Derek Dufendach, a 2014 Calvin College graduate, remembers a couple of “road not taken” moments in his life. One was an encounter with a deer, the other with a bunch of kids at a soccer camp. Both times the results changed his life’s direction. Dufendach was headed to the University of Michigan after high school graduation. That summer, while riding his motorcycle,
Dufendach collided with a deer. The resulting injuries and reflection time caused him to consider what was ahead for him.
“I felt a strong spiritual tug that summer,” he said. “I reconsidered my plans and enrolled at Calvin, in the pre-dental program. Turns out that in my sophomore year I was able to play a little soccer too.”
A couple of years later, as Dufendach began applying to dental schools, he stopped playing soccer at Calvin and began coaching kids in local soccer leagues. Another direction shift occurred.
“I fell in love with coaching,” he said. “Being a mentor and a guide for those younger than me became singularly important. I decided to finish at Calvin and then, for a time, simply coach. I haven’t stopped coaching since.”
Dufendach not only starting coaching, he also shifted vocations and began his own soccer enterprise, which has grown exponentially over the last three years.
He started the Little Rascals Soccer Academy for kids between the ages of 3 and 8. The popularity of the organization resulted in Dufendach starting the River City Rascals Futbol Club for kids ages 6 to 14.
“We now have 19 teams and 13 coaches—and 12 of them are Calvin alumni or current students,” he said. “They’re not just soccer coaches, they’re life coaches.”
Dufendach said that what he tries to do in his Rascals program is teach and mentor beyond simply soccer skills. He doesn’t want to produce “soccer robots” because “kids have hearts,” and he wants hearts to grow as well as footwork. He sees his goal as developing young adults with character.
Rascals players—who come from a variety of religious backgrounds—go through a values curriculum based on Christian foundations. Topics such as selflessness, respect, and responsibility are covered by the coaches.
“We have a bunch of energetic young Christian coaches,” said Dufendach, “and while there’s no cross on our logo, we try to instill virtues that are decidedly Christ-centered.
“Because we have a diversity of religions on our teams, we can make certain that a respect for one another is central. We can be one another’s brothers and sisters,” he said.
Through the work of assistant manager Eric Hollis, a 2011 Calvin graduate, the Rascals are also introduced to serving community by taking on a service project each season. Last year, the teams did maintenance work in Grand Rapids’ Millennium Park. This year’s partner organization is Kids’ Food Basket.
One of Dufendach’s goals for the future of the Rascals is to partner with refugee organizations and inner-city schools to give kids who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity the chance to play, grow, and develop friendships.
“Our young teams had a blast playing at halftime of the Calvin-Hope soccer game this fall,” said Dufendach. “We wanted them to see older role models in action. We are serious about our soccer, but more serious about what kind of people these boys and girls become.”