Soccer for smiles

Mike Mitchell, Project Play

Photo By vic cantu

Chico State alumnus Mike Mitchell has a dream of bringing happiness to the poor African nation of Niger—a landlocked country bordered by Algeria to the north and Nigeria to the south—by way of sports. Most Nigeriens adore soccer but are so poor they have never played with a real soccer ball. So Mitchell—who studied physical fitness at Chico State while playing on the men’s soccer team—founded Project Play, an organization dedicated to sending soccer balls (nearly 4,000 so far) to children in Niger and other African countries. Mitchell, who has played and coached the sport for decades and now calls Brazil home, got the idea for Project Play while working on his master’s thesis at Chico State. He was joined in his venture by other Chicoans, too, including David Stahl, owner of Off the Wall and founder of the Chico Rooks soccer team. For more on Project Play, log on to

How did you get the idea to bring soccer balls to Africa?

In 1983 as a Peace Corps volunteer I spent three years in one of the poorest and driest nations on earth, Niger. Before I left a trusted friend urged me to pack soccer balls instead of clothes. When I brought them, the villagers were ecstatic. Their suffering virtually went away. The following year they were hit with their worst drought ever. I almost left, but I saw how soccer created such marvelous unity, friendship and hope, so I stayed.

Is that when Project Play started?

Not quite. A few years later I wrote my master’s thesis at Chico State on the benefits of bringing soccer to impoverished peoples, called, “Project Play: Global Understanding Through Sports.” The chairman of my department said, “This is not a thesis for the bookshelf, this is a thesis to do.” So I shook his hand, said, “I’ll try,” and considered it a solemn pact. A few years later I started Project Play.

How does soccer help these people specifically?

It gives them a sense of purpose and a passion for life. The leagues we set up teach them organization and leadership skills. It’s also a great way to network, like Facebook is to us. Lastly, it’s a great peace maker. If Osama bin Laden were still alive I’d like to have been given the chance to meet with him and tell him, “Put down the gun and let’s play soccer.”

Has the game helped you personally?

Absolutely. When I came back to the U.S. in ’85 I was depressed and had major culture shock. In order to escape I went crazy drinking and partying wildly. Soccer kept me from depression and loneliness. I’m alive today because of soccer.