LAKEWOOD RANCH — Twelve-year-old Kevin Sweeney is constantly on the move.
He refuses to give up.
Even with the sweltering midday heat beating down around him, the Beyond the Spectrum sixth-grader meticulously sizes up his competition.
A lone goal is all that stands between him and victory — or, in this case, chicken fingers and French fries.
With his favorite meal on the line, Kevin moves toward the goal. He turns to his older brother, Tom, a freshman at Pine View School, for reassurance before firing off a shot.
As the ball sails into the back of the net, Kevin turns back toward his parents, Monica and Joe, and offers up an infectious smile before quickly reverting back to the task at hand.
It’s the second week of the Braden River Soccer Club’s TOPSoccer season and Kevin is right at home, donning his trademark red shades and his bright-blue soccer jersey.
For the next couple of hours, Kevin will join nearly 100 children and buddies on the soccer field for a Sunday afternoon filled with soccer and socializing.
“I’m excited when I come to soccer because I like to play it,” says Kevin, who was diagnosed with autism. “Soccer makes me happy. It’s fun and I get to run fast.”
The TOPSoccer program is a national program designed to give children with mental or physical disabilities the opportunity to learn and play soccer. Every child within the program is paired up with a buddy, who offers support, guidance and, most importantly, friendship.
Kevin began playing soccer last fall after his mother, Monica, a speech pathologist at All Children’s Outpatient Care in Lakewood Ranch, learned about TOPSoccer during an autism resource fair.
Having grown up spending countless hours watching his older brothers play baseball, soccer provided a new outlet for Kevin.
Kevin was apprehensive at first, but, with his older brother, Tim, now a junior at Pine View School, by his side, Kevin ventured out onto the field. It took a couple of weeks — and a few promises of McDonald’s lunches — for Kevin to warm up to the sport.
“The first couple of times were a little tricky,” Monica Sweeney says. “Bribery definitely works. Once you get into it and realize it’s safe, the anxiety goes away. Now it’s ‘I get to go to soccer!’”
Kevin received his first trophy, which is on display in the family room, following the fall season. With his trophy in hand, Kevin eagerly asked to sign up for the spring season.
On Sept. 29, Kevin began his third season with TOPSoccer. Last season, Kevin shared the field with Tim; but this season, both Tim and Tom have signed up to be a part of the buddy program.
“Watching Kevin play a sport has been a really wonderful experience,” Tim says. “This is mostly due to the fact that I never thought that Kevin would be able to participate in any sports, so just being able to watch him play every Sunday is a blessing.
“The thing that I have enjoyed most during my time with TOPS has been watching Kevin score goals and then smile from ear to ear as he looks back at my mom,” Tim says. “It is equally enjoyable just to see Kevin being active and exercising, two things that he would not be if it weren’t for TOPS.”
“It’s kind of cool and nice to see my brother play a sport,” Tom says. “I just want him to be able to play soccer and have a good day.”
During the season, which runs through Nov. 24, all of the players warm up together before dividing up into their respective age groups. And that’s when the real fun begins.
In addition to soccer, the players play a variety of other games, including Duck Duck Goose, enjoy popsicles and other treats and celebrate with a high-five line at the end of the day.
Prior to the start of every game, Kevin makes a bet with his parents for lunch. If he scores a certain number of predetermined goals that day, then his parents will take him out to lunch for chicken fingers and French fries at various places, including McDonald’s, Bogey’s and his all-time favorite, Applebee’s.
“It was very funny because we made him a bet and he ended up hustling us,” Monica Sweeney says.
At the end of the season, all of the players receive a trophy in addition to the jerseys, water bottles and soccer balls they received at the start of the season.
“It’s really like having the experience of playing a sport that we had with the other boys,” Monica Sweeney says. “It’s kind of nice. It doesn’t matter your diagnosis because you’re going to be celebrated and successful. You just want your kids to have some kind of normal.”
For more information on the Braden River Soccer Club’s TOPSoccer program, visit www.bradenriversoccer.org/Tops_Soccer.html.
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].