When Desmond Armstrong was playing on the World Cup team in Italy last summer, one of the subjects he talked about was the lack of minorities involved in soccer.
Armstrong and Jimmy Banks of Milwaukee were the only two blacks on the U.S. team in Italy, and now they are deeply involved in bringing the sport to inner city children through a program called Soccer Start.
Armstrong is about to bring the program to Baltimore, with the help of Johns Hopkins soccer coach Mark Butler.
"We're going to recruit some kids this spring," says Armstrong, who hopes to draw about 100 children between the ages of 6 and 8. "Everyone isn't going to make it as a pro basketball player or a pro football player. And at these ages, kids just want to run free, so why not be running and kicking a ball?"
But there is more to the program than that. Children will be recruited, not only through police boys clubs and the city Department of Parks and Recreation, but also from the Kappa Alpha Psi Baltimore Alumni chapter's program called "Guide Right."
"Guide Right solicits inner city kids and puts them in a formal setting once a week to learn about educational issues," said Butler. "They bring in some Afro-American business leaders to talk to them, to show them there is hope.
"We want to get kids from areas where we can do the most good -- Druid Hill Park, Madison Avenue, Whitelock Street. If we can bring some of those kids out, let them find out the game is fun and then show them they can have real success by supplying their own intellect, we think we can have a very positive impact."
Armstrong, a former Howard High School soccer star, says kids need role models in soccer. He points to Michael Jordan in basketball and Bo Jackson in baseball and football.
"They are physical presences who these kids look at and can see that they look like them," Armstrong says. "There haven't been any African-American role models in this sport, and that's a void I hope to fill. Cameroon made an impression in the World Cup, but most of these inner city kids don't get cable television. They probably don't even know Cameroon exists."
In a step that will make him more familiar to area soccer fans, Armstrong, 26, signed a one-year contract to play for the American Professional Soccer League champion Maryland Bays today. He will continue to play for the U.S. National team and leaves tomorrow for a national team training camp in Bermuda. He will be available for 10 of the Bays' 21 regular-season games.
Armstrong hopes the Soccer Start program in Baltimore can be as successful as the ones operated in Washington and Milwaukee. In D.C., Howard University coach Keith Tucker has about 700 inner city youths playing the game.
Armstrong, who played for the Blast during the 1988-89 season, and Rob Ryerson, another Blast alum, also will be operating soccer camps at Howard County Community College beginning this June.
Anyone wishing to be part of either the inner city program or the soccer camp can contact Armstrong and Ryerson at the Bays office, 301-880-0047, or Butler at Johns Hopkins, 338-7490.