The well-worn soccer goal rests just feet from a church.
For Jah’Qwel Williams, Deron Huggins, and Tyree Watson, their sport, their faith and a chance encounter saved their lives, they say.
Soon, all three will attend college, the first in their families to do so.
They beat the odds, growing up in Grier Heights, a community in Charlotte with some of the city’s highest poverty rates.
Their story is especially important in context of a 2016 Harvard study that ranked Charlotte last nationally in upward mobility – the rate impoverished families rise out of poverty.
Now, the three are looking ahead to college and a time when they can inspire their city as it wrestles with issues that surfaced with the study and with the September 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott that led to protests and riots.
“Just because you come from the hood doesn't mean you have to be of the hood,” Williams said. “Because you're from the hood, that means you have to work that much harder to succeed.”
All three credit Ben Page and other coaches for resetting their courses.
“I’d probably be in jail if I hadn’t met Ben,” Williams said.
Page, 32, played five years of professional soccer with the Charlotte Eagles. In 2009, his team created the Urban Eagles, a soccer ministry for at risk kids mostly in Grier Heights. Page said God, “tugged his heart,” to join. One year later, he moved into Grier Heights so he could better understand the kids he coached and mentored.
Initially, he received odd looks from neighbors, he said. The neighborhood is only four percent white, according to census data.
“I think you hear stories about growing up around poverty or drugs and you feel for it,” Page said. “But when you see it, it touches your heart. It’s people you love and care about.
“I wanted to make a difference and I felt God was calling me to this.”
Williams met Page after moving to Charlotte from High Point in 2013. They talked after Williams almost got into a fight during a basketball game.
“When I first met Ben, it was amazing,” Ulonda Williams, 41, said. “He told me how he was into the church and all the things he did for the kids in the neighborhood.
“Ben was the best thing that ever happened to my son.”
“Tough love” to turn the corner
James Ford knows Grier Heights well. The 2014 North Carolina Teacher of the Year taught students from there while working at Garinger High School. He now co-chairs the Charlotte Opportunity Council, a group addressing the issues Harvard found. Ford said Charlotte must fix five pertinent issues: segregation, inequality, and the lack of social capital, education and family structure. When he looks at Grier Heights kids, he sees potential. But says sometimes that potential is negated.
“The kids I knew there are super smart and most of them came from educated families,” Ford said. “But there are a lot of societal problems and sometimes kids are trapped because they have a lot of talent but are forced to navigate these problems.
“It's a picture of exactly what some students are living with who lack economic mobility.”
The neighborhood’s violent crime rate nearly doubles Mecklenburg County’s according to census data. Williams said his house was broken into multiple times. He said he even has witnessed a shootout. Soon, his attitude hardened from what was around him. Page knew he had to address it.
“ I’ve had to get on him a few times,” Page said. A lot of it was respect issues.”
The trio learned fast that Page wouldn’t tolerate certain things. To him, academics and character trump soccer. One day, a female coach lead practice in Page’s stead. Williams’ disrespectful attitude and backtalk “gave her a hard time.” Page scolded him later. That was consistent for the whole team, even if some behaved while others didn’t.
Just before the 2013 Matthews SOAR soccer league playoffs, Page told his team that they wouldn’t be able to compete. Too many players were academically ineligible. That didn’t include Williams, Huggins and Watson. Huggins, who gets quiet when he’s angry, he said, spoke few words when Page delivered that news.
“It sucks when you have to punish a certain few because other people aren't doing what they’re supposed to do,” Page said. “But everyone learned from it.”
Getting out to give back
Soon, as the players stayed focused on academics, their sport and their faith, there were rewards.
In 2014, the trio played in the Street Child World Cup, a tournament in Brazil for impoverished kids. Williams, who rarely traveled, said seeing different cultures changed his perspective. And Page said the trio brought their lessons back with them.
“They've been to more places, have seen more things and they know how to operate,” Page said. “They know how to live in two worlds. They can speak to kids in the neighborhood and can impact other people’s lives.”
All three graduated from Myers Park High with 3.0 GPA’s or higher, Page said. Before and after practices, Page and other other coaches often studied with them in the church, making for late nights. At home, their mothers did the same.
Ford said the trio checked off every problem the council wants fixed.
Page helped give them “a lifestyle they never knew” by being present in Grier Heights, and their travel with soccer offered unique experiences. As a mentor and father figure, Page gave them additional family structure. And they had successful educations at Myers Park.
Ford doesn’t know the three young men from Grier Heights, but said he is proud of them.
“That's a success story that needs to be told far and wide,” Ford said. “The issue is for every three individuals like them, who knows the ratio of students who are equally bright and equally genius who weren’t blessed like them. And that’s the problem.”
The trio understands this and want to pay it forward as they start college - Williams and Huggins at UNC Asheville and Watson at UNC Greensboro
All of them worked with Page at some point this summer, mentoring kids resembling their younger selves. And to Williams, it’s no coincidence he is using the same field and church to alter lives.
They changed his life.
“It doesn't matter where you come from, you can accomplish anything,” Williams said. “Just because we talk differently and dress differently doesn't mean anything. We grew up the exact same way and we still have to deal with the same stuff on a daily basis. Now, I just want to use everything I’ve learned to help others.”