Lives Are Transformed When These Players Stay on the Ball

By Mike Wise
Friday, June 27, 2008

Dwayne Gourzong traveled a great distance to play soccer this weekend in Washington, where he will be introduced at D.C. United's game Sunday. Much farther than David Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy could ever fathom.

"It's weird telling you I sleep under a bridge, but I'm not ashamed of it," Gourzong said. "That's where I have to be right now to get where I want to go. It's not who I am. It's just where I sleep."

He and his teammate, Tim Cummins, who lives in a recovery house in Charlotte, cradled their new shoes and uniforms handed out by volunteers yesterday on the corner of 11th and H streets NW, a few feet from where the 2008 Homeless USA Cup will be contested this weekend at the stadium that is the borrowed home of the Kastles, Washington's new team tennis entry.

Gourzong, 32, is one of 100 men from across the country, many of whom live at parks, in shelters or in recovery houses, who trekked to the District to compete in the U.S. trials for December's Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, Australia.

What a concept, no? A street soccer tournament to give some kind of affirmation to the least fortunate, now 48 nations strong, going on six years.

When Ted Leonsis first heard the term "Homeless World Cup," he was offended.

"I thought, 'It sounds like something that people are going to laugh at it, like a circus-type atmosphere -- midget-tossing or something," the Washington Capitals' chairman and majority owner said in his office on Wednesday afternoon.

"And then I saw the film footage. And then you meet the people. That's when I couldn't get doing this movie out of my mind."

Leonsis produced and funded "Kickin' It," a poignant documentary of the 2006 Homeless World Cup, shot and directed in seven countries by local filmmaker Susan Koch. In conjunction with the trials this weekend, the film, already acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival, premieres today at 10 a.m. at the Landmark E Street Theater. ESPN bought the rights and will air it in September.

"It's 'Rocky' meets 'The Fisher King,' " Leonsis said, pitching it as if he needed a movie executive to fund it. He's actually not far off. The central characters -- black, white, brown, Irish, African, Spanish -- have nothing in common but their wounded self-esteem and nowhere to live. They cling to the movie's opening line for personal redemption:

"A ball can transform your life."

"This helped me change mine," Gourzong said, looking toward the stadium yesterday.

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