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A New Goal To Shoot For

Clemson program awards college scholarships, training opportunities to Paralympians

Tyler Bennett (left) has been a member of the U.S. Paralympic team for seven years and enrolled as a graduate student at Clemson in August. Getty Images

Tyler Bennett’s future on the pitch seemed boundless. Then, when he was 12, a blood vessel burst in his brain. The scare — which led to surgeries and arduous rehabilitation — left the young soccer player’s left ankle stiff and nearly immobile. Still, Bennett made his high school soccer team, which helped propel him to a spot on the U.S. men’s Paralympic squad.

Bennett enrolled in college at Akron but struggled to integrate his classes with his Paralympic training schedule, which requires players to spend 15 weeks per year away from work or school. As his time in college wound down last year, he was uncertain if he could continue to play at the highest level and balance graduate school. But he was elated when his national team coach, Stuart Sharp, told him about a new adaptive soccer program Clemson had built to account for soccer Paralympians’ difficult schedules. Plus, it happened to include a full scholarship.

Clemson professor Skye Arthur-Banning, also a Paralympic soccer referee, secured funding for eight full out-of-state tuition waivers over the next four years. Bennett, the first recipient, will spend two years as a graduate student and graduate assistant in the sports management program. Drew Bremer, another member of the U.S. team, began the program this fall, as well.

Organizers hope the program’s promise of a scholarship also will motivate young athletes with impairments to stick with their sport.

“It’s huge because their 13-year-old friends will be talking to them about, ‘Oh, yeah, I really want to go to Michigan and get a scholarship,’” Sharp says. “And that 13-year-old with cerebral palsy cannot enter that conversation — but now they can.”

The program was born after Arthur-Banning polled the Paralympic team about impediments to training. The players noted that carving out sufficient time away from work or school often proved impossible. (Many countries pay their Paralympic soccer players, who can devote themselves to the sport full time.) So Arthur-Banning brought his idea to Clemson administrators, who saw it as an opportunity to invest in bolstering diversity and allocated nearly $500,000 to fund the initiative over four years. The student government even threw in $15,000 to buy soccer and training equipment.

The school has hired a graduate assistant who will work with Sharp, who resides in Atlanta, to implement full-time training regimens. As the program grows, players will have an opportunity to compete with and against the club and intramural teams at Clemson. Some may be given the chance to train with the school’s varsity team in the spring, though logistics still are being settled. Additionally, enrollees will be able to make the regular trips to practice with the rest of their teammates or compete at tournaments around the world.

“Hopefully, growing this program and getting as many athletes in there as possible, training together normally, will make us even more successful,” Bennett says. “Working out together, you push each other more than if you’re at home alone.”

Arthur-Banning has been contacted by boys as young as 12 who say they are eager to earn a spot in Clemson’s program — and a scholarship.

“If the 12-year-old kid with cerebral palsy continues to play soccer because they see Clemson now has created an opportunity for them,” he says, “that’s mission accomplished.”

If you are interested in participating in U.S. Paralympic soccer or in the Clemson program, contact Stuart Sharp at ssharp@ussoccer.org.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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