There’s a place for people of all abilities to play soccer, and it’s right in Centereach.
TOPSoccer is a new program within Middle Country Children’s Soccer devoted solely to children with physical, mental or behavioral disabilities.
Rob Draper, a financial advisor at Draper Asset Management in Smithtown and club president of SB Athletico Soccer Club, said he wanted to provide a place where all different types of people can run, play and score goals together without judgment or fear.
“Soccer helped me experience my kids’ childhoods,” he said. “With soccer, there were times where I would go, ‘Wow. That’s great,’ and our goal is to give those moments to these parents so they can experience it, too.”
Draper teamed up with Dave Phaff, also of SB Athletico, and James Malone, president of Middle Country Children’s Soccer to make this dream a reality.
“We’re all just good-hearted people that just really enjoy working with children and watching them grow into young women and men,” Phaff said.
Officially kicking off last weekend, the program is made up primarily of skills sessions that help teach the participants the game of soccer, while at the same time providing them with an environment that is fun and pressure-free.
Phaff said the whole process took less than three months to get off the ground, and everyone was immediately on board.
Joining the team is Tara Phaff, Dave’s wife — who is also a Doctor of Physical Therapy — who helped create the best plans for each individual participant’s needs.
According to Middle Country TOPSoccer, the team encourages any child or adult who is differently-abled to get involved — and its 100% free.
With no questions asked, Draper wanted to fund the program for the families who decide to join in.
“Rob said to me, ‘I really want to start a special needs soccer program and I’ll fully fund it. I don’t care what it costs, I’ll fund it,’” Phaff added. “He has a great heart.”
While other soccer clubs do encourage inclusivity, Phaff said there aren’t too many locations where kids of different abilities can play further out east. That’s why Centereach was a great, central spot to get the ball rolling.
On Saturday, April 10, the group held its opening day at Oxhead Road Elementary School where 25 individuals, ranging in ages five to 55, headed to the field to kick, run and enjoy the sunshine.
Some of the participants have Down syndrome, some on the autism spectrum and two children were able to play soccer from their wheelchairs. One thing they all had in common was the giant smiles on their faces.
Each player, Phaff said, gets a buddy that works with them every practice. These buddies are volunteers and soccer players, themselves, who help the individual and stand beside them the whole time — and they are anticipating even more players to come join them this season.
“The whole purpose of this is to give these kids an opportunity to be accepted and feel like they are part of something,” Phaff said. “So, we won’t turn anybody down.”
TOPSoccer has their practices every Saturday at 10 a.m. at Oxhead Elementary School in Centereach. Families who are interested in joining can register online at mccsoccer.org.