‘We’re equals on this playing field’: Republic FC squares off with Folsom Prison inmates

On a dirt soccer field in the shadow of Folsom State Prison’s stern gray walls, inmates faced off with pro staffers from Sacramento’s Republic FC team Tuesday evening.

Inmates say they eagerly anticipate the monthly matches, which began in May and pit representatives of the professional team against prisoners with an interest in soccer and athletic abilities, Republic FC communications manager Omar Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who took part in the match, said he was pleasantly surprised by the skill level of the inmates, who play on teams made up of fellow prisoners and Republic staff.

Rick Hill, the warden of the prison, said many of the inmates who play with Republic staff were fans of the team who have watched their games on TV in their cells, and were immensely grateful for the opportunity to join them on the field in what he characterized as a mutual learning experience.

Prisoners, Hill said, benefit from the feeling of camaraderie with community members while Republic FC staff get to take a glimpse into prison life, which he said is often misconstrued in media.

“Most of these guys are getting out at some point,” Hill said. “The last thing we want to do is alienate them from their communities and make it difficult for them to transition when their time finally comes and this is one tool that we have to make that transition happen, make it more easy.”

Kelvin Chapman, an inmate at Folsom Prison, said he and the other inmates — many of whom have experience in college or even semi-professional soccer — look forward to the challenge of hosting matches with the team and men in the yard discuss the match from morning until game time.

“It’s actually like Christmas,” Chapman said. “Any time we can have a professional team come from outside to play us in here, its always an honor.”

Josh Steele, an inmate who played at last month’s match as well, said it was an incredible experience to have played side-by-side with Simon Elliott, Republic FC’s head coach who played for New Zealand in the 2010 World Cup.

“I was high on life for two or three days afterward,” Steele said.

Steele said inmates eagerly await the team’s return from the day they leave to the day they show up the following month. The match this week was the sixth so far.

Kama Liu, an inmate, said bringing in Republic staff boosted the level of the game, increasing passing and communication between players.

Liu acknowledged Republic staff had to make sacrifices to play at the prison, taking time away from family and friends to support the prisoners.

“I was just seeing these guys on TV and now they’re here and I’m playing with them,” Liu said. “For me it’s special. There’s not enough words to say thank you because that’s how much it means to me, to play with these guys.”

Villyan Bijev, Republic FC’s left winger, coached one of the teams during the match, as the team’s players do not play with the prisoners themselves.

Gonzalez said it was “humbling” to play with men who do not have the privileges most people take for granted.

Inmates have told him they were motivated and inspired by seeing people from the outside world taking an interest in them, Gonzalez said.

“From the get-go, we’re equals on this playing field — that’s the beauty and power of the sport,” Gonzalez said. “The soccer ball doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t see color, it doesn’t see religion or race. Out here we’re all the same and its a very beautiful thing to be able to experience that.”

Republic FC plans to continue visiting Folsom State Prison once a month for the foreseeable future, according to Gonzalez.