"San Quentin, I hate every inch of you," screams Johnny Cash on his return to the most famous prison in the USA.
Nervously humming that tune, myself, and 11 other wide-eyed Bay Area men entered the fortress that is known as San Quentin Correctional facility. Armed only with the wits our mothers gave us, our soccer gear and our ID’s, we passed through the iron gates and sally ports and entered a world so foreign we could have passed through a portal to another universe. The guards greeted us all in an efficient but friendly manner, some even stopping to make a funny comment or two about how good the San Quentin team is.
Not sure what to expect, the images of many a prison movie flashed through our collective minds, Shawshank Redemption, Cool hand Luke, The Longest Yard.
Which would we experience?
Led down the narrow prison pathways, hemmed in by the yellowing walls and Halloween orange bricks, by their outside soccer coach, Jim Campbell, a modern Scottish pied piper, we followed him blindly, turned a corner and came face to face with every free mans nightmare, the prison yard. After we had got over the initial shock, we gazed around taking in as much as we could; savoring and remembering every part of the experience. The size of the yard, the Everest-like walls scrapping the dark clouds that scudded by. Then there it was before us, the forbidding, hallowed turf of San Quentin soccer field, a green oasis in the middle of concrete and brick.
We went past the exercise area where the inmates did their sit-ups and pull ups, no weight lifting anymore and more surprising, no smoking, the two staples of prison life. Then on past the basketball courts that lay alongside the tennis court and the horseshoe tossing pit.
Keeping our heads down we stepped on to the pitch and there to greet us was Billy. Muscle shirt, torn cut off sweat pants and a grin from ear to ear. It was like meeting an old friend. He held out his hand and gave mine a tremendous shake. He and his team were so happy to see us, to be out of lock down and about to begin a soccer game they had eagerly anticipated for weeks. We met some of the other team members and after they gave us a few balls we started our warm up in the opposite goal. Surrounding the field were other inmates, either watching the game or keeping themselves busy, playing guitar, chatting amongst themselves or just walking the dusty perimeter of the pitch.
We had been reassured, after we had gotten the "No hostage negotiation policy" talk that if the prisoners receive any yellow or red cards that it will go against their prison record and add to their sentence. There was no need to worry about that as they played the game in the best spirit I have seen in many years of playing in Marin.
The game started promptly at 1pm. The first 5 or ten minutes saw our team, The Pikers, play a nervous game but then as the first tackles came and shots were exchanged on each goal the walls began to recede, the people surrounding the field became regular spectators, the opposition became exactly that, the opposition, and finally the sun came out and we we’re doing it, playing soccer in San Quentin.
The first half was paced to the melancholy notes an unseen trumpeter played, floating down, heavy, from some unseen nook or cranny. The pace of the game quickened as a heavy rock band practicing from the same undisclosed location in the prison replaced the trumpeter. The final score was 4-2 to us, much to the delight of the African-American contingency in the crowd, as the San Quentin team was 90% Hispanic. The score did not reflect the way both teams had played and a draw would have been a fair result. With the game over both teams shook hands at center field. Billy leading his troops, James was next who had missed a penalty which had brought great roars from the crowd, next Steve from Belize with his infectious grin and so on. There in the middle of San Quentin’s notorious yard stood 12 not so innocent men from the Bay Area, arrived in that place via Ireland, the UK, Hawaii, and other far flung places, standing side by side with people from Belize, Mexico, Honduras and we all looked the same; tired, sweaty, covered with in field dust and slapping each other on the backs saying "great game", "we’ll see you again". And we will. The next game is scheduled for November 5th, Guy Fawkes night, another famous prison story.
As we left, Johnny Cash’s words still echoed in me. He may still hate every inch of San Quentin, but maybe if he kicked the old leather ball a bit, he might say there’s a piece of it that’s alright.
That 50 x 100 feet of green grass and infield dirt brought a great experience to these 12 guy’s and hopefully a respite away from the monotony of everyday life to a few guys from Belize, Mexico, Honduras or what ever other corner of the globe they came from.
I highly recommend to any Marin/Bay Area teams to get in touch with Ron or Jim (www.marinsoccer.com) and participate in a life changing experience, and if that doesn’t materialize at least you’ll get a great game of soccer out of it. Thanks to Jim Campbell, who trains the SQ team, to Ron Lavi of the Marin Soccer league for getting us together with Jim and for running the MSL for many years. To the warden and staff of San Quentin for allowing us to play. And finally to all those inside who gave us much more than a soccer game but a new approach to the way we look at the big house by the bay.
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