Mike Mitchell, the founder of Project Play Soccer who plans on opening a “soccer farm” in San Gregorio, describes his life as having three components: soccer, sobriety and spoons. “They’re all about playing,” he says. “Playing soccer, playing spoons as a musical instrument and learning to play and have fun without drinking.”
Mitchell believes few things can rival the universal appeal of playing soccer and music. Their value is clear, he says: “If a child can play he won’t fight. If a child can play he will have hope.”
After excelling at soccer for California State University, Chico, and the semi-professional San Francisco Glens in the late 1970s, Mitchell signed up for the Peace Corps and headed to the African nation of Niger in 1983. Shortly before he departed, teammate Paddy O’Malley told him, “Pack as many soccer balls as you can and watch what happens.”
Soon Mitchell found himself organizing games in the impoverished nation. The balls he carried overseas replaced wadded up trash kicked around by local youth and brought a little joy into the lives of some of the poorest children on earth. After experiencing his first game in the arid climate of Niger, Mitchell also began bringing another precious resource to share with the kids after each game – bottles of clean water.
Once Mitchell attracted kids to the soccer field, he did his best to expand their play to include music and schooling, offering a glimmer of hope in a country where almost one-fifth of the population does not have enough food each day.
Mitchell eventually returned to the States and earned a master’s degree in physical education with a thesis outlining the idea for a nonprofit organization that uses soccer to help children. His adviser told him that the idea was too powerful to be put on a shelf and gather dust.
Now with a serious purpose, Mitchell decided on the morning of Sept. 29, 1990, as he opened the doors to the bar where he worked, that he needed to stop drinking. He’s stayed sober ever since.
He developed partnerships with other organizations including One World Play Project, makers of durable, puncture-proof soccer balls. He eventually returned to Africa three times and delivered more than 10,000 soccer balls to schools in Niger and Kenya.
After subsequently spending time coaching soccer at an international school in Brazil, Mitchell returned to the Bay Area and recognized a need for his work here as well. Mitchell observed that opportunities to play organized sports, learn and thrive were out of reach for many families, especially in farming communities. This led him to come up with the idea for a soccer farm.
“Everyone wants to know what a soccer farm is,” Mitchell says. His plan combines soccer with opportunities for kids to learn how to grow their own food and make smart nutritional choices to fuel their bodies on the playing field. He also wants to teach them how to test groundwater for contaminants and understand the vital role of clean water, a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce on the coast, too. He envisions kids embracing the San Gregorio farm as their happy place.
All of this will take place on a piece of land provided by George Cattermole behind his San Gregorio General Store. An old structure next to the field will offer storage and classroom space after completion of some significant repairs and cleaning.
Mitchell plans to pull this together by next spring. He expresses no doubt about his ability to excite people about the plans.
Fernando Gonzalez who works with Project Play Soccer and will become director of operations at the soccer farm says he got involved a decade ago immediately after hearing a presentation by Mitchell. He knows others will get involved as the project unfolds and Mitchell shares his enthusiasm with more people.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.