Page’s soccer career goes beyond playing
by Emily Horos
ehoros@cherokeetribune.com
July 19, 2014 12:44 AM | 2431 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ben Page
Ben Page
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No one can deny that Ben Page has a love for soccer.

Growing up in Cherokee County, he played midfield at Woodstock and was selected the Cherokee Tribune Boys Soccer Player of the Year as a senior in 2003. He then went on to enjoy a successful career at Lipscomb University, where he was a four-time all-conference honoree.

Not drafted by a Major League Soccer team out of college, Page instead signed with the Charlotte Eagles of the United Soccer League the day after his college graduation in 2008, and soon helped Charlotte to the USL Second Division’s regular-season title.

Earlier this year, Page took a step away from soccer when he retired as a player, but he quickly found a new career in coaching. He now serves as an assistant coach for the same Charlotte team he played for.

However, soccer isn’t Page’s only passion.

While playing and living in Charlotte, Page began working with the youth in Grier Heights, an inner-city area, and was one of the founders of the Urban Eagles program. Page said getting involved in the community wasn’t because of a specific need that he saw, but rather the fulfillment of a promise he had made years earlier.

“It started before I left college,” Page said. “I spent some time one summer on a mission trip in Mexico. I prayed one of those prayers like, ‘God, if you let me play professional soccer, I’m going to serve whatever city I’m living in.’ I ended up with the Charlotte Eagles and, through that, I met some buddies that had a similar heart, and we used the game as more than just for us, but as a platform to build relationships with youth.”

Page said the goal of the Urban Eagles program is more than teaching soccer. To him, it’s about connecting with children and building mentoring relationships that last beyond the field. He keeps the students accountable academically and helps them work through emotional issues.

In addition to soccer, the program also fields basketball teams.

Page is also associated with Missionary Athletes International, which ministers to youth through sports.

Many of the children in Urban Eagles program come from rough neighborhoods, like Grier Heights, or are refugees from another country. Soccer provides a common ground for everyone and teaches teamwork and looking past differences.

Page said there are about 45 boys and 25 girls in the program between the ages of 8 and 18. He said the goal is to get children involved at the low end of that range, so they are easier to influence in a positive manner.

“It’s no secret that, where we live, (Grier Heights) has a really high crime rate, a super-high dropout rate and, on average, maybe two out of every 10 boys will graduate from high school in our community,” Page said. “This gives them a motivating factor to stay in school and behave in class.”

Not all of the stories are successful ones. When the program began six years ago, a wide range of ages was brought in. For some of those teens, the message came too late and some dropped out of school, while others ended up in prison.

“The kids that were on the older end of the spectrum — 13- or 14-year-olds — we lost to the street,” Page said. “I have a kid on a 22-year sentence on a second-degree murder charge, and another kid that’s looking at 30 years. There are a number of kids that are in and out of jail on a weekly basis on drug charges. Those are kids that we got to at 13 or 14, but by that point, their inability to respect authority got the best of them.”

Several of the children who entered the program at 11 or 12 remain involved and are in school. At the same time, the Urban Eagles also began reaching out to younger children in order to have more time to make a difference in their lives.

“For kids that come from at-risk backgrounds, the hardest thing can be how to react when authority talks to you in a harsh way,” Page said before citing parents, teachers and police as key figures of authority. “When they rebel against authority, a lot of these kids end up on the streets having to steal or intimidate people to get power. But, through sports, we try to get them to trust the authority figure of a coach.”

In order to play in weekly games, the players must maintain passing grades in all of their classes. Page has built relationships with teachers at the local elementary, middle and high schools and he receives updates on the progress of his athletes. He knows what classes they are passing or failing, if they have been suspended and whether or not they are attending class.

“They don’t get kicked off the team if they are failing,” Page said. “They just can’t play until they are passing again.”

Ideally, the motivation to succeed in the classroom would come from the home, but that doesn’t always happen. Page said his program attempts to fill that gap and motivate kids to do more than end up on the streets.

“In a lot of these kids’ situations, if a boy or girl gets in trouble in school, mom may never hear about it at home,” Page said. “We try to be that bridge.”

In April, Page traveled to Brazil as one of the coaches of the U.S. national team in the Street Child World Cup after four of his Urban Eagles were selected for the team. The event is only open to children who are either homeless or living in poverty. Some teams are made up entirely of refugees.

The tournament is held every four years, in the same country that hosts the World Cup.

Page knows the Urban Eagle program is a success because he isn’t doing much coaching now. When weekly practices are held, the oldest boys in the group — now 15 or 16 — instruct the younger athletes.

“They coach the 8- and 9-year-olds and are teaching them the lessons that we thought them five or six years ago,” Page said. “I think that’s the biggest thing I’m seeing now, and that has been powerful.”
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