NEW YORK (AP) — Donnie Nicholson was homeless when he started kicking around a soccer ball for the first time in nearly a decade. Three years later, the sport has helped him turn his life around.
That's because Nicholson joined a team that was comprised of fellow players who were homeless just like him. He quit smoking, got in shape and learned from his coaches how to cope with the challenges that were confronting him.
"I do all of my therapy with soccer," said Nicholson, 37, who now has a job and his own studio apartment. "It helps me focus. It helps me maintain a little bit of order in my life."
Nicholson was among a group of onlookers in Times Square on Monday for the "Street Soccer USA National Cup," an annual event run by Street Soccer USA, a nonprofit group that uses the sport to teach life skills to homeless people and help them get back on their feet.
A small soccer pitch covered in black netting was set up in the middle of the crowded tourist attraction, where teams from 16 cities across the nation squared off throughout the day.
"This is really about empowerment," said Lawrence Cann, the group's founder. "We use sports to help folks that are disconnected from the community, help get them connected."
Cann said the hardest part is convincing homeless people to join the program. Once they start, few people quit. The group says 75 percent of its players move off the street within a year of joining the program.
Players are coached by volunteers from homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment programs and other social agencies.
"When you're homeless, positive energy is a rare commodity," Cann said. "You can get in such a depressed spiral. Once people plug in, we have really high retention."
Like 23-year-old Dennis Diaz, some of the players present at the tournament are now employed and no longer homeless.
Diaz joined the program while living in a homeless shelter after being released from jail. Playing soccer taught him to "always show up," he said.
"It's never too late," said Diaz, who plans to enroll in LaGuardia College in the fall and wants to become a paramedic. "Anybody can do it. Just put the effort and time in, and anybody can get it done."