Until yesterday, Tiffany Chisholm had never played with a soccer ball, but the 11-year-old from Northwood Recreation Center seemed to be catching on fast.
"Anybody can kick a ball and do the tricks they teach us," she said as she kicked her ball along with nearly 300 other youths from recreation centers in Baltimore who joined soccer pro Desmond Armstrong at Druid Hill Park yesterday for a soccer clinic.
Most of the children said they never had heard of Armstrong, and only a few ever had played soccer. But for a T-shirt, soccer ball, lunch and a chance to swim in the park pool, the group of 6- to 12-year-olds was willing to be patient long enough for Armstrong to make his pitch.
It's a familiar pitch to anyone who knows Armstrong.
He is convinced that soccer is a sport in which blacks can and should compete, which is why he holds clinics in areas where the sport has had little or no exposure. Last summer, he held his first clinic in Boston. "The kids didn't know who I was, but they have a league running now," he said.
"Any athlete can play, and the beauty of it is it's been coined as the poor man's game," said Armstrong. "You can play it in the streets. I just got back from Brazil, where the kids play in the streets with trash cans and little round things that aren't balls. The same thing can happen here. The sport has to be exposed."
For Armstrong, 26, the exposure came when his family moved from Hyattsville to Wheaton and then to Columbia, the area's soccer hotbed. Armstrong was a standout at Howard High and went on to star at Maryland, earning All-Atlantic Coast Conference three times.
He played for the United States in the 1990 World Cup and the 1988 Olympics. He also played for the Cleveland Force and the Baltimore Blast of the Major Soccer League and is a member of the Maryland Bays and the U.S. National team.
"If I hadn't moved to the suburbs, I may have never been exposed to the sport until high school," said Armstrong.
Yesterday's clinic, sponsored by Mars/Milky Way and Umbro, was just a one-day affair, but Armstrong is taking steps to make sure the soccer balls don't end up in closets or as substitute basketballs on city playgrounds.
The clinic was geared toward teaching the children soccer skills in a familiar atmosphere. Armstrong used kickball to teach the children.
"We want to take it to the streets, to the neighborhoods, tie off the streets and maybe do three-one-three games, but, first, we have to get out and introduce the sport," said Armstrong. "If we get 300 kids interested, maybe we can retain some of them and maybe come back and run a league. Soccer's going to get more exposure the next three or four years with the World Cup coming in 1994. This is just a start."