Slipping, sliding and even scoring, more than 90 teenagers braved rain and a soggy field to play soccer the way so many less fortunate people do — without shoes.
In its third year, the Lose the Shoes three-on-three tournament at Cheltenham High School benefits Grassroots Soccer, an organization dedicated to using the sport to mobilize against the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The money raised at the tournament on May 20, and others like it, goes toward setting up Grassroots Soccer programming in Africa, where HIV/AIDS outreach is severely needed.
The organization was created by Ethan Zohn, after he became the first Jewish winner of the $1 million grand prize on the popular reality show "Survivor."
Danny Magerman, an 18-year-old senior, was inspired to start the program at Cheltenham after hearing Zohn speak at a program of the Conservative movement's USY a few years ago.
Since then, Magerman's program has grown significantly — with 28 teams raising roughly $3,000 this year. That equals the amount he raised in the previous two years combined.
Magerman said that at first, he was skeptical that his project would take off. His school had plenty of philanthropic events in place. But the response from students was significant.
"Every year it's gotten bigger and bigger," he said, noting that each student contributes $20 to play, which is more than any other charity event at school.
He said that after students finished their games, they got a sense of how tough it must be to grow up playing soccer barefooted in a Third World country.
"In those countries, the kids tend not to be able to afford shoes," said Magerman, whose feet, like all the players, were covered in wet grass. "They play all the time without shoes on. We're just trying to recreate that for a couple hours."
Zachary MacMath, 19, a goalie for the local pro team, the Philadelphia Union, came out to watch the tournament. Growing up in Florida, he's played in plenty of barefoot games.
"I would play on the beach barefoot all the time, in the street, too," he says. "Today is the perfect condition to play soccer barefoot, so you can slide."
The Sun Did Come Out
At the Cheltenham competition, a DJ played pop music while players battled one another on short fields with small nets. (There were no goalies).
As the day wore on, the pouring rain gave way to blazing sunshine, and the competition got more and more intense.
A team of three Jewish players used the slick grass to put on a show: After a goal, the team slid along the ground in unison while simultaneously putting on their yarmulkes in celebration.
"We're going to show some Jewish pride today," said one of the team members, 16-year-old sophomore Jonah Wisch.
His team certainly didn't complain about the wet conditions — they relished it.
"It's hard to get a grip on your feet. Moving around is pretty difficult, but it adds some excitement," he said.
Martin Freeman, an 18-year-old senior, is on Cheltenham's varsity team but said he enjoys his chance to play barefoot in the tournament once a year — especially for a good cause.
"There are so many places where kids play all the time, but they don't have the equipment. You see videos of kids playing on dirt fields, with walls as their goals," he said. "I think people should focus on building more soccer fields in Third World countries. If you give them better opportunities to play, we'd probably see more great players coming from those countries."
In the end, Freeman, along with fellow seniors Michael Oh and B.J. Stuetz, won the men's division while sophomores Emily Leibovitz, Sloane Macklin and Alix Macklin won the ladies.