Oct. 14, 2008
By Tim Kaiser
Notre Dame Sports Information
While the University of Notre Dame has a long tradition of service when it comes to both development in Africa and the global AIDS crisis, men’s soccer head coach Bobby Clark and his son, Tommy, have made helping these causes a family affair.
The men’s soccer team hosted its fifth annual Grassroot Soccer benefit game earlier this year, playing the University of Illinois-Chicago in an exhibition match. Grassroot Soccer, founded in 2002 by Tommy Clark and a group of friends, including former Survivor winner, Ethan Zohn, is an organization dedicated to using soccer to promote AIDS education in Africa, especially Zimbabwe, where the elder Clark coached for a number of years, and where his son played professional soccer after college.
There are roughly 33 million people living with AIDS worldwide, and it is estimated that around two-thirds of those suffering from the disease live in sub-Saharan Africa. The average life expectancy in Zimbabwe dropped from 61 in 1990 to 33 years in 2006, and about 30 percent of pregnant women in Zimbabwe tested positive for HIV in 2003. After witnessing the scope of the epidemic, including losing friends and teammates to the diseases, and the lack of AIDS education, Tommy Clark decided to start Grassroot Soccer while he was studying at Dartmouth medical school.
“My son started [Grassroot Soccer] while he was in residence,” Bobby Clark says. “Soccer has always been very important to him. He taught and played in Zimbabwe, and so many kids that he knew died from the disease.”
Bobby Clark, who coached in Zimbabwe in the mid-1980s witnessed the onset of the epidemic. “Life expectancy just dropped when HIV came in,” he remarks.There are now Grassroot Soccer programs in Zambia and South Africa, in addition to Zimbabwe. The goal of these programs is to educate about AIDS, which is not usually talked about, by first engaging children’s interest in soccer, which is immensely popular in Africa.
“Grassroot Soccer uses the power of soccer to educate young Africans,” Bobby Clark says. “The biggest thing is really just getting out the information. Soccer is god in Africa. We set up soccer clinics and programs, and we target schools, using soccer as the vehicle. AIDS is taboo; nobody will talk about it. The best place to do it is in a fun setting that is attractive to [children]. “
The clinics are staffed mostly by former college players from the United States. Bobby Clark estimates that there are “12 to 20 Americans” working at the clinics during any given year, from schools such as Middlebury, Georgetown and Harvard, as well as some of Bobby Clark’s former players from Dartmouth and Stanford, two schools where he previously held the position of head coach. He hopes to have a Notre Dame graduate involved soon.
The soccer clinics also have started to use professional players from Zimbabwe, as well as other countries and it has been a huge draw for the children.”[These men and women] are superstars over there,” Bobby Clark says. “It would be like Magic Johnson giving a basketball clinic in L.A. This information is very important, and it helps to have it coming from a role model.”
Notre Dame’s involvement in Grassroot Soccer is mainly an annual home exhibition game, which Bobby Clark says has been “very successful.” The game is free of charge for spectators, but everyone is asked to make a donation. That donation is then matched by the men’s soccer team using profits from their summer soccer camps, as well as by a Notre Dame soccer alum, who wishes to remain anonymous. Bobby Clark estimates the event usually draws between 2,000-3,000 fans, and brings in about $7,000-9,000 a year for the cause. Tommy visits campus to speak with Bobby’s players during the week before the game, and Bobby thinks participating in the game has inspired a few of his players to get more involved in the cause of AIDS education.
“Tommy comes out here to explain to them what it’s all about,” Bobby Clark said. “I think there are several boys that have shown an interest in going there [to Zimbabwe].”
Tommy, who lives in Hanover, N.H., juggles a busy schedule, including at least three trips to Africa a year, but still remains close to his father. Bobby says he speaks to his son, whom he is “very proud of,” several times a week over the phone.