Playing through pain
Teammate’s death from an apparent fentanyl overdose is a stark reminder of the challenges once-homeless players face off the field
Lisa Wrightsman was about to sit down to a formal dinner in Clarksburg when a text message reminded her what her players are up against.
Wrightsman is the founder and a head coach of the Sacramento Lady Salamanders, a street soccer team made up of women living on the margins of society due to experiences with homelessness and addiction. Those experiences can pinwheel into any number of destabilizing, even devastating, directions, as she was about to re-learn. But before her phone went off, Wrightsman was in the mood to celebrate. After nearly a decade as a source of female bonding and support, the Salamanders were getting their due.
In August, Street Soccer USA, the nonprofit league to which the Salamanders belong, announced it would hold its national tournament this fall in Old Sacramento. The three-day cup brings hundreds of players from across the country to compete on street soccer’s largest national stage. Some will even be selected to play in next month’s Homeless World Cup in Mexico City.
The announcement was a coup for city leaders and a coming-out party for Street Soccer USA’s Sacramento branch. The local program would serve as host for a social enterprise that leverages private donations to fund youth and adult soccer programs for those who can’t afford the pay-to-play leagues. This includes children living below the poverty line, homeless families and people in recovery. The idea behind Street Soccer USA is that by bringing the beautiful game directly to the streets or into transitional housing, players who may be struggling will build important skills to thrive off the field. Wrightsman is the program manager for the Salamanders, the Mohawks men’s team and youth teams.
Days after she joined colleagues, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and others in Old Sacramento for the biggest news in team history, her cellphone buzzed with the worst news a coach can get. It was a text message. It said that Kimberly Joiner, the Salamanders’ former goalie, was lying in a hospital bed possibly without brain activity. She would soon be dead of an apparent suicide.
Steve Mullen is the one who found Joiner’s body. The two met in transitional housing in 2012 and embarked on an on-again, off-again relationship. After their final breakup in 2016, they stayed close, texting and talking frequently. So when more than a day went by with no word from Joiner, Mullen grew worried and went to her Rancho Cordova apartment.
He found Joiner on the bed, cold and unresponsive. She had overdosed on prescription medication and nine fentanyl patches in an apparent suicide attempt. Fentanyl is a high-powered synthetic opioid prescribed to people in extreme pain, and has been blamed for a sharp rise in overdoses around the country. Within a week of Mullen’s discovery, Joiner would be dead.
“Over the years, I worried about this a few times,” he said. “She had physical pain, but I think it was more the emotional and mental scarring that finally did it to her.”
Joiner had struggled for years with chronic pain, ever since being in a car accident in her teens. A few years ago, Mullen said, Joiner had her leg amputated and replaced with a prosthetic in search of relief. She was able to play soccer, but Joiner still hurt—physically and emotionally.
“She was really trying hard to make life less painful,” Wrightsman added.
Players had committed suicide on other Street Soccer teams, Wrightsman said, but this was a first in Sacramento. According to the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, 6 percent of the 124 homeless people who died in the county last year committed suicide, while 36 percent died from alcohol or drug abuse. Those rates are much higher than for Sacramento’s general population.
Joiner’s death opened up a conversation about suicide, as Wrightsman made calls to past and current Salamanders who she thought would be most impacted. She didn’t realize how prevalent suicidal thoughts and attempts were in her circle.
“There was one [woman], she said she tried nine times,” Wrightsman said.
That woman was Michelle Santos.
Santos grew up in Oak Park and began using meth in her late 20s.
Over a decade of substance abuse, she lost her career as a phlebotomist, her three children were split up and she became homeless. In the two years leading up to her decision to go to rehab, she started using intravenous drugs and worked as prostitute on Stockton Boulevard.
In May 2011, she went to rehab and got into Women’s Empowerment, a nine-week program to help women enter or re-enter the workforce. Santos said that program, along with the Lady Salamanders, showed her how to bond with other women and be part of a team.
"[I] didn’t know how to build good relationships with other women until I went there,” she said.
Today, she’s a mental health advocate for Sister Nora’s Place, the branch of Loaves & Fishes that provides long-term shelter to homeless women and children. This year is her third season with Lady Salamanders, an experience that has forced her to be brave on the soccer field and in the air—when the team flew to Philadelphia.
“I thought the plane was coming apart, I was freaking out,” she said, laughing.
Now she’s a little disappointed she won’t be required to travel to the national cup this year—it’s just down the road from her house.
On a Monday night in September, a small group of mostly women sit in a circle on the gymnasium floor at the Oak Park Community Center. They kick off practice with a check-in to share how they’re feeling and what they’re excited about this week. One woman is buying a friend’s car, another has a job interview.
After some gentle teasing and earnest follow-ups, the women break into teams of four. Half the players throw on red jerseys and a game of indoor soccer starts.
This group is a sampling of the 40 or so women who have played with the Salamanders over its eight-year run. Each year, the team is made up of women who are experiencing homelessness or once did. Many cope with addiction and mental illness, and they’ll tell you it can be a lot of drama for one team.
“It’s a little bit like A League of Their Own meets Orange is the New Black,” Wrightsman says with a laugh. “There’s so much dysfunction, but there’s so much respect that it works.”
Wrightsman understands the impact of street soccer. She’d had professional aspirations while playing for Sacramento State, and was living in transitional housing at Volunteers of America Mather Community Campus when she was recruited to play at the Street Soccer USA National Cup with the men’s team. She’d struggled with addiction and alcoholism, and became homeless after getting a DUI. But that tournament was a turning point.
“That was my first experience being sober and having so much fun and really connecting with other people,” she says.
She wanted to bring that energy to women in Sacramento, so she recruited players, coordinated practices and organized trips to the Homeless World Cup in countries like Chile and Norway, as well as the Street Soccer national cups. This was largely a volunteer effort alongside Tiffany Fraser, who coaches, plays and manages fundraising. Since becoming an official Street Soccer USA chapter three years ago, they’re now both employees and are able to pay a few additional coaches.
Wrightsman hopes the national cup will draw attention to the positive impact street soccer and other opportunities have in the lives of those who are struggling.
“I want Sacramento to experience this because I think that maybe it can change some of the conversations and how we deal with people who are in crisis,” she says.
Back in the Oak Park gym, Shauntel Payton sends the ball flying across the gym with a powerful kick. She started playing soccer at age 11, when she, her mother and siblings were in transitional housing. Back then, she was a self-described girly-girl with no interest in sports. Then she met Wrightsman.
Now 19 and a freshman at Folsom Lake College, Payton’s a really good soccer player. She also recognizes the stabilizing force street soccer had during her adolescence. During last year’s trip to Philadelphia for the National Cup, Payton said it was Joiner who reminded her they were playing for something more than W’s.
“Kimberly definitely looked out for me,” she says. “[She’d] remind me it’s not about winning, it’s about the relationships."