“Let’s do something about it!” There’s no waiting around for someone else to fix things for these guys, they’re taking matters in their own hands — from skiing to raise money for the leprosy-afflicted to rewriting an unbiased history of India and Pakistan; recycling tyres and pushing solar energy to solutions for the hearing impaired and making earthquake relief count. Motherland picks out a bunch of promising superheroes from across the country, determined to light up the world we live in.
When Tejas R, 23 now, visited the Home of Faith orphanage in Bangalore a few years ago, he saw a group of kids playing football with a volleyball, all of them barefoot. The smaller kids were getting repeatedly injured, a few others were sitting on the side looking at the game longingly. Tejas, a competitive-level football player for years himself, captaining the Bangalore and Karnataka junior teams, had some money saved through his freestyle football performances, with which he decided to buy the kids some footballs and jerseys.
“Getting proper shoes for them was very difficult, so I asked around for support. I didn’t get any,” he says. Tejas then took to Facebook, posting on a public group for second-hand materials called Second to None, asking for old football shoes, even if they were worn out, accompanied by a photo of the kids he was collecting these for. Within a week, he managed to get 45 pairs of shoes. This was in 2013, the early days of Sparky Football, a nonprofit football academy that Tejas started in Bangalore to train underprivileged children.
He has 18 kids under his wing today, from the Home of Faith orphanage, between the ages of five and 18. They train at a ground near the orphanage, at the outskirts of the city. (Though it’s a ground only now; originally it was just a piece of barren land, which the kids themselves worked on to make it suitable for football.) The academy isn’t just limited to the mechanics of the game; instead, he wants to help these kids reach their full potential as individuals and assist their personal growth.
He has achieved a (pleasantly) surprising degree of appreciation and success for his coaching ability. Tejas has been accredited by Coaches Across Continents, affiliated with the United Nations, where he applied for a fellowship. They run the Hat-Trick Initiative, a socially relevant programme that, he tells us, is centred around children’s rights, HIV protection, gender equality. He was part of the scholarship programme from Asia in 2015, called the Community Impact Coach, where he travels and trains other coaches. Tejas had known at a remarkably young age — 19 — that he wanted to coach football.
He was studying electrical engineering when, in 2012, he failed a year and got a year off to study. With the extra time on his hands, Tejas travelled across the city, noticing how football was perceived as this sport with no real future; it was a recreational activity more than anything else. He knew then that he wanted to make a difference. “Learning is a never-ending process; your age doesn’t define you.” The coaching culture in the city, even across the country, was flawed in its approach, Tejas felt — “They don’t try to build on the ‘community’ aspect of football,” — which led him to develop a small curriculum of his own, focussing not only on skill or technique but also intangible aspects of sporting culture: sportsmanship, personal growth, development — a “holistic” way. He went to several academies, but no one paid much attention to the elements he wanted to focus on. “I realized that to make a difference, you have to show them something.”
We should point out that Tejas is also an excellent freestyle footballer. It’s an element of the game built entirely around unique creative self-expression, requiring flair, tight close control, advanced skills, and no small degree of imagination — you know, tricks like endlessly juggling the ball around, doing little flips, balancing it on the back of your neck and contorting yourself as the moment dictates: the ‘Samba’ way, if you will. He was working the graveyard shift at a call centre during his time off, while mornings were dedicated to freestyle football. Eventually, he went back to the academies he had approached earlier, this time with a short video clip of his freestyle chops that had received some attention on YouTube (another little victory for the internet?). “They’d forgotten about me, I think, so when I went back, they were like, ‘Wow, you have very good technical skills.’” He managed to land a coaching job, but it didn’t quite pan out the way he’d have liked. The coaches were set in their ways, refusing to acknowledge that there could be another way, not bothering with the curriculum Tejas had devised. So he quit.
Then came a series of football workshops that he conducted, who’s the modules included everything from tying your shoelaces to scoring a goal, as well as incorporating socially relevant elements such as gender equality, environmental concerns, health awareness, and the importance of female role models. Soon after, he set up Sparky Football (www.facebook.com/tejasfootball), which was eventually registered in 2013.
He never did return to complete his engineering course, instead choosing to study psychology, journalism, and literature. Tejas spends considerable time researching the situation in India, travelling across the country, training kids and coaches. He has no plans of expansion at Sparky Football, insisting that he’d rather keep the number limited and manageable, so that he can dedicate his time to the kids he has under his wing instead of branching out. The kids inspire him — he talks to them, spends time with them, interviews them to put out their stories for people to read. “For these kids, it means something in their life. They tell me how it’s given them freedom, given them opportunities. They’re ready to dedicate their life to it. They’re soldiers. The kind of sportsmanship, the critical life experiences… they have the gratitude, they never take anything for granted,” he says.