For nine-year-old Johnny Lindgren, kicking a soccer ball down the field and racing after it toward the goal fills his heart with glee.
He’s got a smile a mile wide and enthusiasm to match.
Cheering from the sidelines, his parents can’t help but smile, too, as they watch their little boy play the game that so many children take for granted. You see, Johnny’s got cerebral palsy and for years everyone said he’d never be able to play.
That was before the Lindgrens discovered TOPSoccer, a community-based Minnesota Youth Soccer Association soccer program designed to meet the needs of athletes ages eight and older with physical and/or mental disabilities.
Johnny plays on the North Metro team, a team with players from Anoka, Andover, Coon Rapids, Ramsey, Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Fridley and Champlin.
TOPSoccer is all-inclusive and is co-ed, said Region II TOPSoccer chairman Jim Robson.
“We’re open to any kid who wants to play. Doesn’t matter their disability,” he said.
They hope to add wheelchair soccer to the program soon, Robson said.
Athletes playing TOPSoccer include those with autism, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, spinal bifida and more.
“Each team is custom-designed for the athletes we have on the team,” Robson said.
A “buddy system” is employed on the TOPSoccer field, meaning each player has a helper-coach, an adult who keeps them on task and helps them play the game if that assistance is necessary, according to Robson.
TOPSoccer athletes start at eight years old and can play as long as they would like.
“There’s no top end. If an athlete wants to play, he or she can play,” said Robson.
Right now, athletes on the North Metro TOPSoccer team range from eight to 39 years old, he said.
One of the older players, Mary Grant’s 21-year-old daughter, has been playing since she was 11 or 12 years old.
“We found a team she could play on and she loves it. She doesn’t ever want to stop playing,” Grant said.
Janice Droll, who has a 21-year-old on the North Metro team, said she believes many of the kids “feel better when they can play with others who are disabled.
“They don’t feel different then. They’re just playing soccer,” Droll said.
Socialization is another important part of the TOPSoccer program.
“My 13-year-old loves it and I do, too. It keeps her active and she knows she’s accepted by her teammates and coaches – everyone,” said Amy Onken of Brooklyn Park.
TOPSoccer is a nationwide program established in 1998 and affiliated with Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, which is part of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association.
Although coaches and helpers (or buddies) volunteer their time, there is a $25 registration fee required of TOPSoccer players.
That money pays for the athlete’s uniform, covers insurance costs and pays soccer field rental fees and referees’ costs when necessary.
The season runs from May through August.
To learn more about TOPSoccer, to volunteer your time or to make a donation, visit www.mnyouthsoccer.org, click on “programs,” and select “TOPSoccer.”
Sue Austreng is at firstname.lastname@example.org