Soccer unites two boys’ remarkable friendshipNov 07, 2018 11:17AM ● By Jana Klopsch
Hillcrest High’s Tanner Cluff gives a thumbs up for being named a member of RSL United. (Photo courtesy of Julie Cluff)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
Maison Anderson remembers in grade school lingering around Silver Mesa Elementary, waiting for his mom, who was a paraeducator, to finish up in her classroom. Tanner Cluff also would hang around after school as his mom was the PTA president and would be coordinating activities.
“Tanner became one of my best friends in elementary,” said Anderson, who lives in Sandy. “We weren’t in the same class and probably wouldn’t have become friends if it wasn’t for hanging around after school. It was harder for him to make friends outside of the accommodated core. He loved sports and always talked sports, so once he learned I played soccer, we’d play soccer and other sports at recess and after school. He loves basketball, but he was like 6 feet tall in fourth grade, so I didn’t have a chance. Soccer was something we could play together.”
Silver Mesa Paraeducator Patty Smith remembers Cluff in her classroom and his love of sports.
“He was amazing when it came to recall stats, especially his favorite (Utah) Jazz player,” she said.
That friendship continued at Hillcrest High from when Cluff was a freshman and the two became locker partners through Anderson’s graduation last spring. Now the two are not only friends, but teammates, playing together this season on the same soccer team — Real Salt Lake Unified.
Anderson, who filled a position in the team when it became vacated the previous year, made sure Cluff knew about this year’s tryouts, which were held last spring.
“I talked to him about it and he was really excited,” Anderson said.
Cluff is a senior at Hillcrest and has been the football team’s manager for the past three years.
He, along with 17 other new team members, received uniforms and scarves at signing day in June. With their coach, Jenna Holland, they met RSL Head Coach Mike Petke and RSL and Utah Royals FC team members at Rio Tinto Stadium.
As the only player from Hillcrest, Cluff joined the handful of local high school students who participate on the co-ed RSL unified team, which is comprised of 16- to 25-year-olds throughout the state. The goal of unified sports is to unite Special Olympic athletes and partners as teammates for training and competition.
“The jersey top is really cool, but the shorts are so short, I wear two knee pads to make them look longer,” said Cluff, who now stands 6'8". “Playing with RSL Unified is a dream come true. Sports are my life. I don’t know what I’d do without playing.”
Cluff has played the past couple seasons for Hillcrest High’s unified soccer program, which has won recent state trophies. He also was one of nine members who were selected and traveled as Team Utah to the USA Special Olympic Games in Seattle this past July and brought home gold.
“I absolutely love soccer,” he said. “It gets my adrenaline going and it’s fun.”
RSL Unified knew they would have a two-match season this year. First, they traveled to face the Colorado Rapids Unified team on Aug. 25, before hosting LA Galaxy Unified on Sept. 1.
“The first week was hard because there were more drills than we’ve had on my school team,” Cluff recalled. “I didn’t know all the formations, but Maison helped me through it. He helped me through all the season. We’d get together and practice so it wasn’t so difficult. We had a lot of fun, too.”
One rule that wasn’t familiar to Cluff was offsides.
“They didn’t call it in my previous games, so I had to learn that. We were ready for it at the first game even though the refs never called it,” he said. “I was playing forward, which is cool because I thought I could score, but there were very few times the ball came up to me.”
Cluff said Anderson did get a goal in the game that ended in a 3-1 loss.
“I gave him a big hug because he’s my buddy,” he said. “I hate to lose. The athlete in me doesn’t like to lose.”
However, just taking the field was a highlight for the team, Anderson said.
“When we came out of the tunnel, everyone was chanting ‘RSL United’ in one section, and it was getting louder and louder,” Anderson said. As an experienced team member, he helped calm the nerves for his teammates in playing in a MLS (major league soccer) stadium. “It is really exciting once everyone works out their nerves on the field. For the most part, the partners guide the athletes and help them understand where to be and what they need to be doing so together, we’re successful.”
Even with the loss, Cluff said he had fun in Colorado as they went to a Colorado Rockies game with the Colorado Rapids Unified team.
“The Rockies game was a highlight of the trip for me. When the Rockies are on TV, I’m immediately watching them. It was way more cool to watch the players in person,” he said.
Anderson said that watching the Rockies with the opposing team reminded him of the previous year when he flew with the team to play Sporting Kansas City and they took in the Kansas City Royals game.
“We sat together and not only it was fun to get to know one another, but to cheer for the players, not just the teams,” he said. “When we met up, we knew it was about selflessness and becoming friends unified through sports. It gives us more satisfaction to help one another. This changes our perspective on life when we’re involved on a personal level.”
But one week later, this year’s squad was playing at Rio Tinto, which was amazing, Cluff said.
“I had watched RSL on TV, but being able to play there was breathtaking. I had been on the field and waved when Hillcrest won and was honored there, but with the chanting before the game, and the beating of the drums, it was exciting,” he said. “Even the Utah Royals players came to support us.”
Although LA took the game, 2-1, in what Cluff said was a fast-paced game, Anderson said it was a good season for the young team.
“A lot of the team has played high school unified soccer, but with travel and playing with different formations since it is 11 (players) on 11 (players), not 5-on-5, it’s a different game and different level. The players learned to be respectful of the game, the players, the ref and the RSL family,” he said.
Even now, with just a few practices this fall as the team enters the off-season and Anderson prepares for a Central America mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he remains in touch with Cluff.
“He will text me to talk strategy or ideas about soccer. He talks football and basketball. It’s been an incredible experience to play RSL Unified and to be able to get to know the people I’ve met better. There’s a special connection and it’s been given more kids opportunity to play,” he said. “Unified soccer isn’t just about competition; it’s about becoming friends and being there for one another.”
Cluff isn’t quite ready to see his friend leave for two years.
“I’m so happy I played and I’m on the team,” he said. “Maison is absolutely one of my closest friends…We’re going to do something before he leaves so we can talk more about soccer.”