TOPSoccer wrapping up fall season

GRAHAM CARR / Staff Writer

CHELSEA-Birmingham’s TOPSoccer program is finishing up its second season at SportsBlast Complex in Chelsea. The nationwide organization is a special needs youth soccer program, for ages four to 19. The goal of the program is to encourage mental, physical and emotional development for each special-needs athlete participating.

TOPSoccer coordinator and program organizer Taylor Smith said he got the idea to bring TOPSoccer to Birmingham at a high school reunion.

“Friend there had a special needs child who played soccer,” Smith said. “My youngest daughter played soccer at Birmingham United Soccer Association (BUSA) and I thought it would be a good idea to bring it here.”

He presented a business plan to BUSA in May 2011 and they agreed to bring TOPSoccer to Birmingham.

Along with meeting with TOPSoccer officials in September 2011, Smith met with organizers of a similar program which had just started in Huntsville.

People were skeptical of bringing the program to Birmingham, but in spring of this year the program started.

“I met with many different people around town,” Smith said. “Some people said ‘don’t expect more than twenty kids to come out.’ We had 55 people the first season.”

Smith said TOPSoccer appeals to Down syndrome athletes the most, but accepts athletes with any physical and mental disabilities.

Briarwood Christian soccer coach Shawn Marlow is the program’s coach.  He leads the children through the practices and games on Sunday afternoons.

“Sunday afternoon is a perfect time to play, especially, in the fall in the South with college football,” Smith said. “Saturdays are about college football.”

The engine that runs TOPSoccer is the sidekick. The sidekick, or buddy, is a volunteer who helps guide the athlete in TOPSoccer and is expected to have a relationship with their assigned athlete.  Sidekicks must be 12 years of age or older.

Smith said an event last season explains why the program requires a sidekick to attend every game.

“The sidekick was running late,” Smith said. “Sidekick shows up and the athlete says ‘Let’s go play.’ He played the whole session, but he would not start until his sidekick got there.”

Some athletes have multiple sidekicks, while other athletes may only need one sidekick to three particular athletes.

“It just depends on the kid,” Smith said. “We won’t really know until we are there and we are in the situation.”

Not every volunteer is a sidekick; some help with sign up and other opportunities.

“At the end of last season, we had a ton of volunteers, and we had them handing out medals playing music,” Smith said.

Sometimes an athlete or group of athletes may not play in an actual soccer game, but the main goal is getting the athlete to perform in some sort of physical activity.

“The game is the practice and them working with Shawn,” Smith said. “I tell everyone to leave their egos at the door because you may be barking acting like a dog just to get the kids to be active.”

Smith’s goal for TOPSoccer is to continue to offer children, no matter the number of participants, something to do.  He would like to always be able to have both a fall and spring season.

He said even though his own daughters are not special needs, he feels joy like the athletes are his own.

“To see these kids just run around have fun and laugh is very fulfilling,” Smith said.

Smith encourages interested athletes and parents to give TOPSoccer a try.  He said if it is not for a particular child then you still helped support a program and got a t-shirt.

“Come give it a shot,” Smith said. “Also, don’t let the first time be it because anything you do for the first time is going to be nerve-racking anyway no matter what it is.”

The last game is of the fall season is on Oct 21 at 5 p.m. For athletes interested in the spring season, there is a $30 registration fee that pays for the t-shirt, field fees, insurance and registration to Alabama youth soccer. Teams are not necessarily split up by age, but by player needs.

The program’s current sponsors are BB&T bank and Birmingham Heart clinic, but would like to add more.  Donations are accepted, as well. For more information on how to be an athlete or to sign up to be a sidekick go to birminghamunited.com/topsoccer/.