Face of Defense: Teaching young athletes to ‘Unite and Believe’

Army Pfc. Joel Ramirez, a Maryland Army National Guard Soldier assigned to the 29th Military Police Company, poses for a photo at Ballenger Creek Park in Frederick, Md., Oct. 6, 2021.

The soccer field has been a place of serenity for Army Pfc. Joel Ramirez since he was a young boy.

“There’s something about those lights, the turf, when you walk on; it’s like everything goes away,” said Ramirez, a soldier with the Maryland Army National Guard’s 29th Military Police Company. “It’s peaceful because all that matters is you, the ball, your team and the game.”

Seeing the fields he’s played on since childhood stand empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic inspired Ramirez to start Skyline City Club de Futbol to give young athletes who have lost their passion for soccer a space to play again.

Beyond winning

Ramirez, the father of two boys, says kids generally quit soccer because “their coach or their parent or the club owner is too hard. … They don’t teach them the fundamentals, they just teach them to win, win, win. That’s everyone’s mindset everywhere I’ve played, you win or you’re not a good player.”

He hopes to help change the culture around soccer in his hometown of Frederick, Maryland, and establish a respected soccer club that goes against the grain of turning away players who don’t meet certain height and weight criteria.

“I wanted to basically give chances to the kids that never got the chance or … will get to that chance and they’ll get turned away because they didn’t meet those strict categories,” Ramirez said.

Aside from this, Ramirez recognizes even the best players may face financial barriers that prevent them from playing, and he aims to provide kids who may not be able to afford it with the opportunity to play.

“That’s why I started this,” said Ramirez. “I want to get to a point where, as an owner, I’m able to pay for my players to play for me.”

Soccer, he said, is about unity. “Our motto is ‘unite and believe,’ which means unite the community and then have every player that’s on a team believe they can make it to the next level.”

Drill Sergeant Coach

Kicking skills up a notch requires discipline, something Ramirez is well acquainted with through his military service.

“I used to be that guy who didn’t have discipline on the field,” said Ramirez. “I was basically angry all the time, losing, and then [joining] the military helped me open my eyes, like, ‘Hey, it’s not just about you.’ That’s one thing I’m drilling into my player’s heads.”

Understanding the importance of self discipline is what inspired Ramirez — known as “drill sergeant coach” by his players — to join the National Guard.

Motivated by a childhood of bonding with his mother over crime dramas, Ramirez initially set out to become a police officer. His first attempt at the entrance exam was not successful, but the process introduced him to numerous veterans and National Guard members also trying to get into the police academy. Their discipline encouraged him to enlist in the military instead.

“I knew serving would help me with my discipline and help me grow as a man, as I am now,” Ramirez said.

“I joined the Army to serve and to grow myself and my family. … A lot of people told me when you join the military, it’s a brotherhood, a family, and I’m big on family.”

Demonstrating discipline

Ramirez joined the Guard in 2020, and quickly had the opportunity to demonstrate his character and work ethic on a critical mission: supporting Maryland’s COVID-19 response. The mission brought him to the Wicomico Civic Center testing site in Salisbury, Maryland, where his unit wore many hats each day.

Members of the Maryland National Guard work alongside health care professionals at the mass vaccination site at the Wicomico Civic Center in Salisbury, Md., March 18, 2021. Photo by Sgt. Allen Griffith

“Some of us were on guard duty, some of us were the first person you saw when you walked in,” said Ramirez, who works as a security guard when not activated. “Some of us were actually with the nurses.”

Regardless of the task, Ramirez worked with diligence and enthusiasm.

“He’s very good with direction,” said Army Spc. Jordan Jackson, a light-wheeled vehicle mechanic for the 29th Military Police Company. “The quality of his work is very good.”

Family feeling

As he continues to grow, Ramirez is also looking to expand his soccer club into a multi-sport organization in 2022.

For him, the same bonds that connect a military unit also make a great sports team.

“Every day when we break out, we always say ‘family’ because that’s what we are now,” he said. “You can’t be the best team if you’re not close together.”