Pine Ridge: Mastroeni and Corrigan turn dream into reality

Captain's first-hand account as he brings soccer to South Dakota Reservation

Pablo Mastroeni plays soccer with kids at Pine Ridge

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy Pablo Mastroeni

Forward by Dispatch musician Brad Corrigan:

READ: Pine Ridge: How music and athletes made a difference

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At the beginning of this year, I had dinner with my friend Brad Corrigan, an amazing musician and a member of the band Dispatch, and he asked me to join him on a trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He wanted me to meet some of his friends, and to introduce the game of soccer to people he holds dear to his heart. We spoke about the impact that musicians and athletes have on our culture, and agreed on our commitment to finding ways to bring the two together to inspire and promote positive change.

This was the start of an awesome trip.

Six months after our conversation, on Saturday, September 29, I was ready to watch Brad, Chad Urmston, and Pete Heimbold – Dispatch – rock the 1STBANK Center in Broomfield. As the band made their way on to the stage I was shocked to see the spirit of the Rapids come with them; Brad had donned a burgundy Rapids jersey with the number 25. While that shirt hadn’t seen a lot of the field this year, in just one concert, the jersey came back to life.

Brad wore the number 25 when he played lacrosse at Middlebury College in Vermont, so it made sense that he would represent his hometown of Denver, his favorite soccer team, his number, and his buddy.

Following the show, I had the privilege of hopping onto the tour bus overnight as we made our way to Pine Ridge. As I first boarded the bus I felt a little out of place. Although I had always dreamed of becoming a rock star, my simple bar chord strumming and rudimentary picking were not worthy of this type of travel.

After meeting the guys and hanging for a while, I quickly realized that this next leg of the trip did have a place for me. As we spoke about our lives, I began to realize we had a lot more in common than not. Brad and I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning talking about how amazing it was that it was only six months ago we were dreaming into this idea, and there we were on the road with our vision unfurling right before our eyes.

MORE: Mastroeni raises awareness for childhood cancer

Deciding it was time to rest our heads, we made our way into the bunks, which were like sleeping inside MRI machines, leaving Rick, the bus driver who looked eerily like Kenny Rodgers, driving on his own as he belted out Stevie Ray Vaughn. After a rough night of sleep, I awoke to a beautiful sunrise along the pale yellow grasslands of South Dakota. Meeting us in the parking lot of our hotel were many volunteers and friends who have the same affinity for Pine Ridge as Brad and his wonderful assistant Ingrid Schneider.

I jumped into a truck with a 24-year-old who participates in "Teach for America" named Josh, and we were headed to a K-8 school in Manderson.

He informed me of the dire situation that the Native Americans families face on Pine Ridge. The statistics are jaw dropping and at times not believable. Life expectancy of a male on the reservation is 48, and female is 52. It has the highest infant mortality rate in the U.S., and second in the Western World behind Haiti. Fifty percent of all adults over 40 have diabetes. It's the poorest county in America. Pine Ridge has an 80% unemployment rate. It was hard for me to digest and make sense of such startling truths, and as we passed the Wounded Knee Massacre Cemetery, it was also a stark reminder of how dark of a past these people have endured.

Once we arrived at the school, we all had different activities to take part in. Some people painted doors and entryways that needed touching up, others picked up trash and debris, some played on the playground with the kids, and I ran a soccer camp. Actually it wasn't much of a camp, it was more like a four hour scrimmage with players coming and going as they pleased. There was about thirty or so kids that participated throughout the day, and there were a handful that played the whole time. We were also fortunate to have the support of the Colorado Rapids along with adidas as they donated t-shirts, bibs, and about 50 balls.

I found out that the soccer program had only been started for the first time about three weeks before we arrived. Basketball is the sport of choice on the Pine Ridge Reservation, with football coming in a close second, and the newness of soccer was evident as they bent down to trap the ball with their hands when their thighs and feet had let them down. I let some of the hand balls slide, but when they would grab the ball and cross somebody over with a basketball shimmy I had to draw the line. It was really obvious to me that these kids were athletic and coordinated, and with a little direction, guidance, practice, and commitment these kids could become some top notch players.

MORE: Mastroeni supports "Soccer for Success" initiative

One of my favorite moments came when I asked two girls to be the captains and pick the teams. Did I mention it was also a humbling moment? The girls quickly selected the older boys, bigger and faster than the rest, and pretty soon it was just down to me and Nick, a veteran of the Afghan war, as the last two. One captain, Cheyenne pointed to me. Just then, her first draft pick, Lupa, quickly whispered loudly in her ear that Nick was a lot better. Cheyenne changed her mind and selected Nick. I joined the Orange Peacocks by default.

I couldn’t recall the last time I was selected last, and thought it was funny that I had to go to South Dakota to gain such an experience. As the afternoon came to an end and the Orange Peacocks held the championship trophy (I made sure of this), a big plume of dust hovered over the bumpy soccer field and the kids gathered around for autographs. They kept asking me when I was going to come back, and at that moment I realized that I was appreciated and that I shouldn't feel like the last player picked.

During the whole session, I noticed a woman and her husband sitting on a nearby bench, just watching the kids play for hours. After we finished up I introduced myself to both of them, and asked which kid was hers. She told me that she didn't have any kids playing, but that she was the coach for the 5-7 year olds and wanted to get some ideas for practice. Maria and her husband are wonderful people that love the game of soccer, and I promised that I would send her some websites and literature that can point her in the right direction. I can’t wait to keep working with Maria as we continue grow the game of soccer in Pine Ridge.

Following the afternoon's events, we headed to Pine Ridge Village where last year Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam teamed up with Vans and built an awesome skatepark. It was really neat to see these kids completely dominate what looked like an empty pool with mounds built into it. There were about forty kids from ages 3 to 21 enjoying the access to this cement wonderland, and it was amazing to see how they cheered each other on as they attempted tricks that I've only seen on TV. 

After meeting some of the kids, the guys from Dispatch put on a four song acoustic set as the kids put their skateboards down to listen in. It was an awesome day and we topped it off with a barbecue at Darles and Rex’s house. Darlis and Rex are great friends of Brad and Ingrid and were amazing hosts to us all. With good food in our bellies and in the company of so many wonderful people, we watched the sun go down behind some amazing rock formations as orange and red hues splashed across the horizon. It was a great trip, and I hope to continue to work with the Brad, Ingrid, and Maria to help make soccer a sport that the people of Pine Ridge can call their own.

Again, if you would like more information about Love Light and Melody, or you would like to donate to the work they do, including soccer camps on Pine Ridge, please check out: http://www.lovelightandmelody.org/donate/.

Thank you!

Pablo