From an early age I have been associated with the world of soccer. Growing up with a father who played on the Scottish national team, I received constant physical reminders (a lasso from Argentina, a wooden lion from China) that reinforced the notion of soccer as a unifying force.
When I was 14, the world came to me. My family moved to Zimbabwe where my father coached a Zimbabwean professional soccer team. Living in Zimbabwe was to be the most profound experience of my life. My family was welcomed into the local Matabele culture. Despite many dramatic differences between our hosts and us, we became accepted and trusted because of our shared enjoyment of a game. I spent most of my time in the dusty townships, playing soccer or wandering around with African friends from my team. HIV had yet to unleash the full power of its devastation.
Political instability in Zimbabwe brought my family to the US, where my father coached the Dartmouth College Men’s Soccer Team for a decade. I played for my dad at Dartmouth before returning to Africa to play soccer and teach English.
Back in Zimbabwe, I taught 50 children in a classroom without textbooks. In fact, the children had no access to books of any kind, so I created an impromptu lending library composed of the paperbacks I had brought with me from the States. As the school soccer coach, I brought my own soccer ball and a whistle in an attempt to impose structure on a passionate activity that quickly absorbed all the youth in the vicinity. I also played on the local professional team, the Bulawayo Highlanders that my father had coached almost a decade earlier. I would walk to practice every day, followed by a constantly growing group of children who would abandon their own pick-up soccer games to follow me. I was doubly intriguing since I was both a professional soccer player and Mukhiwa (white man). The bolder children would walk next to me, practicing their English as I practiced my Isindebele.
Zimbabwe had changed, however, during the years that I had been gone. City squares that had teemed with artisans selling crafts and vendors selling food and staples were empty. European tourists who had roamed the graceful streets of Bulawayo were conspicuously absent. Families were missing uncles, mothers, sisters, and grandparents. AIDS had struck. I attended several funerals with team members and paid respects to families who had lost loved ones from mysterious and unnamed illnesses. In retrospect, I realized that I never had a single conversation about HIV the entire time I was there. We were all subject to the prevailing culture of silence and denial. Even while people were struck down in scores all around, the prevailing culture remained mute.
I left Zimbabwe a year later to return to Dartmouth to attend medical school. Over the next 4 years I got reports that more and more of my friends had died and became convinced that using soccer players, who were heroes in their communities, was a strategy that could potentially break through the deafening silence that surrounded HIV. A chance meeting with Dr. Albert Bandura, a Stanford sociologist famous for articulating the Social Learning Theory, which states that role models can affect behavior change, gave me confidence that I was on the right track. The ever-present image of Michael Jordan was a reminder that others have realized the potential for sports heroes to sell consumer products. Why not sell health?
During the intern year of my pediatrics residency training at the University of New Mexico my ideas began to crystallize. During a month-long elective rotation focused on community advocacy, I developed a proposal to use African professional soccer players as HIV educators in their communities. I was so inspired by the idea that when the rotation ended I decided to continue my work and formed a 501(c) 3 organization, Grassroot Soccer. Working closely with a few friends who also had lived and played soccer in Zimbabwe, we created a Board of Directors and drafted Articles of Incorporation. Our initial fundraising activities were aimed at raising enough for three of us to travel to Zimbabwe to meet with community leaders, assess the needs of the community, and design a project that would be culturally appropriate. We met our fundraising goals through a series of private fundraisers that we hosted during my brief vacations from residency training.
In Fall 2002, Kirk Friedrich, an American who had also played soccer professionally in Zimbabwe, Methembe Ndlovu, a Zimbabwean whose soccer skills earned him captaincy of his country’s National Team and who had gone on to attend Dartmouth College, and I, all traveled to Bulawayo. We met with community leaders, headmasters, and focus groups of children and teachers and planned a pilot project that was launched in January 2003. We worked with a consultant to develop a culturally appropriate soccer-based curriculum, then recruited and trained fourteen professional men and women soccer players as HIV educators and Grassroot Soccer was born.
My vision for Grassroot Soccer has grown from the initial concept of using professional African soccer players as HIV educators into mobilizing the global soccer community to fight the spread of HIV in a broad range of ways through an array of partnerships and programs. For me, GRS has been the culmination of my life’s experiences: part of a professional soccer family and a player myself, my experiences in Zimbabwe both before and after the devastation of HIV, and as a pediatrician dedicated to improving the health of children around the globe.”
Tommy Clark, M.D.
Founder and CEO