By Alicia Dennis Kristin Harmel Alex Tresniowski
January 12, 2009 12:00 PM

The gray tank top is stained and frayed and the shorts are too big for his raw-boned body, but he is okay with that. The things that matter to most people—a career, a family, a place to call home—have long since been lost to him, and for the last five years he’s survived in the squalid corners and shadows of life. He’s battled depression and addictions to booze and meth; he’s estranged from his three children; he knows people think he’s a bum. But bums don’t play soccer, and so here he is, in the middle of the summer, in a dank, empty gym in a church in Austin, Texas, ready to practice. His first kick flies off course, sending a shiny gold-and-blue soccer ball crashing into some folding chairs. “Sorry,” Tad Christie, 37, says sheepishly. “I take medicine to calm down and pay attention, but today I’m all out.”

It’s a strange fit, soccer and Tad, but it is something he can call his own. Tad is a member of the Austin Entourage, an amateur team made up of homeless and formerly homeless men, and one of 13 Street Soccer teams across the country. The brainchild of 31-year-old Lawrence Cann, a onetime college soccer star, nonprofit Street Soccer USA (streetsoccerusablog.com) boasts an impressive success rate in helping members get back on track—of the 550 mostly male players who have taken part since 2004, about three-quarters have gotten into some form of temporary housing within a year of joining a team. “People wonder why we’re teaching homeless people to kick a soccer ball,” says Lawrence, who until recently coached the team in Charlotte, N.C., along with his brother Rob, 26. “Our goal isn’t to have happier homeless people. It’s about restoring their human status and changing their expectations of themselves.”

Last year, as he has done since 2005, Lawrence recruited players from around the country to form an eight-man national team and in December took the crew to Melbourne, Australia, to compete against 47 other nations in the sixth annual Homeless World Cup. Started by homeless advocates from Scotland and Austria, the tournament now has corporate support and draws thousands of spectators. Tad, who once lived under a highway overpass, made the U.S. team; so did Tim Cummins, 40, a recovering crack addict who used to sleep on a picnic table in a Charlotte park (see box); so did Cornelius Bracy Jr., 26, a former soccer phenom felled by drugs and now taking baby steps to a better life. “Soccer,” he says, “has given me something to hang on to.”

There are an estimated 3.5 million homeless in the U.S., many plagued by mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction. Street Soccer offers housing strategies and support—and something else: proof that setting goals and sticking to them pays off. Once homeless, “you go into survival mode, and your only thought becomes, ‘How can I get through this day?”” says Mark Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. “This gets people out of that mindset.”

That was Lawrence’s hope when he started his Charlotte team. A lawyer’s son from Richmond, Va., and the oldest of five boys, he remembers moving in with his grandparents for several months when he was 9 after a fire destroyed the family home. “We lost everything,” he says. “If we hadn’t had support, we’d have been homeless.” Recruiting players from shelters with the offer of free food, he held practices in a converted soup-kitchen parking lot; players wore jeans and work boots in matches against slick corporate teams. “We lost 44 straight games, but guys kept coming back,” recalls Lawrence, who eventually got donated uniforms for everyone.

Relying on grants and donations to fund a $100,000 annual budget, Lawrence attended soccer conferences and networked with homeless groups to start teams in other cities. Beyond ball-handling skills, he taught his players how to set 3-, 6- and 12-month goals: getting an apartment, securing an ID card, finding a job. He helped them open bank accounts, tagged along on court dates, went with them to rehab. At practice, he’d turn away anyone who was drunk or high—and then invite them back. “I wanted them to stick with this,” he says.

That structure and support were just what Tad Christie needed. He was an infant when his mom left; his dad, a trucker, was gone for long stretches, and he grew up mainly in orphanages and foster homes. “It was pretty obvious I wasn’t wanted,” he says. “At age 10, I hit the streets.” There were arrests for theft and drug use, stints in homes for troubled boys. Yet, at least for a while, Tad pulled it together; he got married, had three kids, worked as a welder and bought a house. But in 2003, with bills outpacing his paycheck, his wife took the children and left. What hurt most was losing touch with his kids, now teens. He started drinking, got laid off from an oil rig job and could no longer pay rent.

That landed him on the streets, ducking cops and scraping by on panhandled change. His lowest moment came a year ago, as he watched a close friend heaving and shuddering in the throes of heroin withdrawal. “I realized,” he says, “everyone I was around was a lost soul.” A few months later he walked into an Austin homeless shelter and saw a flyer for Street Soccer, coached by Sabelyn Pussman, a female minister. He’d never played before but figured it was worth a shot. It turned out the Austin team needed one more player for the national-cup game in Washington, D.C.; Tad signed up and, amazingly, scored three goals. “I tore off two toenails,” he says, smiling.

Tad’s enthusiasm, and the hardships he’d endured, led Lawrence to invite him to Australia. There, in a seventh-round match against India, Tad had a moment that to him seemed like redemption. “The ball came to me—there was nobody to pass to,” he recalls, jumping to his feet. He leaned left, kicked right—and felt his heart leap as the ball sailed into the net. It was the winning goal. “I proved,” he says, “that I deserved to be there.” Tad and his teammates didn’t win the tournament (that honor went to Afghanistan), but Lawrence couldn’t have been prouder. “They were incredible,” he says. “They gave it their all.” This past fall, Lawrence moved to New York City, where he’s heading up the national Street Soccer program as a director for HELP USA, a nonprofit homeless service organization. He’s hoping Tim will take over coaching the Charlotte team.

Back in Austin, Tad is again practicing with his team—and thinking about his future. He recently moved into a subsidized efficiency apartment and is poring over brochures from the local community college; he hopes to get his degree and work as a counselor to homeless men. “I want to be on my own,” he says. “I want a plant and a puppy. Or maybe a kitten.”

A few weeks ago he got a call on his disposable cell phone from someone he hadn’t heard from in years—his 16-year-old son, who’d learned from a relative that his dad was playing soccer. “He told me how he just got his driver’s license, that he wants a truck,” Tad says. Talking cars with his son hardly seemed possible even a soccer season ago, but something is different now, something has changed. “I am doing a lot better,” Tad says. “I am pushing myself. And I am getting stronger every day.”

Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM

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