Thousands gathered at Blaine’s National Sports Center July 19 to witness the 2016 USA Cup international youth soccer tournament opening ceremony.
Players sporting team jerseys or dressed in native apparel paraded in front of cheering spectators during the parade of nations, the USA Cup caldron was lit, skydivers flew, fireworks erupted and the tournament was celebrated with “Olympic-style” fervor.
Following the opening ceremony, players, coaches, fans and families were entertained by DJ Mad Mardigan – the official disc jockey of the Minnesota Timberwolves – and breakdancer Fanaka who entertained on stage during Rock the Cup.
Another highlight of the opening ceremony was the presentation of the Founders’ Award to longtime Schwan’s USA Cup volunteers Gary Leafblad and Bill Neiss. The award recognizes individuals who have contributed to the success of USA Cup over the long-term.
When Leafblad worked his first USA Cup 32 years ago, he was a newly certified emergency medical technician with few expectations about what he was getting into.
Good thing too, because the inaugural USA Cup offered few amenities for the medical team.
“In that first year, we carried our patients on army litters,” Leafblad said. “Our medical clinic was an army tent with picnic tables underneath as treatment tables. It was probably hotter in the tent than outside.”
Leafblad’s long-time medical volunteer partner, Bill Neiss, with 31 years of USA Cup service under this belt, also recalls the army litters and what came next.
“The next step was that we got three-wheelers,” Neiss said. “We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. Two people had to sit back to back on the cart. If we had to backboard a patient for transport, one of us had to step off and wait for someone else to come back and pick us up later.”
Since those first years, Leafblad and Neiss have never missed a year.
Currently, their contribution to the tournament goes well beyond their personal time. Each manages a high school Opportunities in Emergency Care program – Leafblad at Osseo High School and Neiss at Spring Lake Park High School. Schwan’s USA Cup has become a practical training lab for their students.
“As a teacher, this tournament gives my students the experience to move beyond book learning,” Leafblad said. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity for them to hone their patient-assessment skills and give immediate care that might help a kid get back into play, or maybe even avoid a lifelong injury.”
The students learn basic first aid, CPR and patient-assessment skills that prepare them for careers in clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, in-home health care, ambulance services and fire departments.
At the USA Cup, the students are often the first on the scene of an injury, making the patient assessment and, if needed, preparing the patient to be transported to the medical clinic on site.
“It’s a thrill to bring in students, to have them see what it’s like to work outside the classroom, to work with real patients,” Neiss said. “Not all our students will go into medicine. But they all look back on their experience with (the Opportunities in Emergency Care program) at the tournament fondly.”
Both Neiss and Leafblad have seen the USA Cup medical operation grow in sophistication over the years.
“From that first year with just handful of EMTs and first-responders, to now having a medical operation with doctors, X-ray capability and proper carts. It’s amazing to see all the growth,” Leafblad said.
Both continue a strong commitment to service, and to their medical peers at USA Cup.
“People don’t believe I put in 15- to 16-hour days,” Leafblad said. “But we don’t have a problem getting helpers in medical. It’s that much fun. What I enjoy the most is that USA Cup is like the play ‘Same Time Next Year.’ I see the same people every year, but I love reconnecting to see how their lives have changed. We have doctors working for us who played in the tournament as teenagers.”
Neiss also cites his strong connections to students.
“I’ve been to weddings; I’ve been in weddings. You don’t anticipate that when a kid walks into your classroom at the beginning of school what kind of connection you will have with that person 10 or 15 years down the road,” he said.