Customs officials couldn’t have known it when they checked Unique Torres’ passport Friday on her way to Glasgow, Scotland, but that little booklet declared so much more than simply her U.S. citizenship.
Torres told me that she spent a year working to get the document, the only thing holding her back from competing in the Homeless World Cup games that begin Sunday in Scotland’s largest city. The event brings together national soccer teams of homeless men and women who have encouraged one another to overcome setbacks such as abuse and addiction and to establish healthy, positive relationships.
A survivor of domestic abuse, Torres has played midfield with Sacramento’s Lady Salamanders for two years. She and her 25 teammates, many of them mothers, live in transitional housing around the region as they work toward diplomas, develop life skills, get employment counseling and struggle to leave behind temptations from their pasts.
Being part of the team has “helped me in making better decisions,” said Torres, 30. “It’s like you have people depending on you when you go on the field, so I keep that in the back of my mind. Definitely, just being accountable to somebody makes me make better choices. When you don’t have anyone to answer to, you can do whatever you want, and then when you do what you want, you sometimes follow the wrong path.”
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Sixteen cities across the United States have programs affiliated with the nonprofit Street Soccer USA, but only a handful have women-only teams. Street Soccer Sacramento is one of them. Lisa Wrightsman, a former Sacramento State soccer player, said she founded the Lady Salamanders in 2010 after her experience playing with the Sacramento Mohawks, a soccer team composed of homeless men. Her life, she said, had spun out of control because of a drug addiction and she ended up in a 12-step program and transitional housing.
“Probably one of the reasons I didn’t want to get sober for so long was that if I did all that work and there was no happiness on the other side of it, what’s the point?” Wrightsman said. “But I had fun playing street soccer in the most unexpected ways. The guys weren’t good. It didn’t resemble anything formal that I was used to. It was just a patch of grass. It was the first time since being sober that I had fun just running around, so that was significant. It reminded me that I had loved something before I had loved drugs and alcohol.”
Before she started the Lady Salamanders, Wrightsman was invited to compete in Rio de Janeiro on the first U.S. women’s national team to participate in a Homeless World Cup event, she said. The experience left her wishing she could give other women in transitional living the same opportunity. She returned from Brazil and expanded the reach of street soccer to local women that same year.
One of the secrets to the Street Soccer USA program, Torres said, is the check-in. It’s a moment before soccer practice begins when players share what percentage they feel like they’re functioning at, what’s going on in their lives, what their goals are for the next week. The team scrimmages mostly at Roosevelt Park and Mather Sports Centers, though practices are held elsewhere around town.
“When you have check-ins, like we do, and when you have practices two or three times week, you think about that in your outside life,” Torres said. “You think, ‘Well, I’m going to have a check-in in a few days. They really care, and they’re going to ask me about my life. Am I making the right decisions for the people who care about me?’ ”
More than that, though, Torres said, the team has allowed her to build a network of people she trusts. While not everyone comes to all the same scrimmages, she said, they learn to find a rhythm with the people who do. Street soccer alumni often come and practice with the team, even though they have left transitional housing.
“They definitely have been a reason why I’ve become so strong in my decisions to stick through with what is right for me and my children,” Torres said. “I’m no longer alone. I used to say, ‘If he (her ex-boyfriend) decided to kill me today, he would get away with it because no one would know that I was missing. No one would know I was gone.’ Now I’ve built this circle of trust, and they’ll know if something is wrong.”
Torres, who played soccer for a few years as a teenager, said she learned about the Lady Salamanders when a team member spotted her on her apartment patio at Serna Village in McClellan Park and invited her to a practice. She immediately attended the scrimmage, anxious to return to a sport she had loved before having her first child.
She discovered that Wrightsman, the director of Street Soccer Sacramento, and Tiffany Fraser, the organization’s head coach, had created an environment where women felt welcome no matter how many practices they were able to attend. That’s very intentional, Wrightsman said, because the players are at a point in their lives where they need to be recognized and validated.
“When I was at the transitional living with the Volunteers of America Mather community,” Wrightsman said, “there were like 20 women in there. We all ended up in there because we had shattered our lives, and the first thing they say is how much they don’t like other women. It’s crazy to me. They just have never had an opportunity to interact with other women in a positive way. Coming out of sports, that was not a problem for me, so that was weird to hear when we had nothing. What could we possibly want to fight over?”
Torres told me that, after years of living with domestic abuse, her friends and family had lost hope that she would ever leave the situation. One day, a neighbor heard her screams and those of her daughter, and they called 911. Police came and arrested her boyfriend, a familiar scene at their apartment, she said. One officer later returned and persuaded Torres to call WEAVE by telling her that she was beautiful, that her children were beautiful and that she could start her life over again.
With counseling, she said, she discovered what had motivated her to tolerate the abuse. She is working to earn her GED and now says she is ready for a job. The Lady Salamanders helped with that journey, she said, because she learned at check-in to look other players in the eye and to accept encouragement.
“They got me right at the best time,” she said. “I didn’t have time to mess up my life again or make bad choices. I was on the upswing. ... That was two years ago. That’s how I became involved.”
Last year, the Street Soccer USA coaches invited Torres to play on the national team at the Homeless World Cup in Amsterdam, she said. She couldn’t believe she would be going overseas to an event that attracted teams from more than 50 nations. She applied for a passport and even went to the State Department offices in San Francisco with a leader of Street Soccer USA to expedite it, but she discovered that the circumstances of her birth would complicate that process.
Torres is the daughter of self-proclaimed messiah Jose Frank Tafoya, convicted in the early 1980s of one of the largest fraud schemes in New Mexico history. Court documents stated that Torres’ grandmother abetted Tafoya and helped him to hold her own daughters as lovers. Torres, like her other siblings, was born off the grid and their births were never reported to a hospital.
“I have a delayed birth certificate,” she said. “It was issued through the state of California, but I was actually born in Oklahoma. But I wasn’t born in a hospital. I didn’t receive my birth certificate until I was about 11. I was in foster care, and they got it for me.”
Her bags were packed for the trip to Amsterdam, but when the State Department required Torres to supply more documents to affirm her citizenship, she couldn’t get them in time for the trip.
“You think you have put your past behind you and you can move forward,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m alive. The woman I am today contradicts my past. I should be totally whacked out. For some reason, I’m not. I was crying at the (passport agency) window, ‘You don’t understand. I’m me. I’m here.’ I just realized that my past is still affecting me, my future, my goals and the things I feel I deserve.”
Over the past year, she has received encouragement and assistance in her campaign from not only Fraser and Wrightsman but also from public relations guru and soccer lover Cassandra Pye and U.S. Rep. Ami Bera. All went to bat for Torres so she could join two of her teammates – Jessica Adams and Jennifer Schapira – on this year’s U.S. national women’s team at the Homeless World Cup. Fraser and Wrightsman coach the team.
A few weeks ago, Torres said, she got a call from the office at her apartment complex: Something had come for her in the mail. She flew down the stairs, opened the envelope. There was her U.S. passport.