Sacramento Republic FC defender Jeremy Hall (second from left) and President and COO Ben Gumpert (right) talk with a pair of inmates at Folsom State Prison. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
On Tuesday, Sacramento Republic FC team members will travel roughly 20 miles northeast from the club’s midtown headquarters to Folsom State Prison, where they will venture beyond the walls to play a pick-up soccer match with the prison’s inmates.
Bringing nothing but the clothes on their backs, the group – comprised of front office staff and a pair of players – will proceed through prison security, walk down the five-tiered cell block, into the cafeteria where Johnny Cash once recorded a live album and out onto an all-dirt, multi-purpose field nestled within the prison yard.
Once outside, the visitors will have the opportunity to begin interacting with inmates during warmups before splitting into two teams – equally encompassing Sacramento staff and inmates – that are coached by Republic FC players. The two teams typically feature eight players apiece and play a pair of 30-minute halves before bonding further during a wrap-up session.
“It’s been a great format,” said Sacramento General Manager Todd Dunivant. “There’s been some really intense games, but I think at the end of the day you’d be surprised, it’s probably the most respectful and friendly matches you can ever imagine.”
Dunivant, who organized a similar initiative between the San Francisco Deltas and San Quentin State Prison before the club dissolved in 2017, reached out to management at Folsom earlier this year and met with Warden Rick Hill and others to discuss a similar partnership.
“They gave me a tour of the entire facility which is pretty incredible and then we talked through a plan of how we wanted to do it, who we wanted to bring in, how often we wanted to come,” Dunivant said. “It was important for me to let them know it wasn’t just a one-time thing for us or a once a year kind of thing. It was more important that we come back on a regular basis and really forge relationships and make an impact on a regular basis.”
This visit will be Republic FC’s sixth trip to Folsom as part of a monthly community outreach program that the club began in June. Since then, both Folsom and Republic FC have seen a positive impact from the initiative.
“This game breaks down a lot of barriers that prison seems to promote,” said Hill. “The racial divides, the gangs, the groupings, just basically the political structure of the prison. None of that matters out here. Everybody forgets about all of that cultural and political nonsense and they come out here and work together toward the common goal of playing a good soccer game.”
While breaking down some of those barriers and serving as an additional incentive for good behavior, the game has also given participating inmates a touchpoint to everyday society that many severely lack.
“For me, I see Sac Republic going to children's hospitals, homeless shelters, holding these soccer camps, but for them to also come in here, to come into prison and to communicate with us, to play with us, that just shows us that we're still human and that there still is hope for us out there,” said Lou, an inmate who has participated in the program.
Sacramento Republic FC staff and inmates from Folsom State Prison participate in a pick-up soccer game. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
On the other hand, these visits inside the walls have had an eye-opening effect on Sacramento’s staff and players. Forward Christian Eissele was part of the first Republic FC group to visit Folsom in June and after speaking with some of the inmates, he said he felt like he was just hanging out on any other normal soccer field.
“They’re all there for a reason but they’re all still human and that’s what I kind of took from the whole [experience],” said Eissele. “You can see them for the imperfections or their mistakes, or you can see them as human beings that are working on themselves like we all are.”
Fellow forward Cameron Iwasa, who was named to the USL’s All-League Second Team earlier this month, will be making his first trip to the prison on Tuesday and said he was looking forward to the experience and the opportunity to hear some of the inmates’ stories.
“I think it gives us a different perspective on things, gives us a chance to connect with some people that we otherwise would not get a chance to connect with,” Iwasa said. “I think whatever kind of community outreach you can do, regardless of what the demographic is, I think is always positive.”
On top of the Folsom initiative, Republic FC has hosted numerous events and programs throughout the year and often gone above and beyond to give back to everyone in the Greater Sacramento community. The club put on a refugee soccer tournament in June, fulfilled Matthew Harding’s dream of playing for the team through the help of Make-A-Wish in October and as recently as Monday sent volunteers to KCRA News’ Red Cross telethon that benefitted those affected by wildfires throughout California.
Call (916) 309-2903 and @villbijev could be on the other end!— Republic FC (@SacRepublicFC) November 12, 2018
Villyan doing his part this morning at the @kcranews Red Cross telethon benefitting those affected by the #CampFire. Keep those calls coming in, or donate online at https://t.co/6V8HSwtgp4. pic.twitter.com/4UkYoJ2Kbv
“We’re a soccer club and we don’t exist without the community,” said Dunivant. “We don’t exist without the fans, without the people of Sacramento and the greater region in Northern California. To be able to give back is huge.
“Our clubs have an incredible platform to do extraordinary things and I think the power of that, sometimes, we don’t even realize but when you have things like [the Folsom initiative], it kind of brings it to the fore and lets you know that there’s not too many other industries that could go in and have that kind of an impact so it’s a pretty incredible thing to be a part of.”
Dunivant said that both the staff and players have been very open to the responsibility of volunteering in the community and have been especially eager to participate in the Folsom initiative. Since the club can only bring in a restricted number of people each trip, Dunivant has had to create a waiting list and rotate new faces in every time.
Republic FC President & COO Ben Gumpert, who has attended and played in a few of the games, is proud of the club’s commitment to the cause and was astonished to see the tangible impact the club has made on some of Folsom’s inmates in just a few short months.
“We actually had an inmate who was released…” said Gumpert. “And the first thing he did with his mom wasn’t to go home or grab a hamburger, he came to our store and bought a shirt because he was so proud to be associated with the Republic. That was literally his first stop. When you get a chance to see those interactions, it’s kind of mind-blowing.”
To Dunivant, interactions and success stores like that not just prove the worth of the club’s initiative but also demonstrate the beauty and power of the sport of soccer.
“When you’re playing and when you’re on that field, you kind of forget what’s going on in the rest of the world,” said Dunivant. “It’s all about the game. It just takes you to another place and I think it’s special.”