May 19, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – For a Scotland native who has coached in the United States for nearly 30 years it’s hard to believe that going to Zimbabwe will be a homecoming, but the Notre Dame men’s soccer team’s upcoming three-week journey to the African country will take head coach Bobby Clark back to where his coaching career took off.
Clark was the director of coaching for the Bulawayo Highlanders in the Zimbabwean Super League during the 1983-84 campaign and he has gone on to coach at the collegiate level for 27 seasons, including the last 13 in South Bend. As Fighting Irish fans can attest, the coaching gig has worked out quite well for Clark, who led Notre Dame to its first national title in December.
“I had a fantastic year between 1983 and 1984 in Zimbabwe,” Clark said. “That’s what made me decide to be a coach. I had played for a long time and I wasn’t sure which avenue to go. It was my old college lecturer who’d been doing some missionary coaching work in Africa and he said there was a team looking for a coach. He thought I would be somebody who would do a good job there. I took my wife and the three kids and it was one of the best years for our whole family.”
That year in Zimbabwe would set in motion a series of events for one of the Clark children, Tommy, which is having a major impact in Africa at this very moment. Dr. Tommy Clark is the founder and CEO of Grassroot Soccer (GRS), an international non-governmental organization that uses the power of soccer to educate, inspire and mobilize communities against the spread of HIV.
“Tommy was about 13 years old when I coached in Zimbabwe and after he graduated as an undergraduate from Dartmouth, he went back to Zimbabwe and many of the youngsters that were on his team had died from HIV and I think that made a big impact on him,” Bobby Clark said. “When Tommy went back to medical school at Dartmouth he was asked to do a project to help the public at large and he conjured up this idea of how soccer could help educate young Africans with life skills. Grassroot Soccer grew out of that. Since it (GRS) has grown so much, he’s not doing as much pediatrics any more, he’s doing a lot of fundraising and a lot of work in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Anyone familiar with the Notre Dame men’s soccer team knows that GRS has a special place within the program. Proceeds from the team’s final preseason game each fall benefits GRS and the Irish players routinely warm up in the organization’s signature yellow t-shirt throughout the season in order to raise awareness. But now the Notre Dame players and coaches will get a firsthand experience with the cause that is so close to them.
“We’re not going (to Zimbabwe) as tourists,” Clark said. “Even though it’s only a three-week period, we’ll get absorbed into the African culture and into African society and that’s exciting. We’ll obviously get great games, but we’ll also be involved with Grassroot Soccer and working clinics with the youngsters.”
Two former Irish players, Michael Rose and Greg Klazura, already are in Zimbabwe doing internships with GRS and they have helped organize the trip for the current squad. The Fighting Irish depart the United States on Monday (May 19) and will return June 9.
“We’ll get to see some fantastic things: the Hwange game park, Victoria Falls, the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Matopos Hills. Those are four really great things to see, but I’m more excited about intermixing in a third world country,” Clark said.
This will be the fourth foreign trip for the program since Clark arrived in 2001. The team has ventured to Scotland (2002), Brazil (2006) and Sweden/Denmark (2010). Those previous journeys have been focused on training, competing and soaking up the culture of another land. In addition to accomplishing those tasks, the Zimbabwe trip will be about helping those in the African country who are dealing with the brutal reality of HIV and AIDS.
“I think this will be something completely different,” Clark said. “When I was there (in 1983-84) the facilities were very average and there wasn’t a lot of grass on the fields. There would be cold showers after the games for the guys, but I just loved the attitude of the players in Africa that I worked with. They were very, very good. Soccer is a huge sport in Africa. They love soccer and they’re very good at it.
“Our club had a first team and a second team and then we had under-18s, under-16s and under-14s. Nearly all of the under-14s played in their bare feet and they were so good. They didn’t have a lot, but they were always happy. If you saw the kids around the edge of the practice fields they were the ones playing little pick-up games and they’d all be playing in their bare feet and they wouldn’t even have a ball. They just made up balls with a tight rag that they had bounded up with string, but they loved playing. At that time I was in Scotland, but it just showed you how fortunate Scottish kids were and we often don’t realize it. That’ll be a nice message for our players.”
— Sean Carroll, Assistant Athletic Media Relations Director