A few years ago, when I moved to Pune, my friend introduced me to Ajay Jojo who was a teacher (as part of the Teach For India Fellowship) at a low-income school called Pandit Dindayal EMS, in Kothrud. He told me about how he started football training with 20 students who were interested in the game and then the Just For Kicks program was introduced at the school. Being a fan of the sport, I was invited to a friendly game where apart from the adults including Ajay, his tiny trainees were there too. Like most people, I did not think that this bunch of 8-year-olds would be able to keep up. But though they struggled, the boys did not lack commitment. They challenged every ball and left a lasting first impression on me. This translated into Ajay getting me involved with training the boys, which meant waking up at 4 AM and driving to Kothrud. Much to my amazement, each and every boy had shown up before I did!
All that practice paid off at the School Football Championship, a national league co-organized by Just For Kicks, being the perfect platform to display their talent. They signed up and ended up winning the Junior Boys Category in their first year! That was the inception of the Kothrud Wolves. Their talent was apparent, team spirit palpable.
Today, they are 3-time consecutive Champions of SFC Pune. Averaging 16 goals per game, over the past 3 years – the Kothrud Wolves are the top U12 team in the JFK program and at par with some of the top teams in the city from affluent backgrounds. The girls’ team has already won SFC in their first year of participation. They train with the boys, gender not being a barrier when it comes to sport. As incredible as their achievements are, this story is not about their football. It is about the change that has come about through the game – in their school, homes, and communities.
A major part of the mindset shift seen at Pandit Dindayal is due to the undying investment of the parents. Having seen the positive changes in their children because of football, all parents naturally respect and trust the game for the difference it brings about in their daily lives. Parents of the U12 Boys and Girls teams are contributing to transport costs to give their kids competitive match exposure. They talk to each other, encourage involvement, and look at all the other team members as extended family. Parents are supportive of reducing unnecessary tuition classes, in favour of a little more time on the field. That in itself is immense; it represents a belief in sport. As a consequence of this trust, 100% of students on the team are performing above average in the classroom while 50% of them are toppers!
For all of the above to happen within the structure of a functional school, the principal had to be onboard. Ms. Elizabeth Kakade has been actively driving the Just For Kicks program at her school and has been motivated by the clear correlation between football sessions and classroom leadership. She has watched with pride as the Kothrud Wolves have lifted the SFC Pune Trophy 3 years in a row and bears witness to how students in the KG and 1st grade look up at the Kothrud Wolves, waiting to emulate them in the coming years.
These boys are evidence that applying the basic principles such as hard work and perseverance make anything is possible. This was apparent when Samrat, our team captain, was selected to come to England and train with Crystal Palace. A boy whose family had never travelled overseas had the chance to walk shoulder to shoulder with some of the best in the world. He brought back not only memories for himself but also stories of possibilities for his team to dream big and turn them into reality someday.
The glue that binds and validates everyone’s effort is football. When you walk through the school today, you notice how every single child knows what football is. It’s part of the school’s identity. The six boys who created the Wolf Pack still continue to practice four to six hours every day. They train on-ground, watch sports videos and international football matches, and engage in team discussions. Already stars in their own right, the Kothrud Wolves are just getting started.
Everyone wants to play. And because of the efforts of a school and an entire community, boys and girls alike, everyone does play.
Watch the Kothrud Wolves story here: