CLEMSON, South Carolina — A new Clemson University soccer program geared toward student athletes with disabilities including cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke has welcomed two U.S. Soccer Paralympic National Team players, Tyler Bennett and Drew Bremer, as its first students. Organizers hope they are the first of many players the program will attract over its first few years as it gains momentum.

The program also attracted a coordinator in Greg Baltyn, a graduate student in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department. Although a veteran of the business and logistics world, Baltyn serves as a soccer referee and is currently the state youth referee administrator for SC Referees and the South Carolina Youth Soccer Association, so his passion has been with soccer and sports officiating for years.

Baltyn learned of Clemson’s soccer residency program through faculty member Skye Arthur-Banning, whose previous work with Paralympians helped launch the program. Baltyn jumped at the opportunity to not only pursue a master’s degree at Clemson, but also help build the residency program, which is the first of its kind in the U.S.

“We’re just getting started with this program, but our ultimate goal is to turn Clemson into a U.S. Paralympic training site for soccer,” Baltyn said. “We want to raise as much awareness as possible and lead the way in building the foundation for the sport on the national level. We would love for Clemson to become synonymous with 7-a-side soccer.”

Seven-a-side soccer has been a part of the Paralympic Games since 1984. The sport features seven players on the field at a time rather than 11, the measurements of the playing field are smaller, there is no offside rule and throw-ins may be made with just one hand.

The Clemson program will see athletes attend class and experience regular training on site with other players throughout each semester. The program is designed to attract athletes on scholarship, those who can afford out-of-state tuition and those on GI bills who don’t have to rely on tuition waivers.

Gregory Baltyn

Greg Baltyn is tasked with organizing the soccer program and outreach to spread the word to eligible athletes across the country.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Baltyn is casting a wide net for players because participation in the sport is a challenge for athletes. Arthur-Banning’s previous research suggests cost and distance are the two biggest obstacles to continued training for athletes with disabilities. Even players who could afford to travel long distances for a one-week camp each month would be forced to spend three weeks going without quality training time at their home institutions.

Bennett is no stranger to the logistical challenges present in the sport, and he immediately saw the appeal of Clemson’s program. Bennett earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science from the University of Akron, so the prospect of pursuing a master’s degree in community-based sports management was attractive. Even more so was the ability to practice with other players while continuing to compete on an international level.

This all-in-one solution would have been impossible for Bennett before the Clemson program. He jumped in without hesitation; it was only after being accepted into Clemson’s program and earning one of its out-of-state tuition waivers that he realized through extensive media coverage that he had become the first athlete to ever receive an academic Paralympic soccer scholarship.

“I didn’t think about making history, I just saw it as a way to continue my education, help with a team and continue playing,” Bennett said. “After that news came out it was great to see so much attention paid to U.S. Paralympic soccer.”

Tyler Bennett

Tyler Bennett (right) charges past a defender.
Image Credit: U.S. Soccer

Bennett traveled a long, challenging road to Paralympic soccer, one that would have discouraged almost any preteen faced with a sudden, devastating medical condition. Bennett had fallen in love with soccer at the age of 4 and he took advantage of any opportunity to play. He was 12 when he had to undergo brain surgery to address a blood vessel that ruptured in his head.

That blood vessel would keep him from the soccer field for nearly two years. An initial surgery drained fluid from his brain, and the two surgeries that followed fixed the malformation and implanted a shunt that directed fluid from head to stomach, working around the blockages that remained.

These surgeries saved his life, but also caused paralysis on the left side of his body. Six months of physical therapy forced Bennett to rely on a walker, and he had to wear a brace at night to keep his foot in a flexed position. Eventually, he got back to his high school team just to practice with them. Before he could play again, he had to relearn basic movement.

“It was like learning to walk all over again, but one side doesn’t know what the other is doing,” Bennett said. “Two years later, I got to the point where I could do everything on my own and didn’t need braces. I couldn’t kick with my left foot, but hey, most people couldn’t kick with their left foot anyway.”

Considering the extent of the paralysis and his physical therapy, Bennett truly bounced back to the sport he loved. Before he graduated from high school in 2011, he was going to camps and tournaments with the U.S. Soccer Paralympic National Team. He’s now a two-time Paralympian that has participated in four world championships and he’s seen interest in the sport increase steadily over the years.

Baltyn hopes to capitalize on the increased attention on Paralympic sports in general for the good of Clemson’s growing program. He said there are numerous players around the country that could benefit from a program like the one at Clemson and he plans to reach out to as many of them as possible, whether they are wounded veterans, high school seniors or players who are years away from a college career.

While he works to attract attention and prospective athletes, Baltyn is also engaging university teams and club leagues to set up exhibition matches so the players can get quality practice time, and he hopes to secure field space and sponsorships that can cover some costs of travel and equipment. Baltyn said these are the necessary building blocks for a program that players with disabilities across the country can work toward.

“Children with cerebral palsy or brain injury shouldn’t just settle for watching soccer from the stands, but instead see it as a viable option,” Baltyn said. “Knowing there’s a program they might be able to participate in down the road is a big part of keeping them involved in the sport.”