Sporting Kansas City player Dániel Sallói #20 signs a donated soccer ball for a Ryogoku Soccer Academy student. Photo by Abby Hoover

By Abby Hoover

Sporting Kansas City (SKC) players and the Victory Project delivered nearly 200 soccer balls to Ryogoku Soccer Academy (RSA) on Tuesday, surprising some of their biggest fans. 

RSA is a boys’ middle school with an emphasis on soccer training. The school is located on the third floor of Independence Boulevard Christian Church at 2825 Independence Blvd.

“Victory Project is very interested in helping the Northeast and this community, through the game of soccer especially,” said RSA founder Brad Leonard. “They’re already affiliated with Sporting Kansas City, so once they found out about what we’re doing, the way that we provide education and how it’s tied into soccer, they reached out that they wanted to help us.”

Leonard met the Victory Project team at the opening of the Budd Park mini pitch back in July. The students were invited to a game, and have had the opportunity to meet Sporting KC players Dániel Sallói #20 and Amadou Dia #13.

“Both of these players have been here before to talk to our boys and try to start to build a relationship,” Leonard said.

That day, The Victory Project ordered the 200 soccer balls in a variety of sizes, but due to supply challenges, they’ve just arrived. The students recognized the players the moment they walked in, but what they didn’t expect was to hear that the players remembered them. For The Victory Project, bringing players to the students is an important step. 

“It just makes it more real, especially with COVID and we’ve been socially distanced and socially disconnected,” Atanmo said. “Having the players come in here and hand over the soccer balls makes it real that Sporting is here for you, The Victory Project is here for you, and it makes what they’re trying to achieve – to become a professional soccer player – more tangible.”

For the players involved with The Victory Project, they keep in mind that “you can’t be what you can’t see,” Atanmo said.

“Having the players come in here, they’re shaking their hands, they’re showing that they’re also humans, but then also they’re giving back,” Atanmo said. “It shows them that Amadou and Daniel have a social responsibility, they feel like they need to get back to the community.”

Before this year, The Victory Project primarily focused on supporting kids with cancer.

“We felt like we can do more in the community and so we added in Soccer for All Kids, which is helping kids with financial needs get access to the sport of soccer, and then adding in supporting kids with special needs,” said Chioma Atanmo, Community Programs Manager for Victory Project.

What really intrigued the Victory Project team about RSA is that it’s focused on soccer and located in an urban community.

“We just wanted to help fill a need,” Atanmo said. “We know that you need a soccer ball to play, and with our Victory Gala that we hosted in August, for every donation we accepted, we were going to donate a soccer ball. So with every donation that came in, we were like that would be a cool way to just infuse them into the program but also give gala attendees a way to personally engage with the newest pillar that we added in.”

RSA, which opened its doors this fall, now has 18 students and players in grades six through nine.

“It’s a small group. They’re very passionate about the game of soccer, and that’s kind of our hook, right?” Leonard said. “So we practice in the morning and in the afternoon, and that gets them excited, energized in the morning, and then after they leave the morning practice, we jump right into academics. Their brain’s awake and they’re focused and ready to go.”

The academy’s curriculum focuses on literacy, math, nutrition, bilingualism, fine arts, physical education and soft skills for an all-encompassing educational experience.

“We teach our boys how to actually plan and execute soccer practices, as well,” Leonard said. “A couple of our boys designed the session for today.”

RSA’s 18 students were surprised with a visit from Sporting KC players and The Victory Project. Photo by Abby Hoover

The team practices at locations throughout the metro, from nearby Ninth and Van Brunt Soccer Fields and The Concourse, to inside at East Patrol, 12th and Prospect, Gage Park, Observation Park, and anywhere else there’s open space.

“We’d like to keep it moving,” Leonard said. “Sometimes we do volleyball down at Berkeley Riverfront, we do soccer on the sand. We want to change the surface a lot. We want to change it depending on what we’re trying to have them learn and execute.”

A big part of their day is teaching the students about nutrition, what they put in their bodies and how it really affects them.

“We partnered with 291 Nutrition, which is an organization in Lee’s Summit, and they teach you how to make smoothies and teas that are packed full of proteins and things that are really good for your body,” Leonard said.

This past weekend, the students had the opportunity to learn how to make nutritious drinks, and 291 Nutrition donated a portion of the proceeds from the day to the school.

For the event, students were selling raffle tickets to raise funds. Sallói and Dia purchased a ticket from each student, and took the time to sign each ball.

Before the students left for practice, Leonard already had them thinking of ways to thank the players and The Victory Project in a way that was personal to each of them. 

“I want you to be thinking in the meantime, like all those things were super nice – the tickets, the balls, the buying raffle tickets, even taking time to sign the balls – all those things should be adding up in your mind that people are doing some pretty amazing things for you, specifically for you,” Leonard told his students. “And I hope that one, you notice, and two, that you’re incredibly thankful for that opportunity. In your mind, start thinking about what you can do to repay the individuals that are taking the time to do this for you.”

The students were excited to get extra practice time that afternoon with their new equipment at the Ninth and Van Brunt Soccer Fields, and look forward to seeing their friends at Sporting KC at a game soon.