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Soccer Scores with Camden Families

By Troy Graham, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer, March 30, 2003

The ball squirted loose from a scrum of players and dribbled to Michael Gorman, who used a deft right foot to push the play up the field. Streaking down a sideline, he unleashed a shot from just beyond the midfield stripe and watched the ball roll toward the net.


Like the great soccer players of the world, the 6-year-old sprinted to midfield, where he ran in a circle with his arms extended, as if he were flying. "I can beat the little kids," the Camden boy said after celebrating the second goal of his young career. "I got two all by myself." Until this weekend, Michael could not have performed his Ronaldo impression because he lived in a city without an organized soccer league.

Despite being the world's most popular sport, soccer in this country has often failed to penetrate cities such as Camden, a concrete jungle that has almost no usable soccer fields and only one high school team. Instead, the sport has become associated with homogenous, suburban communities and SUV-driving "soccer moms".

But, as Camden's first youth soccer league kicked off this weekend, more than 450 city children joined the growing American soccer tableau. For many parents and players — ages 4 through 14, divided into four groups — this was their first exposure to the sport, its rules and its equipment. "I don't know how to put these things on," Marvin Huff of the Whitman Park section said as she fiddled with her 4-year-old grandson's shin guards.

Despite the unfamiliarity, the Club appeared to be an unqualified success with parents such as Huff. "Soccer is great. Anything that lets him know that there's more to life than hanging on the streets," she said as her grandson joined his teammates. "I'm going to be here every Saturday. I'm ready to be a soccer mom."

As the players prepared for their early-morning games, proud parents swarmed through the carnival-like atmosphere at the Camden High School fields, taking pictures and shooting video. Charlotte Barge of the Parkside section said her 7-year-old son, Isaiah, had risen that morning at dawn. "I've never seen him up so early," she said. "He was up at 6 a.m., waking me up, saying 'It's soccer day.'"

The morning started with the introduction of every team — with names such as the Little Angels and the Mighty Midgets — and every player. They marched before the bleachers dressed in their new, donated uniforms. The younger players held hands, waved like parade grand marshals, and flashed grins. When the games started, they were not without some expert direction. Coach Cornell Williams of East Camden learned the game in his native Jamaica and played at Camden County College after moving to America. He taught his children the game "as a family," but they had never played in an organized league. "I'm excited about this. I was up at 6 a.m. I couldn't sleep," said Williams, a research engineer with a Delaware company. "This is overdue, I think."

The league was born through the efforts of a huge coalition of community groups, funding from a long list of organizations, and the work of Ed Bonnette. Bonnette, who worked in Camden for eight years as a Department of Motor Vehicles agent, has been involved in youth soccer for more than a decade. In 1993, he and his wife started a league in Gloucester Township that now has 70 teams and a $6 million soccer complex.

Why did he turn his attention to Camden? "There's a need, there's a void, and we're filling it," he said. "Every community in South Jersey, in Camden County, has soccer except the city. In my opinion, these kids need it as much, if not more." Bonnette also said the sport had become a great "social movement" that tended to bring a community together over lush grass soccer fields.

John Macklin echoed those sentiments after watching his 4-year-old grandson, Joel Thompson, score in the waning seconds of his game. All parents in the Camden league must help in at least two capacities, such as coaching a team or working the concession stand. (The $5 fee to join the league has been waived for many of the children.) The week before play started, 100 parents cleared the fields of 22 trash bags worth of garbage and tires, then helped draw up the lines for the nine fields the league uses.

"I've seen the city since 1965, and I've seen the city's degradation," Bonnette said. "I'm aware that the city has its problems, but I'm also aware that the city is rich in the spirit of its people." Bonnette said he planned to build up the league, then turn it over to the parents. After the initial 10-week season, the league will follow up with a sign-up drive and a fall season. "By fall," Bonnette said, "we'll be 1,000 kids."