Our Game. Our Stories.
The essence of soccer is captured in the fact that it connects a wide variety of people in a dynamic way. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, we are profiling 20 individuals who have made a significant impact on the game of soccer or who have been impacted by soccer in a positive way. Here, we will show you the diversity of the beautiful game and how it connects everyone as one universal team...Together, We Are Soccer.
This is our game and these are our stories. Be sure to visit our site every week to see who we feature next!
Ethan Zohn is the 2002 winner of the reality television show, Survivor. With his prize money, Ethan co-founded Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit organization that trains professional soccer players to teach children in Africa about HIV/AIDS prevention. After graduating from Vassar College in upstate New York, Zohn played professional soccer for Highlanders FC (Zimbabwe), Cape Cod Crusaders (USA) and the Hawaii Tsunami (USA). Zohn also played for the 1997 and 2001 U.S. National Maccabiah squads. From 1998 to 2002, he coached the Men’s and Women’s soccer teams at Fairleigh Dickinson University and in 2003 he was Head Coach of the U.S. National Maccabiah team at the Pan-American Maccabiah Games, in Santiago, Chile.
Tell us about your earliest soccer memory. How old were you when you started playing?
The leaves have already changed on a crisp fall day in Boston, some time in the early ‘80s. Two older boys are blasting shots, one after the other, at a chubby little boy quivering in goal. The soccer balls are those terrible overinflated plastic balls that can leave the logo the imprinted on you if it nails you in the leg --or worse, the face. Those boys were my two older brothers, Lenard and Lee, and I was that poor eight-year-old kid -- and to make matters worse I thought it was cool at the time to sport a giant fro, tinted glasses, and rust- colored corduroy pants with knee pads pulled over top. So I want to take this moment to thank my brothers for their “expert” training sessions. But hey, it ended up preparing me for the next 20-plus years of facing shots in goal. I kept the fro but lost the glasses.
Our goal at the U.S. Soccer Foundation is to provide children with the opportunity to play soccer, and a space to do so safely. Were soccer opportunities readily available in your community growing up? What about field space?
I was very fortunate to grow up in Lexington, Massachusetts, a community with lots of grass fields and safe places to play soccer. I used to bike to the local park, my friends’ back yards and schoolyards every day to practice or play in pick-up games. When I moved to New York City thirteen years ago, I was shocked at the lack of field space this city had to offer young athletes. In other communities around the country, I’d seen even worse: scarcely any safe, free place to play soccer. A soccer field is more than just a place to kick a ball. It’s a meeting point, an area to be active and most importantly, a safe place for kids to make friends, share ideas and develop the basic life skills that can help them adopt healthy behaviors so they can make the right choices in life. The work that the U.S. Soccer Foundation does every day is making a positive impact in the lives of children across the country. This is critical work and it’s imperative that we continue to raise funding so it can continue.
Did you apply any lessons learned on the soccer field to your Survivor strategy?
Yes, without a doubt. The lessons I’ve learned from soccer influence most things I do, and maybe even more so on Survivor. Like soccer, the game of Survivor demands teamwork, fitness, and smart decision-making. But as a goalkeeper, I had an extra edge because I knew how to play a role on the field that was both intensely self-reliant as well as team-oriented. On Survivor, my instincts as a goalkeeper prepared me for managing wildly different personalities, anticipating players’ offensive and defensive moves, being focused and ready for action at any moment, and communicating better than anyone else. On Survivor, I made myself an indispensable part of the “tribe” and crucial the survival of others. Without me, the tribe would have struggled even more and therefore could never vote against me. Your goalkeeper is not always in the spotlight but he’s a critical part of a team’s success. No team will win a championship without its goalkeeper, right?
Like the Foundation, Grassroot Soccer is using soccer for social change. In your opinion, what is it about the game that makes it such an effective tool for positive change and youth development?
Grassroot Soccer provides children in resource-poor settings the knowledge, skills and support to live healthy lives and become leaders in their communities. There are three main things that make soccer such an effective tool for positive change and youth development. The first is the game’s sheer popularity – it truly is a universal language. Go to any township in Africa or rural village, bring a soccer ball, and you will make instant friends. There is a common language in soccer that young people can understand and relate to, something they are already familiar with and excited about. It’s this fun and familiar atmosphere that Grassroot Soccer leverages as a tool to break down barriers and create meaningful discussions about challenges and opportunities in their lives. The second aspect we tap into is the powerful life metaphors within soccer. The SKILLZ curriculum is based on using these types of metaphors to help motivate and inspire young people to live healthy lives. For example the main pillars of the curriculum are “Know the Game” (learn and understand the facts and risks), “Build Your Team” (identify supporters and mentors that you can turn to), and “Make Your Move” (reach out to others in the community). The third important aspect of soccer for GRS is the use of role models. Grassroot Soccer works with global stars and local heroes to serve as examples of what can be achieved if you work hard and live a healthy and active life. Soccer stars in Africa come from the neighborhoods that GRS participants grow up in. They deal with the same challenges and use the game to overcome them. For young people, it can be very powerful to have young approachable role models like this that they can turn to for support.
What has been the most surprising challenge of working in the sport for social change landscape?
Probably the most surprising challenge has been keeping up with the sheer demand for what we’re offering. Governments, schools, and other nonprofits have recognized that our program is both effective and popular with young people, and they are increasingly eager to partner with Grassroot Soccer. Building these partnerships is the fun part for me, and through them we’ve helped to turn the tide against HIV by providing lifesaving education for more than 650,000 young people in 23 different countries. Building strong and smart partnerships is a “good” problem to have but still a big challenge.
How can soccer help young people accomplish their goals?
Soccer teaches young people the value of hard work, being a team player, communicating clearly, and being smart on the field and in life. On the soccer field, you get out what you put in. That’s true off the field too. Maybe most importantly, soccer teaches self-confidence, something that is incredibly important for young people, particularly those that are marginalized by society due to their economic status, gender, HIV status, and more. Soccer gives young people the tools they need to become leaders. This is exactly what we do at Grassroot Soccer and it makes me hopeful every day.