Soccer turns SR homeless man's life around

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The woman stared at the stranger standing in the middle of her living room in Rohnert Park.

"What are you doing in my house?" she asked.

"I don't know," said Cornelius "Corey" Bracy Jr.

The woman wouldn't have guessed this stranger with the vacant eyes had starred for four years as the goalkeeper for Cardinal Newman High School.

Or that he had played well at the same position for the Santa Rosa United soccer club. Or that he was an up-and-coming soccer player at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

But in spring 2006, the 24-year old standing there was someone quite different. An alcoholic. A drug addict. A homeless person who slept many nights on the bench at a San Francisco transit mall or in cars or on couches, clean or otherwise. A man-child very much on the fringes of society and of life, he was so whacked-out that night . . . "that I really don't remember why I was there," he said.

Bracy was convicted of felony burglary. He spent 6? months in jail and was given probation for the next 2? years. He entered drug rehab.

Last February, nearly two years later, Bracy was still struggling, and staying at the Redwood Gospel Mission in Santa Rosa.

"Who can play soccer?" Julius Ujeh of Forestville asked the roomful of homeless. Ujeh is from Nigeria, was once a very good European pro soccer player, was once the liaison officer for the Nigerian women at the 1999 World Cup. He talked about assembling a soccer team, something about the Homeless World Cup and that left everyone confused. No matter. He had little expectations.

Bracy raised his hand.

"I played for Santa Rosa United," he said.

Ujeh was amused and didn't believe it.

"Santa Rosa United? It's one of the best club programs in the nation," Ujeh said. "Sometimes people like to play the big man, to look good in front of others. So I decide to push this guy a little bit. I ask him who his coach was."

Bracy's reply: "Paul Dixon."

Ujeh perked up. The next day, at a tryout, Ujeh really perked up.

"Why aren't you playing professional?" Ujeh asks Bracy.

Bracy hasn't become a pro, but he is doing something much more gratifying.

He is one of eight players who will be representing the United States in the sixth annual Homeless World Cup to be played Dec. 1 to 7 in Melbourne, Australia.

Yes, you read the words correctly: Homeless World Cup.

"I thought it was a joke when I first heard of it," Ujeh said.

"I laughed when he told me," Bracy said.

Seems like a mutually exclusive phrase: Homeless World Cup. A soccer World Cup, by any definition, has dependable participants with near-obsessive commitments to eating, sleeping and exercising properly.

The homeless lack good nutrition, fixed addresses, hygiene, discipline and, most obviously, a weekly exercise routine.

It's like Melbourne hosting the sixth annual Couch Potato Marathon.

"But I saw a video on the Homeless World Cup and it really changed my mind," Ujeh said. "Seventy-seven percent of the players claimed soccer gave them a motivation to turn their life around."

Forty-eight countries will compete in Melbourne. It's a street form of soccer, a speed game played on pavement with four players to a side and seven-minute halves.

Ujeh found 17 homeless soccer players from around Sonoma County through shelters and the like. He eventually formed a team of eight and called it "San Francisco" because it was the only organized homeless team in Northern California.

The team traveled to Washington for a June 27 to 29 competition. Of the 188 players that played, Bracy was one of eight selected to represent the United States.

To say Bracy is a bit overwhelmed doesn't begin to address the emotions he is feeling, having gone in just two short years from drugged-out burglar to a clean-and-sober representative of the United States in international athletic competition. Two years doesn't seem like a short time, but it is in comparison to the seven years it took Bracy to hit bottom.

"You hit bottom when you stop digging," said Bracy, 6-feet, 190 pounds.

What was he digging for?

"A treasure that wasn't there," said Bracy, son of a Baptist preacher. "I was digging for a big break. Something easy."

While in jail for those 6? months, Bracy said he started to remember when his life wasn't a maelstrom, when he wasn't homeless and invisible, when people noticed, when he felt he had worth.

"When I had good days," Bracy said. "When I had a home." And then he saw what was around him in jail.

"I saw all the death and the disease," Bracy said, "and I said: 'This is not me. This is not the future I want. I was raised better than this.' I had let my ego and my pride get in the way. I felt I could just will something to happen. I couldn't. I had to learn how to be humble and that it was OK to be humble."

That took much work to unlearn and detach from seven years of habits.

"I was a pothead and I drank too much," Bracy said of his time at Newman. He graduated in 2000 "just barely" with a 2.01 GPA, he said. By the time he dropped out of Howard in 2001, Bracy was a bullet train heading downhill.

"Coke," said Bracy, as he began listing his drugs. "Ecstasy. Pot. Crystal meth; that one got me into a lot of trouble. Speed. I smoked heroin a couple of times. I guess I did just about every drug, except PCP."

He would stay awake for days on end; three days was his longest stint. He had a beat-up Jeep Cherokee that served as his flophouse when the bench at the Transit Mall wasn't available. For most of three years, Bracy was homeless.

"Up-and-down," he said of his life. "All the time."

He would rotate dirty socks, shirts, underwear. When asked if he had a beard, he said, "I just tried to conceal my face from anyone seeing it. I was embarrassed."

Today, Bracy is well-spoken, clean, polite and painfully honest.

"Thirteen months and 18 days," Bracy said. That's how long he has been clean and sober. He goes to AA meetings three or four times a week. He once had to check in with his probation officer weekly; now it's every three weeks or so. He is living with his uncle Dave Delao in Santa Rosa and working as an electrician's apprentice. With the other seven members of America's homeless soccer team scattered throughout the country, Bracy works out by himself three days a week. He is not on the team by default.

"In the 20 years that I coached boys' soccer at Newman," said retired teacher John Curran, "there was only one other goalie of Corey's caliber. That was Joe Dillon, who went on to play professional baseball.

"He was an exceptional goalie. He really was. We played in Europe one summer, and the Scottish national coach just raved about Corey. I really liked the kid."

More importantly, Corey is starting to like Corey. He is clearing away the cobwebs. He is emerging. He doesn't have all the answers, but he does have all the questions. He may try to hook on with the Santa Rosa Sol, an elite adult club soccer team.

He describes being an electrician as his passion and soccer as his first love.

"I feel so good about my life right now," he said. "It's important for me to remember where I was, but I am really excited to think about where I am going."

For more on North Bay high school sports, go to Staff Columnist Bob Padecky's blog at padecky@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5490

or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.

com.

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