Behind the beard of Soccer Moses is a true Music City story

A first-of-its-kind turf soccer field officially opened Tuesday at the Marquis “Bo” Porter Sports Complex providing more opportunities for Newark’s youth to participate in recreational programs.

The newly installed field comes to the Lyons Avenue park through an initiative headed by the Players Development Academy (PDA). The program aims to launch small-sided turf fields in urban and underserved communities across New Jersey. Once installed, PDA offers coaching and playing opportunities to children, with the goal of keeping them active as well as creating more socioeconomic diversity on the field.

Soccer has become a very middle-class sport. So, “how can we provide opportunities for kids in the cities who may fall in love with the game?” said PDA Urban Initiative Director and Boys Coaching Director Gerry McKeown.

So far, the PDA initiative has led to the implementation of similar fields in Trenton, Hamilton and New Brunswick. The plan, McKeown said, is to help grow the game and get more kids involved that may not have had access to the game prior.

Nationwide, urbanization can oftentimes lead to limited space in cities like Newark, curbing access to recreational athletic fields and opportunities for low-income youth, according to Sport and Dev, an online platform that analyzes the connection between urban sprawl and its impact on local athletics.

By providing smaller, more accessible fields in urban communities, the PDA coaching director explained it gets more youth the opportunity to play the world’s most popular sport.

The size of the field is just as instrumental in getting more kids to play, McKeown noted. While the 70 by 40-foot turf may pale in comparison to the size of a standard soccer field, he explained that a smaller field means more time on the ball for each child.

“If you can envision the game – 11 [players] versus 11 [players] – the time you spend on the ball is actually maybe one minute during an actual 90-minute game,” he said. “In here, if they play for 10 minutes, they’ll spend four minutes on the ball – less numbers, more touches.”

Alongside growing the game of soccer within urban communities, one of the project’s partners, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, stepped in to make sure the field provides a health component as well for local youth.

In addition to a $60,000 contribution to construct the field, which will be named “Newark Beth Israel Medical Center Community Field,” Beth Israel CEO and President Darrell Terry said the hospital will invest in the implementation of programs promoting exercise and health for children.

In New Jersey, 14% of youth ages 10 to 17 have obesity, according to a State of Childhood Obesity study.

By teaming up with PDA to get children outdoors and active, the Beth Israel president said his team will ensure players on the field are equipped with proper education about nutrition and exercise to lead healthier lifestyles.

“It’s absolutely critical that we get out and play,” Terry said. “We struggle with obesity rates. We want to help things like obesity rates and healthy eating but now this is the other part – the exercise piece. Learning how to do it should be fun, but there is some science to it that we will be bringing to this project as well.”

As city officials and contributing partners lined up on the turf with 50 summer camp children to kick the first soccer balls around on the pitch, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka took delight in the scene, watching the community come back together after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a citywide shutdown in 2020.

With most city residents forced to stay indoors over the course of the past year, Baraka said community-based initiatives like the new field at Bo Porter Sports Complex are the first steps to returning to normalcy.

“Our kids have not been in the pool, they have not been on basketball courts, soccer fields or recreational centers,” Baraka said. “This is an opportunity for us to get back together again, and I want them to enjoy every minute of it… This is another opportunity for our young people to get involved in a sport that they really don’t have access to.”

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