By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
CP Soccer hosted more than 110 players from six continents in a historic online soccer training session last Saturday, May 16. It was livestreamed on Facebook and Zoom from Sports Domain Academy, Clifton.
“For an hour and a half the troubles in the world disappeared. Football again put smiles on everyone’s face,” said CP Soccer founder Ashley Hammond, a resident of Montclair.
Hammond and his son, MKA senior Shea Hammond, founded the nonprofit in 2017 — along with another father and son, Eli and Levi Halliwell from New York City — with the goal of helping kids affected by cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, or stroke stay in the game they love.
Cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury or malformation around the time of birth. Because things like muscle tone, muscle control, reflexes, and balance can be affected, kids can face challenges playing soccer, especially as they age and programs become more competitive.
Shea Hammond is an example that CP players can go all the way.
Two years ago, at age 16, Shea became the youngest member of the U.S. Para 7-A-Side National Team. He has his sights on becoming a Paralympian in the coming years.
“Growing up with a disability was always hard,” he said. “Kids don’t want to play with kids with a disability. I was lucky to have my dad there to advocate for me, but a lot of kids don’t have someone like that.”
“There is no pathway for players with cerebral palsy to get to the national level,” his father added. “They don’t have a safety net, so they just drop out.”
CP Soccer tries to identify that population around the country and gets them integrated into programs. “We’re in nine cities now,” Hammond said.
“When I played on a Para team for the first time,” Shea said, “I realized there is nothing more important than getting to play with other players like you.”
The problem is, CP kids don’t often know anyone like them, let alone another soccer player.
MKA Junior Leah Glaser, whose CP was caused by a stroke at birth, said that when she met Shea two years ago, he was the first person she had ever met who was like her. She now works as the marketing intern for the organization.
“I played soccer briefly as a young kid but couldn’t keep up with the other kids after a season or two,” Glaser said. “I tried other sports but encountered a lot of the same. I stopped each of them as other kids became faster and better and they got more competitive. I began riding in middle school and started competing in high school. I also found managing varsity sports teams in high school a great option to be a part of a team around that same time.”
Since meeting Shea and his father, Glaser is now training with CP Soccer too. “Being a part of CP Soccer has dramatically changed me for the better,” she said. “I have a bigger community.”
Because players can’t get out there and play together right now, Shea began running Zoom training sessions every Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. for challenged athletes around the country. For the last seven weeks they have been running through drills on volleys, shots, toe taps, and dribbling, among other things.
“Every day we have anywhere from 30 to 40 kids,” Hammond said. “They run inside, look on their computer to see what Shea is doing, then run outside and do it themselves. It lights up these disability players’ day.”
On Saturday, May 16, CP Soccer took what it was doing nationally and made it international. Teams and players from Ireland, Scotland, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Brazil, Chile, Botswana, South Africa, Egypt, Jordan, Bangladesh, Trinidad, and Australia joined via Zoom (Argentina, Tunisia, and Singapore via Facebook), for a training session live from SDA Clifton. In addition, more than 50 junior and senior Para players from across the U.S. joined in, too.
“We built it and they came,” Hammond said. “The mosaic that was our day of screens on the Zoom feed made for a most colorful and amazing, historic day.”
There were some special guests in attendance — Stuart Sharp, U.S. Men’s Para National Team coach; Josh Brunais, current U.S. Para National team captain; Sam Turner, International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football president, and Evan Dabby, executive director of N.J. Youth Soccer.
Participants were excited by the final guest of the event, World Cup winner, double Olympic gold medalist and newly anointed president of U.S. Soccer, Cindy Parlow-Cone, who spoke about her career as an athlete. “Just have fun, always have fun, and whatever you do, enjoy the journey,” she said.
Hammond said having U.S. Soccer behind them has really helped CP Soccer grow in scale and reach more young players with cerebral palsy; another surprising factor has been the use of Zoom.
“Zoom has been groundbreaking, rethinking how we can connect with our players across the country,” he said. “Our players have never met before. They are spread all across the country. Now they can. COVID has advanced the way CP players have and will continue to connect tenfold.”