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These are heroes in a league of their own

Al Snaider, Ken Muzyk, Frank Figari, and Fred Englehardt are the kind of men you might find singing in deep baritones on one of those television commercials for manly deodorant.

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They certainly are not four guys who would ever get caught scrapbooking.

In their minds, however, they have compiled a beautiful photo album chock full of snapshots from the last 10 years.

Open it up and you see the mom who got teary-eyed because she found a place for her challenged child to enjoy soccer. In the center is the girl who gets around the field because they put wheels on her walker.

In the bottom corner you see the kids who hug each other like classmates at a reunion even though they've only gone a week without seeing each other.

Turn the page and you see the teenagers who come out every Saturday morning without being asked to coach the younger kids, and the accountant who shows up to make french fries for the kids. Over on this page, we have the sponsors who have given their time, their talent and their funds to make this league free for every child.

With each scene they describe, their hearts beat a little louder. These teddy bears masquerading as macho men can't resist the disarming charm of the players in the TOPSoccer program for mentally and physically challenged youth.

"It sounds silly coming from somebody like me," said the 6-foot-4, 425-pound Englehardt, a biker and machinist turned coach. "But it kind of gives you a warm, fuzzy glow inside."

Back in 1998, the quartet played an integral role in starting the program, a division of the Brandon Area Youth Soccer League. It's usually parents who have special needs children who start such an effort, but these dads all had kids who had the good fortune of health when they played in BAYSL.

Still, they saw a need.

"One of the girls ... had a brother who had Down syndrome," Snaider said. "Every time the ball went out of bounds, he kept going and getting the ball and throwing it back in. His dad was sitting there and he finally asked his dad, "When do I get to play?"

All former board members, they called upon their experience and their individual expertise to help the league blossom. Snaider's specialty proved to be fundraising, Muzyk helped with organization, Figari lent marketing savvy and Englehardt handled uniforms.

"While we were on the board of directors, we formed a men's league, a women's league and two major soccer tournaments," Muzyk said. "The one thing we never got around to was a league for challenged kids."

Following the TOPS model designed by U.S. Youth Soccer, the quartet put together the foundation for the first season. The national officials told them to expect eight to 10 kids for the initial season. They ended up with nearly 50.

By year three, the league had nearly 150 players and a corresponding number of grateful parents.

"The parents of these kids, their lives are very different than yours and mine," Figari said. "Here's three hours out of a week where they come out and actually be with parents who have the same lives they have. And for those three hours, those kids are taken care of and the parents can sit and enjoy each other's company."

Each player typically receives cleats, shin guards, socks, shorts and a jersey. Englehardt said some parents ask him for extra jerseys because their kids literally refuse to take them off.

"They needed an extra shirt so they could wash the original one."

All this, plus free lunch every Saturday during the nine-week season, comes free of charge thanks to volunteers and donors. The founders deflect praise by crediting nearly everyone else: the local doctor (Fred Bearison), the accountant/french fry cook (Bob Morris), the retired Marine (Lou Palumbo), the insurance agent (Maria Maranda), the former sporting goods manager (Teresa Nelson) and the tire store magnate (Olin Mott), just to name a few.

Don't forget their own wives and kids.

"In recreational soccer or even select soccer, 10 percent of the parents do 90 percent of the work. TOPS, on the other hand, it's reversed because parents are looking for the opportunity to get something for their child. Getting help and getting money and raising funds has never been an issue."

So how did these selfless guys end up drawing my attention? A parent wanted them to have some recognition as gift.

"They are truly unsung heroes," said Julie Ames. "I don't think most people with children involved even know who they are. Would it be possible for you to let them know how much they are appreciated?"

Happy Holidays, fellas.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at hooper@sptimes.com or 226-3406.

These are heroes in a league of their own 12/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 25, 2008 3:30am]

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