The future of soccer in the United States is in inner-city neighborhoods, says Carolyn McKenzie Edwards on a steamy Saturday morning in Atlanta's Summerhill community. Some 20 children aged 5 to 12 zigzag across a field, kicking the ball and often trying to manipulate it with their hands when it is airborne. For most, it's their first introduction to the world's No. 1 team sport.
Among these children and others in low-income neighborhoods across the country is a pool of world-class soccer players, Ms. Edwards asserts. "This is an untapped market," she says.
Edwards is founder of Soccer in the Streets, an Atlanta-based program that teaches inner-city kids how to play soccer. Since she started SITS in 1989 with her own money and a small grant, the program has been introduced in 41 cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.
SITS is more than just a game or two of soccer every weekend. Kids who participate enroll in Soccer 101, a seven-week introductory program that teaches kids basic skills and ends in a mini-tournament. Kids can then continue with Soccer 102, which focuses more on intramural league play.
Edwards, who had never seen a soccer game before she started the program, embarked on the venture after talking with the Atlanta Attack - the city's indoor pro team. The Attack's president had wanted to develop an inner-city program and asked Edwards, who had experience in community service and organizing events, to write a strategic plan.
Kids kept coming back
At first, she had few believers. "You wouldn't believe the taboos I heard - 'Oh, no, we can't play soccer, it's a white boy sissy sport,' " Edwards says. "The parents would say the same thing - that these kids were not going to be interested. But we just did it anyway, and the kids started having so much fun, they just kept wanting to come back. I knew all those myths weren't true; it was just a lack of exposure."
Soccer, she says, has a lot of appeal. "It's not that expensive, and anyone can play it. You don't have to be a certain size."
So far, about 5,000 kids have participated in SITS. Edwards predicts the numbers will "grow like crazy" now that a national board of directors has been established. The organization is in the process of setting up chapters in 25 cities that have showed the most interest in SITS. It will also provide guidance and structure. Chapters will determine what season their programs will run.
"My role over the last four years has been to sell the concept," Edwards says. "Now we really want to fine-tune the engine."
Edwards admits that she still must work extra hard to "sell" soccer to the inner city. Many youths have never heard of the sport; Edwards also must compete with basketball and Little League baseball, two activities that draw large numbers of aficionados. To recruit potential soccer stars like Brazilian Pele, Edwards gets a community volunteer to distribute fliers at housing projects and apartments. In Summerhill, for example, 300 fliers have drawn about 25 kids.
What sets this soccer program apart, however, is its antidrug curriculum. Kids must take a soccer oath and pledge to do their homework, obey their parents, do well in school, not take drugs, and not get into fights.
Edwards plans to have each chapter teach a course called LIFE (Learning is Fun and Exciting), which deals with drug awareness, self-esteem, and other life skills. "We promote drug-free activities," Edwards says.
The emphasis on a drug-free sport environment was important to Phil Edwards, a minister in the Summerhill community. "We have so many kids - even at the pre-teen level - who are faced with the opportunity to sell drugs," Mr. Edwards says. "This keeps them busy. It's a good way to bring families and neighbors together."
Here in Summerhill, which will continue with Soccer 102 in the fall, mostly single mothers have come to watch the children play. They bring fold-up chairs and sit under a tree as the coach teaches soccer drills. "Soccer gives them something to do other than walk around and watch TV," says Nancy Clifton, grandmother of two of the children.
Many of the coaches are college students or working people who have soccer experience in this all-volunteer program. In Summerhill, the coach happens to be Edwards' husband, Desmond Edwards, whom she met when he was coaching a SITS program in Florida. Mr. Edwards touts the social skills soccer teaches.
"It gives a sense of teamwork," he says. "Kids learn to cooperate, be patient, wait their turn. It emphasizes that everybody on the team is important."
"I think it's fun," says 10-year-old C.J. Robertson. "I knew (soccer) was kicking the ball into a goal, but I didn't understand it before this."
Edwards, who has spent much time fund-raising for SITS, a nonprofit organization, says money comes from corporate sponsors and organizations such as the Housing and Urban Development agency. She tries to find a sponsor for each neighborhood; in Summerhill, Trinity Presbyterian Church, a local church, has donated $2,500, which has helped buy uniforms and refreshments.
Edwards's has received national recognition for her program. Last year, she was one of four winners of a Sports Illustrated for Kids "Good Sport" award for outstanding efforts in helping children.
One of the most rewarding parts of the job is hearing about the success stories, she says. One boy, who was 11, was failing school when he started playing soccer three years ago.
"The program coordinator was strict and told him that he shouldn't bother coming out if he didn't do better in school," Edwards says. "He loved soccer so much he's now getting A's and B's and he's still in the program."