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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.

It's still surreal how he ended up underneath that bridge, using a stash of blankets and cardboard for bedding, he said. One minute, he and his girlfriend had a two-bedroom apartment in Charlotte in a nice area, a 2006 Saturn Ion parked outside and a baby on the way.

In March 2007, his boss where he worked operating a backhoe took him out for a few drinks to celebrate the pregnancy. Gourzong never went home, instead "taking it further," he said -- toward rock cocaine and, eventually, breaking and entering a motor vehicle, a felony that cost him three months in jail. It also cost him his job, home and family, which returned home to Florida.

Gourzong finally made his way to the Urban Ministry Center, where he got clean. Same with Cummins, 39, who lived in Veterans Park in Charlotte for two years before he found a bed at a recovery house called Open Arms.

"October 17 will be two years of sobriety for me," said Cummins, who hopes to be the U.S. team's goalie in Melbourne.

Of the 100, 10 to 15 players will be selected to the U.S. team and eight will eventually go to Melbourne to represent their country in a 48-nation street soccer tournament. To be eligible, competitors have to be homeless for at least four months within the past year or, if they're in a recovery program, homeless within the past two years. Each player selected has a year to participate in the program.

"Seventy-seven percent make a positive life change after they've been in it," said Lawrence Cann, 30, the team's manager for the past four years. "The goal for almost everyone is to get a job or into housing. In some cases it's addressing a drug addiction or a mental-health issue or reconnecting with family."

Seven of the eight players who competed at the 2007 Homeless World Cup in Copenhagen, who will attend the documentary screening and be part of the weekend's events, are now off the streets.

When you hear that tired sports axiom, "That coach has such a tough job," send them to Cann to end their small-time worries.

He was on the phone all Wednesday morning with the New York contingent. Even though the six players competing this weekend have been working and training with the team, the state's Department of Social Services has informed the men if they don't check in for their beds at night they won't have a place to sleep when they return.

"They're not going to come if they're going to lose their beds," Cann said. By yesterday, the issue had been resolved and the players were on their way to the tournament at 11th and H.

The pitch is not a expansive field of manicured grass, but instead a 72-foot-long by 52-foot-wide sport-court surface. If the film is a good gauge, street soccer has the bang-bang aesthetic qualities of Arena Football and beach volleyball. It's essentially human Foosball, tailor-made for the American soccer ignoramus who can't deal with the rhythm and cadence of a 1-0 match. An average 14-minute game can produce as many as 10 goals -- for each side.

Cann, a decent left back in his playing days at Davidson with a social conscience of gold, said his biggest chore is "trusting them to take care of themselves."

"If you're going to do this program, you gotta drop people off after games and watch them walk into the woods where they sleep," he said. "You can't take everybody home with you. But you can watch them take control of their lives and no longer be victims."

Admission is free all weekend, but they do ask fans to bring water and granola bars for the competitors to help D.C. Central Kitchen's charitable efforts. All 100 players will be introduced at the United-Galaxy game while stars such as Beckham and Luciano Emilio get a halftime breather.

On Leonsis's ride home to Virginia on Tuesday afternoon -- "in my Mercedes, with my driver," he said, shrugging with sheepish candor -- he came to a red light by the Kennedy Center. Underneath the overpass, across from the black-tie crowd, were four homeless people who had set up camp.

He bluntly admits these are the same souls he would walk across the street to avoid a year ago, before he had his foundation fund much of the weekend. Now?

"What are these people's stories?" he thought as he looked out his car window. "And why aren't they in a shelter?'" Opulence and abject poverty intersect daily in Washington, usually co-mingling for a few uncomfortable seconds before the light changes. It won't hurt to stop the car this weekend, hear their stories and watch them play.

"We all came from somewhere just like you," Gourzong said. "Homelessness isn't who I am. It's just me right now, before things get better."

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