Thomas Velek’s desk could serve as a makeshift soccer field.
On a window ledge, a framed photo illustration of his Columbus United boys team towers above the other pictures, kind of like the last line of defense.
On the desk below, there are framed pictures of players from competitive and recreation teams along with mementos from tournaments and events in which Velek and his players have participated.
The snapshots fit perfectly with the motto of United States Youth Soccer: The Game for All Kids.
In a few months, Velek is going to have to find some space on his desk for some new kids who will represent the next step in the evolution of soccer in the greater Golden Triangle area.
Velek, who is a coach with the Columbus United Soccer Club, has partnered with the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority and the Greater Columbus Civitan Club to bring the U.S. Youth Soccer TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer) to the area. The program is a community-based training and placement initiative for players with disabilities that is organized by youth soccer association volunteers. The program is designed to give boys and girls ages 4-19 with mental and physical disabilities a chance to learn and to play soccer.
“I am a big believer that soccer is a game that is open to everybody,” Velek said. “I have always said that and embraced that. If you are shorter or taller, you can play soccer. I have been very blessed in the past few years to work with recreational soccer, where you get kids of all kinds and all shapes and sizes, and I have always embraced that. I think this is something for everyone. I have also been very blessed through United to work with some really, really top-notch kids.
“For me and my involvement with soccer in this community, it made perfect sense. If we are going to truly embrace the idea that soccer is for all kids, get to those kids who wouldn’t ordinarily play.”
Registration for the program is free. Parents/guardians can go to www.clra.net and click the Soccer link at the left of the page and click the TOPSoccer links at the bottom right of the page. Those interested in participating should complete the registration form and return it to the CLRA office in Columbus. Registration forms also can be picked up at the CLRA Propst Park office.
The program is open to anyone in Lowndes County and everyone in neighboring counties where a TOPSoccer program isn’t offered.
All training and playing equipment will be provided. Players will receive a soccer jersey. They will need to provide their other personal attire and shin guards. Parents/guardians are responsible for transportation to and from training.
Velek said TOPSoccer anticipates having training dates for players sometime in March. He said the sessions likely will last an hour, which could change depending on the number of participants. Players will be supervised by a certified coach and will have a “buddy” assigned to them to aid them in the activities.
Some training may be done using the “unified model,” which has a ratio of disabled and non-disabled players. All training will be at the Cook Soccer Complex in Columbus.
The TOPSoccer Jamboree will be held in conjunction with the annual Friends and Family Days on Saturday, April 14, at the Cook Soccer Complex.
Organizers of the TOPSoccer program will have a clinic to train those who are interested in working with the players. The clinic will be from 2-6 p.m. Saturday at Mississippi University for Women. Velek said 15 people already have signed up, and that anyone interested in being part of TOPSoccer is encouraged to email Velek at firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as possible so the information can be passed on to the Mississippi Soccer Association.
John Longmire, who is president of the Greater Columbus Civitan Club, said the club was looking for a primary or a “flagship” program that it could be associated with that fit its goals.
“The soccer program has really grown in the Columbus area, and we have the soccer complex going in,” said Longmire, who has been a member of the Civitan Club for six years. “Like in any other community that has children with special needs, this is just another way of reaching out to them.”
Chartered in December 1956, the Greater Columbus Civitan Club has a record of service to the community and for working with programs for children with disabilities. Longmire encourages anyone who would like to join the club to attend its weekly meeting at noon Tuesdays at the Holiday Inn, Hwy. 45 North in Columbus.
Longmire said he will be involved in the training, but he isn’t sure in what capacity. He said he has two boys, James, 14, and Daniel, 12, who have been members of Columbus United since the club has formed. He said he has grown to appreciate the sport more as his boys have grown, and he said he is excited about playing a role in bringing a great sport to more players.
“It will have an impact on disabled children and help build their confidence and self esteem,” Longmire said.
Like Longmire, Greg Lewis, director of programs at CLRA, said TOPSoccer is a perfect fit with the variety of sports programs already offered by CLRA. He said the program will offer a similar athletic outlet to the Challenger baseball program that has been in existence for eight to 10 years in the city.
“Our mission is to improve the lives of all of the citizens of Lowndes County,” Lewis said. “A lot of times when it comes to recreation, those who are physically and mentally challenged are left out of the loop. TOPSoccer will give these children an opportunity to participate in organized soccer and to have fun like all of the other children.”
Lewis hopes TOPSoccer can grow like the Challenger program. He said that program started off with a game or two every week and has grown into a league that has a weekly schedule.
Velek said the program ideally is a youth league, but that older individuals with disabilities will be welcomed and accommodations will be made to incorporate them into the training and games. He shares the optimism of Longmire and Lewis and is confident the program will bring a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people who may never have looked at soccer as an alternative.
“We want the kids to come away with the feeling of accomplishment, and we want them to come away accomplished,” Velek said. “We want them to understand that whatever they struggle with, it is not a barrier to being athletic.
“I know it will be successful because that is what we do. We have successful programs. That is my mind-set going into anything. If you’re going to do it, it is going to be successful.”
For more information, call Lewis at 662-327-4935 or Velek at 662-241-6245.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.