Soccer and Society: kids vs. cancer

October 7, 2013

In our latest installment of Soccer and Society, a periodic feature chronicling the intersection of the beautiful game and American life …


Tyler Smith (in sun glasses) and the U-13 Alexandria Red Stars. (By Richard Smith)

Tyler Smith is 12 years old. He has been playing soccer since he was 3. He loves it. He loved his grandmother, too. So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, he sought a way to honor her and raise awareness.

Tyler is captain of the Alexandria Red Stars, a bunch of buddies who have played together as a travel team for several years. Last fall, with his grandmother in his thoughts, he wore a pink armband. This season, after Marsha Disher passed away in Greenville, S.C., at age 67, he wanted to make a larger gesture. His idea: pink uniforms.

“We were really close. When we talked on the phone, she would always ask me about my soccer games,” said the seventh-grader at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School. “I wanted to pay tribute to her.”

To do so in the form of pink uniforms, he would have to raise the funds himself. So he called local businesses, set up appointments and, while his father Richard waited at the door, he made his solo pitch.

The goal was $2,000. “That’s a lot for a boy whose biggest expense is bubble gum,” said his father, a partner at Wiley Rein law firm in Washington and president of the National Capital Soccer League, an elite travel circuit for under-8 to under-19 boys.

The money began to flow, but Tyler also had to find an apparel company that manufactures pink uniforms, a rarity. (Palermo in Italy’s Serie A wears pink and other clubs will choose pink as an alternative uniform or for special occasions.) Nike does make them, he discovered, but the Alexandria Soccer Association is affiliated with rival Adidas. The compromise: The Red Stars could wear pink if Tyler identified a company that isn’t a major competitor to Adidas.

Tyler located Xara, a California company. He reached out to the firm on Facebook. It responded. Not only would Xara make the uniforms, it would offer them at a discount. That allowed Tyler to supply the Red Stars as well as the club’s other U-13 travel squad.

The teams wore their new uniforms (pink shirts and socks, white shorts) for the first time over the weekend and will don them throughout October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“When we walked onto the field, I could hear the parents for the other team talking about our uniforms,” said Tyler, a fan of D.C. United, Manchester United and Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta. “They were asking about them on the sidelines and the word began to spread about what we were doing.”

Several Red Stars parents were also wearing pink jerseys.

The outreach didn’t end with the uniforms: At the end of the weekend matches, when the teams shook hands, the Red Stars presented their opponents with information cards and a memento.

The campaign has also served as an educational experience for Tyler.

“I have learned how so many people are affected by breast cancer,” he said. “Doing this project is showing people what an important issue it is.”

As part of MLS’s breast cancer initiative, D.C. United incorporated pink into Friday night’s match against the Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium: the ball, corner flags and nets, among other items. Wearing their new uniforms, Tyler and three teammates carried the FIFA Fair Play banner onto the field before the game.

On Sunday, before their own match, the Red Stars approached the coach’s mother, a breast cancer survivor, and presented her with a pink jersey.

“She was so excited and happy,” Tyler said. “It was awesome.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Steven Goff · October 7, 2013