Homeless soccer team aims for goals


 On Sunday, August 1, the seven members of the Hope Community Center’s Charlottesville Lions piled into the team van to head back home. They had spent the last three days in Washington, D.C., competing in the Street Soccer USA Cup, a national tournament that hosted 23 teams from 19 cities, all made up of homeless and refugees. The best teams featured the latter—many who had played soccer all their lives, whether they hailed from Somalia or a Latin country.

“If they got more skills than us, we’ll play with more heart,” said the Lions’ captain, anticipating the field of competitors at the D.C. event.

Charlottesville only had one player with any real pedigree, a 43-year-old Iraqi refugee who scored most of the Lions’ goals en route to a 3-4 overall record. Apart from him, the Lions were made up of U.S.-born African Americans, most with little to no experience playing European football. 

“If they got more skills than us, we’ll play with more heart,” said Darryl Rojas, team captain, on the ride up. A member of last year’s team, Rojas acted as part cheerleader, part manager for the whole trip, barking commands on the field and corralling the guys off of it. On Friday, July 30, Rojas told his teammates that if they exerted the same energy in Charlottesville as they did on the field, “you’d have a car, a house and a wife.”

“It’s not just about me. That’s what gets us in these cycles, just thinking about ourselves and our immediate problems,” the 39-year-old Rojas says five days later, back in Charlottesville and sitting at a table in the Hope Center’s day haven. “I don’t mind telling a guy, ‘You’re effin’ up, you need to get your crap together.’ But what I’ve learned is that, until I can be a leader by example, that it’s really just blowing a whole lot of wind.”

To that end, Rojas says he has spent the days since he returned trying to channel the goodwill the tournament engendered by spreading it around, mainly to his “lady,” who is pregnant with his child. 

“Within the last two days that I’ve been back, we’ve done nothing but go to the proper agencies, work toward getting her food stamps back in order, and getting housing for her and the child,” says Rojas. For other players, the results are less than tangible. A couple sit around the Downtown Mall’s Haven shelter, one in front of a computer searching for jobs. 

For another member of the local homeless community, though, the soccer trip must seem like divine intervention. 

One early morning in D.C., players looked out of their hostel window at a group of prostitutes and thought they noticed a familiar face. Rojas went to inspect and came face-to-face with a girl—in full streetwalker regalia—that he knew from Hope and the Haven, a regular on the down-and-out scene. 

“When I saw her she literally burst into tears,” he says. The girl begged to come back with the team, citing a desire to see her 9-month-old daughter who lives in town. So they put her in soccer gear, bought her food and gave her a place to stay for the rest of the weekend. By Monday, she was back with her baby.