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Buddy Ball
Colorado Springs youth get a kick out of local soccer program

click to enlarge Zachary keeps his focus on the ball while staff members offer support - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Zachary keeps his focus on the ball while staff members offer support

Cute is not a word often associated with athletes. Especially soccer players, the rough and tumble grit-wielders who surpass even hockey players for the intensity and sustained physical exertion. It's a competitive, take-no-prisoners battlefield where bruised shins are the battlescars and foreheads are artillery.

Unless, of course, the athlete on the other side of the soccer ball is your buddy.

Buddy soccer participants get together three times a week, to practice on Monday and Wednesday evenings and to play games on Saturday mornings as part of the City of Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Buddy sports league. But don't let the routine fool you. Despite enormous enthusiasm and determination, these "games" and the program as a whole have found a key to unlock the joy in sport without unleashing the often rabid competitive zeal that can take the play out of a game.

Chris Brownlow, program director, is proud of the effort, saying that it gives "kids with special needs a wonderful way to enjoy soccer" -- enjoy being the key word. Although there is an emphasis on fundamental skills, the heart of the program is the fun the children have while entering the arena of team sports. "We try to get them to develop skills, teamwork and sportsmanship," said Brownlow, and a quick look at a practice session made it clear they are succeeding on all three fronts.

Monday's practice begins with a hug between Joshua and his buddy, Sarah Rice. Each athlete is paired with a "buddy," a staff member or volunteer working one-on-one with the athlete. Sometimes the buddy is a family member, but more often they are other young soccer players, eager to spend part of their summer helping other youth with an enthusiasm for learning and playing.

"A lot of it is the socialization between the buddy and the athlete," says Brownlow. "Three days out of the week, little Johnny knows he's going to be with his father or his best friend. He looks forward to the friendly competition and affection."

click to enlarge Joshua dribbles before Saturdays game. - TINA RUTZ
  • Tina Rutz
  • Joshua dribbles before Saturdays game.

The athletes in the program are aged 5 to 13, representing a wide range of ages and special needs. "Some of them are severely physically challenged, in a wheelchair," said Brownlow. Other athletes may have slight cases of autism, and others are Downs children, but all of them share a desire to tap into their athleticism. "Some of them are pretty fair little athletes," said Brownlow.

When the full roster shows up, there are as many as 25 people involved in the Buddy Soccer league, including athletes, buddies and staff members. The athletes come from all over the city, and even in this dry summer, the scattered afternoon showers of August are frequently enough to send practices inside at the City Auditorium -- a more controlled environment -- and cause some athletes to skip a day's practice altogether. Monday's indoor practice featured a solid core group of 10 athletes and buddies.

While Brownlow is ultimately responsible for the program, Charlene Lundquist handles the nitty-gritty of running the five-week program. Lundquist is the activities coordinator for special programs with Parks and Rec., a part-time position that makes the most of her background in special education. She and her staff of teenage volunteers and workers focus on covering four fundamental skills: dribbling, ball passing, throw-ins and kicking. Far more important than soccer skills, however, are the people skills in making a positive, memorable experience for the athletes and their families.

Kay Marshbanks is the mother of the smallest soccer player at Monday's practice. She talks from the side of the indoor court, closely watching her five-year-old son Zachary as he dribbles the ball from one end of the court to the other. Zachary is constantly on the move, extremely focused on the ball and always in good spirits. He keeps buddy Jill Samina on her toes, covering miles of court as she trots alongside him chasing after a ball that got away, rolling ahead of the pair from one side of the court to the other. "He's doing fantastic," his mother proudly proclaims as Zachary proceeds thorough his first year in any kind of organized sport.

It is easy to pick up the intensity in Zachary as he wills himself to keep his head up as he runs after the ball, heeding the coaching he's received over the past few weeks. On his next pass across the court, however, Zachary is likely to be caught up in the excitement of the chase, head down with determination as he and Jill take off in pursuit.

Mary Vigil sits beside Marshbanks, watching her own son working around the goal at the far end of the auditorium. "He's been expressing an interest in playing soccer," Vigil says of Adam, noting that with some residual right side nerve damage, he's not quite ready for another league. Both women are caught up in the sideline ambition of soccer moms, daring to dream that Zachary and Adam will one day be prepared to compete in the Special Olympics.

"It's a starting point" says Vigil of the Buddy program. "They're learning at a nice easy pace. They let them learn what they want to learn that particular day. ... Adam's working on hitting with his head," Vigil continues. "Adam's learning goaltending."

click to enlarge Cheylnne practices her kicking skills. - TINA RUTZ
  • Tina Rutz
  • Cheylnne practices her kicking skills.

While Adam works on his goaltending skills, he spends just as much time shooting goals. It's clear that the social interaction is a highlight for him, and he plays tirelessly with his buddies Lindsay Eubanks and Shawn Russell. Adam is favoring his right side today, limping a little more than normal and mostly staying on his toes on his right side. He laughs for the better part of an hour and a half.

Joshua is a good example of an athlete focused on what he wants to learn on a given day. On this day, Joshua is working on his throw-ins, and his determination and persistence demand considerable patience for a buddy trying to keep up with him. But Joshua finds a perch in the seating area above the court, and makes throw after throw to Sarah, beaming with pride each time he releases the ball. When his father finally comes over to encourage him back onto the court, Joshua rewards his dad with a kiss on the cheek before returning to practice.

The sports skills, and the soccer skills in particular, are extremely therapeutic for the athletes. Lundquist explains the benefits of a simple task like dribbling the soccer ball with the left and right feet. The large motor skill process engages both sides of the brain, and that left-brain, right-brain coordination is very good for the athletes, helping them develop in ways that few other activities can accomplish.

Chelynne Stephenson is the oldest of the athletes at practice on Monday. She is practicing her kicks, and she teaches buddy Heather Wilson a unique drop kick she has mastered, dropping the ball in front of her and then kicking it on the up-bounce. When Heather stops to help another athlete briefly, Chelynne engages me in her practice session, make long perfect passes to me and trapping the ball cleanly, whenever my aim is accurate on the return pass.

The group starts to slow down, but it is the buddies whose energies start to wane after more than an hour of nonstop practice, smiling, and laughing. Joshua is still passing, Adam is sprawled out on the floor as if he's rehearsing his penalty shot dives in the goal, and Zachary has finally conceded to sit down and roll the ball back and forth instead of tirelessly running after it. These athletes may be tired, but it is the kind of tired only a parent can identify -- a parent all too familiar with the effects of a weary child an hour later at the dinner table. To the rest of us, all we can see is the unbridled enthusiasm for the camaraderie of teammates, the exhilaration of discovering a new skill and the pure joy of something so much more than just a game.

-- owen@csindy


capsule

For information about possible fall Buddy sports programs, contact Chris Brownlow at the City of Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department at 385-5981.

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