A place to play


Photo courtesy of Kevin Byrne

Abby Christensen, News editor

On a Saturday morning last fall, I woke up, drove myself to the Soccer Park in Fenton and played soccer. Players of my St. Louis Scott Gallagher team combined with another group to practice skills for a while then scrimmaged at the end. This scenario seems just like any other Saturday for an avid soccer player. However, there were a few major differences. For one, it was completely friendly: no winners, no losers, just for the fun of the game. More importantly, I spent the morning playing with a 9-year-old boy named Bob, who could not speak, but only communicated through a smile or frown.

That Saturday was not a normal soccer practice for my team. Rather than improving ourselves, we helped others enjoy our favorite sport at the Special Needs Soccer Association (SPENSA), a nonprofit St. Louis-based soccer program for young people with disabilities. Rather than run endless sprints and soccer drills like usual, I spent the morning playing with Bob. We worked on shooting and passing, but mainly we just had fun. Bob held my hand to take me from place to place. If he enjoyed an activity, he would smile. If he disliked it, he would simply walk away or lead me somewhere else. A member of my team and I spent our entire time finding new drills for Bob. I came up with a game similar to bowling, with Bob kicking a ball into a stack of cones and trying to knock them over. It didn’t involve any extravagant skills. I didn’t teach him anything new, but he smiled and laughed, so I knew the game was a hit.

Bob didn’t want to scrimmage with everyone else, so we watched instead. There was no winner or loser, and they didn’t keep score, but it was one of the best games I have ever witnessed. When I watched that game, I didn’t see kids and teens with disabilities. I saw people playing soccer, having a blast. They worked hard, all while laughing and smiling. Each person ran as hard as they could. It was amazing to see, but also sad, because I realized this place was one of the only opportunities these kids had to play a sport. Soccer has been a huge part of my life, so having the opportunity to play every day seemed completely normal. But for these kids, it was a gift.

I’ve played soccer since I was 9 years old, playing for club teams, school teams, winning big games and intense nail biters, but this game stood out to me more than any other. In this game, rather than scoring goals and making plays, I stood and watched with Bob. As we watched, I saw kids laughing and smiling. The other spectators cheered them on while Bob just smiled next to me. No one complained about running, or mouthed off to an opposing player. No one got mad at the referee. They just had fun.