Charlotte teens get chance to play in international soccer spotlight

Thanks to their prowess on the soccer field and hard work in the classroom, four Grier Heights teenagers are getting the chance of a lifetime this week in Brazil.

Myers Park High students Deron Huggins, Ryan Chambers, Jah’Quel Williams and Tyree Watson are playing for the United States team in the Street Child World Cup soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. team got off to a good start Sunday, beating India 8-1.

The Street Child World Cup is for kids who live in poverty or are homeless. Some teams are made up of refugees. The tournament is played every four years in the same country as the FIFA World Cup, which is coming to Brazil this summer.

Charlotte’s World Cup-bound players all live in or near Grier Heights, a predominately black, low-income community about 3 miles from Myers Park. But their soccer skills aren’t the only reason they were chosen to play in the World Cup: they are strong students (Chambers is a sophomore, the others are freshmen), each taking honors courses and making all As and Bs.

So it is an opportunity, yes. But it’s also a somewhat intimidating challenge for four kids who are relatively new to soccer and have grown up poor and, in some cases, broken homes.

“I’m excited about the competition, but I’m kind of afraid of it, too,” said Huggins. “There are going to be a lot of good players there.”

The four came together through the Urban Eagles, an outreach ministry for underprivileged kids sponsored by the Charlotte Eagles pro soccer team. They’re playing this spring on an Eagles-sponsored under-18 team in a Charlotte-area youth league.

“More than the soccer, they were selected because of the kinds of kids they are, the kinds of leaders they have become,” said their coach, Ben Page, a former Eagles player who runs the Urban Eagles’ Grier Heights program and has lived in the neighborhood for four years. “This will further set them apart, and I mean that in a good way.

“It’s going to help identify themselves as somebody who’s different. They’re doing something they didn’t think is possible. That’s the dream of every kid.”

Playing for Page, 28, is demanding. Missing practice without prior approval isn’t acceptable. Each player must have passing grades in school, or there will be consequences.

Two years ago, Page’s team finished its regular season undefeated in Matthews’ SOAR league. But several players weren’t making passing grades.

After practice on the eve of the playoffs, Page told the team the season was over, since there weren’t enough players with passing grades to field a team. Many players sat there, stunned. Others ran off in tears.

“We were all upset,” said Williams, who was on the team with the three other World Cup players. “But you learn later on that it’s about the team. It showed that everybody has to do their part, whether it’s on or off the field.”

One year later, the Eagles team won the league championship.

“It was a difficult lesson, but we’re not a charity,” said Page, who accompanied the players to Brazil. “It seems like everything on this planet that’s set up for kids like this is a charity. We don’t do anything to make it seem like a charity.”

The players traveled to Brazil on Friday, their first time on an airplane. They spent the weekend practicing and attending opening ceremonies.

The U.S. team – which also includes players from Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Chicago – is in a group with India, Kenya, Mauritius and Pakistan. Through soccer, the 19-nation tournament will focus attention on the world’s disadvantaged children. The event has some big-time spokesmen: soccer superstar David Beckham, former Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Huggins has lived in Grier Heights since he was 9. A year later, he went to his first Eagles soccer camp.

“I love the freedom of soccer,” said Huggins. “I like the peace and quiet that I get when I have the ball at my feet. It calms me down.”

Watson, a goalkeeper, has played soccer since he was 6 and he made Myers Park’s junior varsity team in 2013. He has never traveled farther than Florida.

“I was thinking it was some kind of a joke when they told me I would be on (the World Cup) team,” he said. “That’s because we play a lot with each other on this team. Then Coach called me. I still couldn’t believe it.”

Williams recently moved from High Point to Charlotte, where he first started playing soccer. He’s quickly caught on to the sport and said he thrives under the structure given to him by soccer and his studies.

“My time schedule is this,” Williams said. “Go to school for 8 1/2 hours. Then soccer. Then homework. Then sleep. Then the next day you do it all over again.”

Before Myers Park, Chambers attended Smith Language Academy. He speaks French fluently.

“Brazil is a really nice country; I’m looking forward to this,” he said. “Some people never get the opportunity that I’m getting.”