Photos: Kerri Santos
WATERTOWN, Mass. – They hear the chirping of the birds above them. They hear the whir of the cars on passing nearby on Beechwood Avenue. The students hear lots of things - including the “funny” twinge of their instructors’ British accents.
“Partner up,” shouts Liverpool FC Foundation instructor Rishi Jain. “Once you get to the ball, you’ll be able to hear it.”
Hear the ball? It’s a concept that may be foreign to most. But thanks to the help of six Liverpool FC Foundation instructors, school staff, and a collection of adapted soccer balls with a small rattle inside of them, the students at The Perkins School for the Blind are anxious to begin their introduction to the beautiful game.
Once these students –aged 14-20- are partnered with an instructor or staff member, Jain blows his whistle. And before the wail of the whistle echoes off the nearby buildings, the excited giggles and laughs fill the field with excitement.
Using verbal cues and the sighted guide technique – a technique in which the student places their hand on the instructor’s arm and is physically guided around the field – the students are each led to one of the adapted balls. An instructor shakes the ball near the feet of the student. Knowing the ball is patiently waiting in front of them, the students prepare to take their first touch.
For some, it’s not just their first touch of the soccer ball today. It’s their first touch of the ball ever.
The idea of bringing Liverpool instructors to the 180-year-old, nationally-acclaimed school can be traced all the way back to Anfield, where the club – one of the most storied in the world – plays its home matches in the English Premier League.
As part of its community outreach program, Liverpool has created a number of programs for those living with disabilities – both young and old. And although they are not alone in doing so, they are one of the few EPL clubs that has placed a great deal of resources into its programs.
One of them is the LFC Respect 4 All Centre, where children and adults of all ages come to play soccer – or “football” as it’s called in England – in a leisurely, yet instructive environment.
So when the announcement was made in late March that Liverpool – which is owned by the same Fenway Sports Group that owns the Boston Red Sox – would play an exhibition match at historic Fenway Park (which sits less than 10 miles from the school), the decision to bring Liverpool Foundation instructors on campus was an easy one.
“As soon as we knew that the Henrys and the Red Sox Foundation had links to the Perkins School,” said instructor Forbes Duff. “That helped us make the decision (to do it).”
It may be a totally novel experience to many of them – kicking around the soccer ball – but the students don’t let that get in the way. The smiles, the laughter, and the joy of dribbling these rattling balls across the expanse of grass afforded to them all help to overcome any anxiety about this new sport.
In one corner of the field, a tall teenage boy sporting an oversized t-shirt and jean shorts can’t contain his delight. His smile seems to get bigger with every touch.
Another student, with the help of Liverpool instructor Eddie Sullivan, momentarily loses the path of her ball. No worries. Sullivan guides her back to it, then picks it up, and rattles it in front of her right foot. She giggles and nods in approval before she puts her foot into it and dribbles along with him.
“I think they’re having a great time,” Duff says as a dozen students in front of him home their new-found skills. “You can see that they’re all excited.”
And why shouldn’t they be? Although some of them may not have known about Liverpool’s rich history going into it, the drills, instructors, and the activities are making instant memories. Memories richer than any trophy celebration or championship parade.
After the dribbling session concludes, the students and instructors journey back to a small set of picnic tents for water and sports drinks. It’s hot out, with the temperature hovering around 90 degrees. And the thick blanket of humidity enveloping the school’s 38-acre campus isn’t making it any more comfortable.
But the weather is a minor hindrance. The students are chatting about the drills. “This…is…so…fun!” one of them explains, his voice rising with each successive word. Another student talks about how “awesome” the adapted balls are. Another is trying to imitate the “funny” British accent of his instructor, who shares a chuckle nearby.
Amid the early-afternoon banter, Forbes brings over one of the balls. Its outward appearance wouldn’t suggest anything more than an ordinary, size 4 soccer ball. But once shaken, the small rattle inside of it betrays its appearance.
Another noticeable distinction between the adapted ball and the one often seen at a park or pitch? It’s heavier. The reason is simple: the added weight keeps the ball on the ground. And a ball that generally stays true to the ground makes it easier for the students to keep it in front of them.
Right next to these balls is a collection of bright fluorescent yellow ones, which also contain a rattle. These particular balls are for the low-vision students – students who retain some vision, but also require the adapted learning tools and classes that the school provides.
Just as Duff finishes talking about the adapted soccer balls, another instructor – Steve Hollis – jogs back from around the corner of the building. He laughs with one of his fellow instructors, then makes his way over to explain his whereabouts.
“I actually went from the first session into the classroom,” Hollis says with a laugh. Apparently, a student from the previous session made a special request to bring the former player back to class. How could he say no?
“It’s just great to make new little friends and see little smiles on their faces,” Hollis says. “You could see they had a great time.”
The instructors and students return to the field one more time before lunch is served. This time, Jain explains the basics of the penalty kick. Two training cones are set ten yards apart. He is the keeper.
Another instructor places a ball in front of the line of kids anxious to take their penalties. Jain chats up the penalty taker.
“I am the best keeper in the land,” Jain proclaims. “And nothing gets by me!”
A teenage girl flashes a broad smile before she puts her foot behind the ball. She picks her head up, and pounds it to the right of Jain and inside the right cone. Success.
“Oh! You beat me! No one’s ever beat me. How did you do that?” Jain cries.
The girl covers her mouth as she tries to trap her laugh – but to no avail. She cannot hide the fun written all over her face.
More penalty takers emerge. Almost all hit their shots. One of the students – a tall teenage boy – behind her offers enthusiastic applause as he prepares for his turn. The excitement is palpable.
Once lunch time arrives, the students wipe their brows and huddle up under the tent. They grab another drink of water. They’re exasperated, but no one complains. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
One girl talks about how she wants to work on her dribbling. The girl next to her counters, saying she wants to learn how to shoot harder. And another next to them explains that she wants to learn the rules of the game.
Leaning on a picnic table off to the side, Duff reflects on the session. The goal here isn’t to mold the next Pele or Leo Messi. It runs deeper than that. It’s about opening a door.
He acknowledges that many of the students hadn’t been introduced to the sport prior to the arrival of the Liverpool instructors. In fact, a couple of the kids admitted that they’d played other sports at the school. But, up until now, soccer wasn’t one of them.
In light of that, he says that he hopes that today’s introduction will stay with them beyond this hot, mid-summer’s afternoon. That the excitement behind him will parlay into a passion for the sport.
“If we can come here and give them a little taste of it, then you never know,” Duff says. “Maybe it’s something they do in the future.”