Gavin Sibayan Josh Brunais

Gavin Sibayan (left) and Josh Brunais are two injured military veteran players on the U.S. Paralympic Soccer Team who will participate as player coaches in Skye Arthur-Banning’s camp.
Image Credit: Stuart Sharp

CLEMSON — Skye Arthur-Banning, an associate professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, has secured funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to grow the sport of soccer with disabled veterans. Arthur-Banning will use funds to develop and educate player-coaches who will then assemble and coach teams of disabled veterans.

According to Arthur-Banning, the $52,000 awarded by the grant represents the only money given in 2016 to specifically fund Paralympic soccer by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He looks forward to working with several veterans and representatives from U.S. Soccer on the eight-month project that will culminate in several matchups between the assembled teams.

“These men have already given so much to their country, and now they want to give back to their communities and fellow wounded warriors,” Arthur-Banning said.

Arthur-Banning will work with Stuart Sharp, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic National Soccer Team, to assemble a group of six coaches — two for each potential team — at Clemson University in early November for a five-day camp. The camp begins Friday and will focus on sports leadership, coaching and recruitment training.

The participating coaches will then take lessons learned back to their own communities to assemble teams of veterans. Arthur-Banning said grant money will provide six months of resources for coaches to pull teams together and for necessary training expenses. U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Stephen Taylor will be one of the coaches involved in the camp, and he said he looks forward to working with fellow wounded warriors and young military veterans.

Taylor said he always had a better relationship with his junior Marines than with his superior officers; it’s one of the reasons he refused a medevac in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, after his third — and most damaging — encounter with an improvised explosive device in December 2010. Taylor was rattled, but he wasn’t missing limbs or fingers and he didn’t want to appear weak to his Marines. He described the next five days as the worst hangover he’s ever had.

It was only after returning to the U.S. on leave two months later that he and his family started seeing the real effects. His wife and kids noticed something wasn’t right. He had constant migraines, tremors and he frequently forgot things. However, he tried to keep up “the deployment pace” and ignore the obvious problems he was facing.

“I didn’t see the effects, but the onion started to peel,” Taylor said. “I was a real jerk and I was a bad father; I finally started to realize that it was affecting my family and it was time to do something about it.”

MRI results revealed Taylor suffered a traumatic brain injury during the explosion, which he said “explained a lot.” His injuries found him stationed in the East Coast’s Wounded Warrior Battalion, where he saw a flyer for the U.S. Paralympic Team camp. At 44 years old, Taylor thought he might be too old, but he tried out anyway.

Sharp was present, and he obviously saw something in Taylor. While Taylor still does play in adult leagues, he said it was obvious he was no longer a “spring chicken” compared to other athletes who turned out, but that didn’t stop him from asking Sharp to keep in touch regarding future opportunities.

“I realized I was too old for the team, but I don’t play timid. I told Sharp I wanted to be involved,” Taylor said. “I want to be around young guys who I’ve got something in common with.”

Taylor is no stranger to playing, coaching and organizing teams around soccer. He sees the opportunity to participate in Arthur-Banning’s camp as a way to continue a love for soccer that started in childhood. Taylor played while he was stationed in Hawaii and later when stationed in Iraq. He assembled soccer teams with tribes, police and Afghan battalions to create comradery. He hopes to do the same with the lessons he learns in Clemson.

“My military career is coming to an end and I don’t want to work in an office or wear a tie,” Taylor said. “Getting the tools to put a team together would be a step in the right direction to establish a real program.”

After Taylor and the other coaches have a few months to assemble and train teams, Taylor and other coaches will return to campus in April to become national, D-licensed U.S. Soccer coaches. In June, the three teams will participate in exhibition matches where they’ll be able to put months of practice to use in competition.

Arthur-Banning will stay in touch with all the coaches to gauge their progress, and he is assembling a group of Clemson students to engage in a Creative Inquiry undergraduate research project related to the coaches’ experience. The project will focus on community recreation and gauge the effects the training and coaching development have on player self-esteem.

“There’s no reason everyone involved can’t get something out of this,” Arthur-Banning said. “Our students can gauge how much of an effect this experience has on these veterans, we can grow Paralympic soccer in communities and we can have a positive effect on people who have given so much.”

END

This project was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The opinions, findings and conclusions do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.