Sport

Virtue takes grassroots passion to higher level

…J'can finds new path with Concacaf NextPlay, says activation touching lives region-wide

BY SEAN A WILLIAMS
Deputy Sports Editor

Thursday, July 11, 2019

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CHICAGO, USA — Andre Virtue seems to have found his purpose in life.

As a student of the beautiful game, the Jamaican is following his calling to impact football at the most impressionable level — the grass roots.

When the former Jamaica College Manning Cup star returned to Jamaica in 2002 after a sojourn overseas, pursuing his professional playing career, he could have taken up the mantle coaching the game at the higher club level in the island.

But for some reason, it just did not feel right to the devout Christian.

Virtue, who holds a degree in finance from USA-based Howard University, wanted to do more than instruct the game; he wanted to, more importantly, shape young lives.

The former Jamaica youth player believes that working in the vineyard at the grass roots level was more a divine dictate, rather than a mere business decision.

Virtue answered the call and he has not looked back.

“When I moved back to Jamaica in 2002, I could have started at a higher level, but when you hear the stories of the gaps in leadership and you could contribute, but I think it was a calling that I had to come and make an impact with young people.

“I wouldn't say no (to coaching at a higher level), but I think where I am at is where God wants me right now and I think that's where I have been able to give the greatest contribution,” Virtue told the Jamaica Observer in Chicago, where he coordinated the Scotiabank Concacaf NextPlay at CIBC Fire Pitch on Saturday in his role as Concacaf NextPlay instructor.

“Now I can touch lives outside of the country, and I think if I can stay there, I would be content and if God has a different plan for me, I will see, but right now I am comfortable where I am at as there aren't a lot of people who are committed at this level, but for me it's just the commitment,” he said.

Virtue, who criss crossed the world after leaving college in pursuit of his dream as a prfessional player, has found a link between football and spirituality, a divinity that purifies the soul of the game.

“There is a huge connection between football and spirituality and my testimony in itself was that football was my God, until I got to that place where I realised I had to place Him first and then I gave it up in that context and said 'Lord I have tried everything, but I had not given You everything'.

“It was never His intention to take football from me, it is just the perspective that he took it (football) from me and then he gave it back to me and I have to stay true to that perspective…there is a connection and it's not dualistic as you are a Christian wherever you are, just like how I am man anywhere I go and I stand firm in that belief,” Virtue noted.

The Jamaican, who is the head honcho of Ballaz International Group, which has a vibrant youth arm, shared that when Concacaf summoned him to join its emerging grass roots activation NextPlay over a year ago, his response was swift and decisive.

“NextPlay — It started out as a concept and we saw the power and passion that football can bring, we are not just coaching a sport, we are coaching a life through the sport,” he noted.

Virtue says that NextPlay's growth has been rapid, though he admits its success may not be easy to immediately be quantified in tangible ways.

“Sometimes you can't see the impact as the roots will have to grow deep, a lot of people because it's development, you don't see it right away, but down the road those roots will grow deep and we will reap the rewards… what we are doing is planting seeds and one day it will germinate and multiply,” Virtue told the Observer.

“Now we are giving the kids a forum and letting them know we care.”

The Scotiabank Concacaf NextPlay Programme, in essence, is a wide-ranging, multi-sectoral activation that seeks to improve the lives of primary school children, using their love for football as leverage and a vehicle to expose them to vital life skills.

Virtue thinks that impacting young lives at that level can redound to better societies in the Caribbean region in the future.

“What we are teaching (at NextPlay) is that there is life before the game, during the game and after the game,” said the former Harbour View man.

Looking back at the NextPlay festival in Chicago and the other activities annexed to the Concacaf Gold Cup, Virtues pointed to the power of football to cut across cultures.

On Saturday at the CIBC Fire Pitch, 40 children from four Caribbean islands — Jamaica, The Bahamas, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago — joined 45 from the local Chicago area in an explosion of fun activities with football the central point.

The Caribbean primary school kids were the winners of their respective NextPlay Cup competitions. Jamaica was represented by Holy Family Primary and Infant School.

“Anybody who has travelled the world knows the value of meeting and respecting people irrespective of class and race, school and education, so if you are in a place where you are able to play ball with someone you don't know, but realising that they love the game just as much as you do and that they can play too, your appreciation for that individual changes.

“Not to mention if you put them on the same team, where now they have the same collective goal, and it does not matter whether you come from Jamaica or Bahamas, because now they are going to play to win this game, and that's the magic because now these kids are learning the value of working with someone from a different culture, with different values and different experiences,” said Virtue, who is married to Raquel with two boys Christian and Jaden.

“So yes, cross-culturally it (NextPlay) goes a far way (as) the classroom is not just between those four walls, it's out there in the world,” he added.

Virtue, 43, says as NextPlay pushes on to self-actualisation, he would like to see an escalation of programmes to get coaches to fully grasp the value of teaching life values through the sport.

“My vision is to have a focus on coaching education to have more people to understand the values and the lessons that can be taught through the game… every professional club you talk to they want a different type of player: one who is disciplined, one who can communicate and a team player, and these are qualities that can be taught through the sport,” he said.

Virtue says as part of the workshop for voluntary coaches for Saturday's NextPlay event, the focus was on getting the participants to connect between football instruction and life coaching.

“We had a workshop with the coaches and the conversation with the them is that they understand it (concept of NextPlay), yet they don't see how they can help a child to connect what's happening on the football field and what's happening at home, but when the coaches get it you have an impact because they see it.

“When you get the kids together you say to them that the same way when they are on the field the football is the most important thing, is the same way you need to recognise that if you have something valuable and you don't share it, what happens? Just the same on the football field when that happens, it's the same in life, and football gives you that without you have to create it.

“When you dribble, you are trying to avoid obstacles, just the same in life as you have to avoid obstacles, so we want to prepare them to be winners,” Virtue ended.


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