This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in May 2004.

Everybody wins with V.I.P. soccer program

By Ed Odeven

We have witnessed these scenes too many times: Coaches screaming at a referee, questioning his/her intellect and demanding that they get thicker glasses or a hearing aid; fans taunting an opposing player who’s had a tough game; and parents berating a coach for not giving their kid enough playing time.


Many times, the joy of sports — watching or playing — is lost because people spoil the atmosphere. But remember this: We’re talking about games here. They are supposed to be fun.


And everyone deserves the chance to experience the pleasure of winning and being part of a team. Kudos to the American Youth Soccer Organization for recognizing this and establishing the V.I.P. (Very Important Player) Program 15 years ago.


The V.I.P. Program gives individuals 4 1/2 and older (there’s no age limit) with physical and mental disabilities and special needs a chance to play soccer and experience these life-enriching pleasures.


The local AYSO, which serves Flagstaff, Williams and the surrounding areas, began its V.I.P. Program last year with 14 students, ranging in age from 5 to 15. Lori Diver is the team’s coach. Dave Kelly, the organization’s former coach administrator, is the V.I.P. director.


“I thought with this program we ought to be getting more kids out to play who have never had a chance to do this,” Kelly was saying in a phone conversation Tuesday.


Reflecting on last year’s season, Kelly spoke volumes about the positive aspects of the program.


“I’ve coached soccer for a long time,” he says. “Of course, we all want to win, right? It’s not that way (with this group). They just want to play and have success. They root for each other no matter what team they are on.”


The V.I.P. games can’t be defined as sticking to by-the-book regulations. For instance, games generally last “around an hour,” Kelly points out. Score isn’t kept, either.


“It’s a dynamic type of thing,” Kelly says. “You can’t be real structured and worry about the laws of the game too much. It’s a very special thing. We play on a very small field, but for a lot of these kids it’s a huge field to them.”


Games are held at Marshall Elementary School on an under-8 field, which signifies that the size of the field (about 30 yards wide by 40 yards long) is the same as that used by the AYSO’s 6- and 7-year-olds. Corner flags are set up, as are center circles and lines — trademarks of any regulation field. (This year, the team also plans to play a mainstream U-12 girls club.)


“I really want the kids to really feel they are playing a sport just like anybody else is doing,” Kelly says.


“(First of all), we want them to have fun,” he continues. “That’s the big thing. And we want to give these kids, to the best of their ability, a chance to understand the game, learn about teamwork, playing fair and also to increase their self-esteem and become more physically fit.


“For a lot of these kids, the chance to meet and be comfortable around new people helps a lot.”


Last year, there were kids with Down Syndrome and autism on the team. Josiah Finney, who uses a wheelchair, played goal with the assistance of his father, who helped him turn aside shots. If parents have a blind child who wants to play, the team can arrange to get a ball that beeps, Kelly said.


Players from the AYSO’s mainstream teams volunteered to be buddies for the V.I.P. players last year, showing up at practices and rooting them on during their games. This really helped raise the kids’ self-esteem, Kelly observed. Among the regular volunteers last year were Lynnae Kelly, 14, and 15-year-olds Amanda Thornsley and Karen Driver.


Besides helping kids build self-esteem and enjoy the camaraderie of their teammates, the V.I.P. Program proved to be a hit for spectators. Or as Kelly puts it, “I think that the parents, the families and the friends that have come to watch, they have as much fun as the players are. You can’t but help it because the players are having so much fun.”


Before V.I.P. games are officially declared finished, every player will score at least once. They all get a chance to dribble the ball, undefended and blast it or tap it into the back of the net.


“We had one kid last year who couldn’t kick the ball very well,” Kelly recalls. “He would take what would seem like an eternity. Everyone would cheer for Chris. When he finally put it in, you’d have thought he won the World Cup with all the cheering from the sideline.”


For sure, more kids and their families and friends would like to experience moments like that this season.


“Everyone has success,” Kelly concludes. “It’s amazing. … Competition that is so evident on the mainstream teams is just not there. So they are able to root for each other in such an honest way that it’s just very unusual.”


The goal is to expand the V.I.P. Program to 30 players this season, which will begin on June 5. The cost is $15 per player. Volunteers and team buddies are also needed.


For more information, call Kelly at 527-0508 or visit and click on the V.I.P. Program link.