"We're as about as grassroots as you can get."
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Welcome back to the Pyramid ladies and gentlemen! I hope your ready for some new reading, 'cause this interview is a special one.
Now, today's interview features Don Smith of Blackbird United. They are a Club team based in Mississippi, that has one of the saddest, yet most uplifting founding stories you'll ever encounter in soccer anywhere. I don't want to give any more away, so check it out.
Welcome Don, Let's start with you telling me about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with Blackbird United.
I'm Don Smith, founder and manager of Blackbird FC . It's a long winding road to this place starting with my involvement with the game at William Carey university about 20 years ago where I was enrolled as an art student . The studios were close to the practice fields and I would go over after painting and watch and run after loose balls for some exercise I became friends with some of the players and they would let me play with them sometime. This team just happened to be an incredible group that was nationally ranked with a future World Cup player and some other pros and now coaches at major programs. I was a good athlete myself but this was my first exposure to soccer.
Anyway, I was hooked after this and eventually got a job teaching art at a rural high school where soccer was not popular and even looked down upon. I was asked to help coach mostly because nobody else care about or knew anything about the sport. I on the other hand became totally in to it and started taking coaching courses and working to develop the program and with a hand full of other people eventually made the program respectful after being the laughing stock of the district (even had to use girls on the boys team because there weren't enough players).
Near the end of my coaching career there one of my players, Chris Dreibergen, died in a car accident before his senior year. He was taking care of an injured blackbird the week before the accident which was typical of his character as he was always mindful of other people and creatures. After his death on numerous occasions a single blackbird would appear at times at practice or games and remind not only me but his family of his presence.
When my coaching career was finished I wanted to create a way for good players to keep playing after school careers and for me to be involved I just put together a team of the best players I could find and started getting games with anybody that would play us. We're not a business, don't belong to a league or anything, and I bought the jerseys with my own money. The only thing that keeps this together is the love of the game and Chris's memory.
Wow. That's an incredible origin story for the team. Where exactly is William Carey University?
The main campus is in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and that is where the soccer team is based now but ( this is another incredible story) it used to be in Gulfport, MS right on the beachfront in what was an old military academy. The place was completely destroyed by hurricane Katrina. It looked like somebody drove a tank through all the buildings and completely smashed everything but that isn't why the team moved to Hattiesburg. It was another horrible car accident. A drunk driver plowed into a car full of soccer players and a young female player from Ireland was killed. The school decided to bring the team to the home campus with all the other sports. Carey on the coast was almost a magical place like Camelot and like Camelot there is not a trace of it left except memories.
That's incredible, for multiple reasons. It's amazing, hearing the stories that come out the lower leagues. Back to Blackbird United. How'd you come up with the logo and colors?
That went through some changes as well. At first I played around with a normal blackbird but it didn't look very inspiring, so I started digging through older and older blackbird icons and arrived at this sort of Middle Ages/Scottish sort of bird which I'm probably gonna get cleaned up a bit more with a graphic artist. I just looked at pro team kits and kind of liked how Dortmund uses black and yellow so I started going with that although there's nothing written in stone. The actual badge I got done on http://fiver.com for $5.00
Fair enough, all logos start somewhere. Personally, I like the current one, it's a good, clean look. How exactly does Blackbird function as a competitive team right now? Do you have a league you play in, or are you still looking for one?
We're not in a league, we just try and get games with anybody who will play us. We've played college teams, Hispanic league teams, and bigger teams like Birmingham Hammers and have a game coming up with Louisiana Fire, as well as indoor tournaments. We just won a regional 6v6 indoor tourney.
That's pretty cool, time to start a trophy cabinet, right?
Ha , yep.
It's got to start sometime that thing is shiny! Let's circle back real quick. Are you looking to get Blackbird into a league for more consistent play? And more trophies, of course.
That would be good but of course it always comes down to money which I have very little of.
Understood. What do you hope this team can become in, say, 5 years?
The area I'm in is a logical location for a pro soccer team. There is a new minor league baseball stadium in Biloxi which could host a soccer season by using off season time, or one of the many casinos around here could back the team and even build a stadium right on the beach. A sponsor or angel investor or fans could make it happen or not, then we'd be stuck in first gear forever or till players get tired of doing this. We've built a good team in a good area, the end of this story is yet to be written.
That's a good point, the end of the story is still wide open. Have you considered doing something backed by supporters, like Nashville FC has done?
I'm not sure what Nashville FC is doing but am aware that fan ownership is popular in other countries.
Would be worth checking out. There's a website called Supporters Trust, based out of the U.K, that would be worth checking out. All about fan ownership. I'll have an article on them coming out later this spring. What does the soccer scene look in Mississippi? I know from talking with guys in Alabama and Louisiana it's a little sparse in their sections of the south.
It's sparse at the upper levels. Most of the activity is at youth level. For a good game I go to William Carey games. The community college soccer is pretty healthy also. There are no D1 soccer programs for men, but women do have teams at the major universities, Ole Miss even made it to the top 16 this year. Jackson has a PDL team, Mississippi Brilla. Other than that it's clubs and pickup games. And then there's us.
So there's definitely some room for growth and improvement then?
Definitely room for growth.
What's the next step you hope to take as a team at Blackbird?
The next thing we have to do is have a practice game or two before we play the Louisiana Fire. That means I have to find somebody to play and get all the birds to show up.
Is it safe to say that Blackbird is still very much grassroots soccer?
Yep, we're as about as grassroots as you can get.
Nothing wrong with grassroots at all. You've got to start somewhere right? Ready for some shorter, rapid fire questions?
What's your favorite book?
I thought you said this was gonna be the easy part. The last book I read besides parts of the Bible was Raventross which was given to me in a pub where I was playing music by a pilot and author. I thought it was probably not good mainly because he just gave it to me but when I started reading it I couldn't stop. It was really good. I normally don't have time for fiction but should probably make time.
Nothing wrong with some good fiction from time to time. Favorite players, one past, one present.
Hard to boil those down to two but Pele in the past and Ronaldo present.
Good picks. Do you have a favorite soccer podcast or book?
Well I guess it's AmericanPyramid I've been getting good information out of not only this interview but what I have read so far. Didn't realize what a valuable resource this could be especially for a club so far away from the centers of power in soccer.
Glad I can be of service. Last question for you. Why do you think it's important for people to get out there and support the lower level teams in American Soccer?
Just like plants and kids and everything else soccer needs nourishing to grow and even just showing up to games and showing some love or even talking about it on Twitter does have an impact.
Excellent point. Don, thanks for taking the time to do this. I believe what you're doing with Blackbird is really important, and hope for nothing but the best as you move forward. If you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, I'd encourage you to click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. And if you'd like even more content coming your way on the regular, click here and sign up for the weekly newsletter, containing fun articles and videos, sometimes covering soccer, sometimes not. Make sure to spread the word. Share interviews, tell friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.