he served as a soccer coach and referee and was a standout player for Wilton High School, a longtime soccer powerhouse. He also helped coach a local program for mentally and physically challenged children.

While stationed in Iraq, he marveled at how the children there kicked rocks down the streets and played in the dirt with tin cans, dribbling, passing and shooting with remarkable ease. He noted both their skills and their passion for the game.

While home on leave in July 2006, he spoke with his father about sending soccer balls and equipment to the war zone so he could share them with the children of Iraq.

On Sept. 3, 2006, just a few weeks after that conversation, Pfc. Madaras was killed by an improvised explosive device while participating in combat operations in Baqouba, Iraq. He was 19.

Ken Dartley, also of Wilton and a member of American Legion Post 86, attended the soldier’s graveside funeral service and learned about his wish. Inspired, he contacted Pfc. Madaras’ father - though he hadn’t known the young man or the family - with a respectful proposal.

Since that time, the “Kick for Nick” program (www.kickfornick.org) that they started has distributed 22,193 soccer balls, collected in 347 cities and 45 states, for Iraqi children. Each ball is inscribed with “PFC Nick Madaras.” The troops who distribute the balls to Iraqi children - and now Afghan children as well - tell them (via translators) about the private’s life.

The program is now a charitable organization with help from far and wide, including three dozen colleges and universities, more than 200 donors and Pfc. Madaras’ younger siblings. The effort has been publicized on ESPN and CNN, and it has been recognized by U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander, U.S. Central Command; and by U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In the ESPN segment, Salah Farag of Iraq was quoted as saying, through a translator: “We would like to say to [Nick’s] family that it is true that he was killed and they lost him. But as far as we are concerned, he is present with the Iraqi children, and whenever they play soccer, they will remember him.”

Last month, a series of soccer tournaments was conducted at the National Stadium of Iraq using Kick for Nick balls, including a tourney between coalition forces and Iraqi security brigades. In an interview with the Wilton Bulletin, Lt. Col. Michael Shinners, deputy commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Multi-National Division, called the tournaments a “counterinsurgency effort.”

“We believe that when a culture has that tangible demonstration of respect, it is that much more likely to express itself peacefully in politics and civil society,” he said. “A culture without sport is a little bit more prone to being corrupted by an insurgency.”

Of course, there is long-standing precedent for this, from the ” pingpong diplomacy” of 1971 - in which U.S. table tennis players visited China a year before President Nixon traveled there, marking a thaw in relations between the two nations - to recent reports about an intriguing proposal by the U.S. Soccer Federation to hold a “friendly” exhibition game with Iran this fall.

And Kick for Nick isn’t the only game in town. Apparently, an American contractor dribbles a soccer ball as he runs through the Green Zone in Iraq, passing the ball to curious bystanders and - after knocking it around for a while - giving them a new ball out of his backpack as a gift.

Who knows whether such soccer diplomacy really can make a difference in the grand scheme of things? But as President Obama watches his daughters play the world’s most popular sport, he might consider how such efforts play out on the dirt fields as a gesture of friendship, a sign of hope and respect, a symbol of joy, and a poignant reminder of our common humanity even in the midst of age-old political grievances, incendiary attacks and widespread suffering.

Here we see how Pfc. Madaras represents the best of us, shining a bright light on what binds us together even amid potent adversity.

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development firm. Send e-mail to [email protected] entrepreneurs.com.

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