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Monday, June 24, 2024

Shelley Lyle walks onto the UF soccer practice field beaming her familiar smile, brightening an overcast afternoon.

Lyle serves as the perfect complement to an already energetic team. She makes bringing a ray of sunshine to the lives of others not just a casual endeavor, but also something to live for.

Lyle, a devout Christian and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was one of 30 soccer players from around the nation - 15 men and 15 women - to take part in a three-week mission trip to Brazil this summer. There they played soccer and preached the Gospel to children as young as 4 and as old as 15.

"We would bring soccer balls and go out and talk with the kids. They live for soccer there," the senior defender said. "We would play with them and then share our testimonies. At the end of the day, we would play a game against them and teams would randomly show up and say, 'We saw you and want to play against you.'"

Lyle learned about the mission, run by the Chicago Eagles soccer club, in an e-mail forwarded to her by her roommate in the Spring that specified the goals of the trip. After a bit more research, the Tampa native was convinced and decided she would make the venture.

The soccer players who made the trip would not be provided with the amenities that often come with being a collegiate star. The group of 30 slept in a church called Assembly of God Rio de Janeiro during their stay in Brazil and were not afforded the luxury of beds.

But with each goal scored in soccer matches and each child who accepted Christianity, the aching of tired legs and pain of sleeping on the floor melted away.

"It was an amazing experience," Lyle said. "Soccer is gold over there, and the little kids are just so cute and they don't come from great places, so when you see where they come from it moves you. A lot of them don't wear shoes, and it's amazing that they don't have broken toes because all they do is play soccer all day."

Despite her participation in three mission trips - two to the Dominican Republic and one to Barbados - prior to this summer, her father, Scott Lyle, was hesitant about having his youngest daughter head to Brazil with a group of people they didn?t know.

"She had been on a couple other mission trips before in high school with our church groups and choir," he said. "She's been to them, but Brazil was new and a little scary. So I really didn?t like the thought of her going overseas, so I was nervous, yeah."

One of the many highlights of her trip was a day Lyle spent with a pair of little girls that lived in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Lyle, who laments not remembering their names, said they were a bit too thin for their age - about 6 years old - and wary of their surroundings.

Growing up in such a dangerous area, the girls had developed an innate aversion to strangers. But after a day filled with hearty meals and games, the girls eventually warmed up to her.

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"It was so cute," she said. "By the end of the day they were holding my hands and sitting in my lap when they ate."

After the day's activities had come to an end, the camp's interpreters asked those who had accepted Christianity that day to raise their hands, and among the large group it was the tiniest pairs of hands that meant the most to Lyle.

"It just brought tears to my eyes," she said. "To see those two little girls … it meant the world to me."

The language barrier was one of the many hurdles the missionaries would have to overcome. Though they brought interpreters with them, the group needed something to help them relate to children who were as much as ten years younger than they were.

And that's where soccer came in.

Brazil is one of the most soccer-crazed countries in the world, and while none of the children Lyle met spoke English, they all spoke the same language on the field.

"You go to a lot of places and you don?t speak their language and they don?t know you. They just know that you?re American," Lyle said. "But they know sports because they play it. And I think the first way to get them interested in what you're there for is by showing them the love of the game."

According to her coaches and teammates, Lyle shows a love of the game even Brazilians would have to respect. As happy-go-lucky as she is off the field, Lyle is just as intense on the field.

"She definitely brings an intensity to the game," UF coach Becky Burleigh said. "She's one of the toughest players out there, and more importantly, she does a lot of things well."

Lyle's approach to the game gained her the respect of young men in Brazil who often aren't accustomed to seeing women play soccer, much less excel at the sport.

"It's definitely something different to them," Lyle said.

Lyle's eligibility will be exhausted at the close of this season, which she hopes concludes with a national championship for UF, but she doesn?t intend to hang up her cleats after the season ends. Lyle, a political science major, hopes to blend her passion for soccer, her interest in international relations and her desire to help others.

Exactly what she wants to do, well, she?s not sure about that yet.

"I definitely want to continue helping people and traveling as much as I can," she said. "I don't have a career path I?m trying to climb my way up, but I think I have an idea of what I want to do."

Expect her to figure it out soon though. After all, for Lyle, helping others isn?t just a casual endeavor. It's a way of life.

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