When it comes to momentous years, it doesn’t get much better than O’Brien Byrd’s.
Over the course of six months, the 36-year-old from Martin City guided the Whitefish High School soccer team to another undefeated season capped by another state championship. A few months later he was in Indianapolis accepting the national coach of the year award. And now he’s welcoming Hope Solo, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, for a local fundraiser supporting youth soccer.
“It’s been a crazy year. It’s bizarre,” Byrd said.
Soccer has a storied past in the Flathead Valley, but any serious gains in the sport’s local presence and popularity over the last decade can be largely tied back to Byrd. He’s become a walking-talking soccer ambassador and has helped a successful tradition build on itself. Under Byrd the last 10 seasons, the Whitefish Bulldogs are 105-27-16 with four Class A state titles.
He also serves as president and head coach of the Montana Flathead Rapids, a nonprofit organization that began as an adult men’s soccer team seven years ago and expanded with a women’s team in recent years.
Byrd and the Rapids didn’t stop there. The organization has become a valley-wide soccer enterprise. In the last year, the Rapids took over operating youth programs and leagues in Columbia Falls and Whitefish and other programs and academies previously run by Glacier United.
“Our goal was to revitalize soccer in the valley and to be in charge of the youth programs and bring our organizational skill and our energy and knowledge,” Byrd said.
All told, Byrd said the Rapids organization now oversees roughly 1,000 players a year between the ages of 5 and 18.
The decision to expand the Rapids and take on such a sizeable load was made possible because of the talented and passionate team of volunteer coaches and board members, Byrd said.
Yet there’s more to running a league than manpower.
“We can shoulder that challenge and those numbers, but financially we can’t,” he said. “Just like other nonprofits and organizations, we need our community to back us financially.”
Byrd said the Rapids need to raise $45,000 to be operational this year. That money would go toward the basics, he said, like replacing aging balls and nets, and providing teams with jerseys.
“This is more than keeping kids busy after school. It’s something for them to be passionate about,” Byrd said. “For the younger kids, this is about offering them a skillset that they can take beyond soccer. It teaches them work ethic and teamwork. It’s the clichés of why kids should be involved in sports. But it’s an opportunity. Soccer is a beautiful game because you don’t need a lot of money to play the sport. When you start walking, you can dribble a soccer ball.”
But, as Byrd has discovered, it does take money to organize and run sports leagues.
That’s where Hope Solo comes to the rescue.
The 31-year-old from Richland, Wash., is the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s national soccer team. She secured a shutout in Team USA’s 1-0 victory over Brazil to win the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. At the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, Solo played every minute in all six matches and again played the role of hero. She earned three shutouts and blocked a potential game-tying shot in the final minutes of the championship match. Team USA defeated Japan 2-1 to win its second straight gold medal.
“In my opinion, she is the most recognizable current female athlete in the world,” Byrd said.
“Never in a million years would it be a dream that we could pull this off. It’s a dream come true so far.”
Late last month, Byrd received a phone call. Doctors told Solo she would need minor wrist surgery and would be out for about four weeks. With her sudden, brief availability, she remembered a friend of hers, Gina Brewer, mentioning Northwest Montana, where Brewer’s friend, O’Brien Byrd, had a growing youth soccer organization that could use some support.
“Gina calls up and asks, ‘Can we do Montana in three and a half weeks?’ Absolutely,” Byrd said. “She calls Hope right back and says, ‘OK, it’s on.’ The rest is history.”
With a short heads up, Byrd scrambled to find a location to host something large. The managers of the Great Northern Bar and Grill asked how they could help, and Byrd asked Scott Larkin if Great Northern would be willing to hold a tickets-only Saturday night event.
“He said, ‘Yeah no problem,’” Byrd recalled. “People like Scott just keep stepping forward, and just donating and providing services. It’s been amazing.”
This weekend, Solo is planning on appearing at several locations throughout the valley, March 23-24, to support Montana Flathead Rapids.
The fundraiser’s main event is Saturday night at Great Northern in Whitefish. A live auction and welcome party for Solo will start at 6 p.m. and at least 20 noteworthy items are up for grabs. According to Byrd, the auction items include VIP tickets to ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” signed soccer memorabilia and several dining, lodging and outfitting packages.
Tickets to the auction are $35 and can be purchased at www.flatheadrapids.com at the door or at select locations. A list is on the Rapids’ Facebook page. Entrants must be 21 or older. Other events include a presentation by Solo at Columbia Falls High School’s gym on Sunday, from noon to 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person or $30 for a family.
Brewer, the head women’s soccer coach at Hawaii Pacific University, will also appear and talk about how younger players can pursue goals of playing at the college level.
Leading up to this weekend, Byrd was feeling the pressure. Not only was he hosting a global icon, he was holding an event that desperately needed to succeed.
Now that it’s actually come together and about to happen, Byrd can only shake his head in amazement.
“It’s awesome for the kids to get a chance to be around Hope,” he said.
“She’s coming to help out this tiny soccer club in the middle of nowhere. It’s beyond our wildest dreams.”
For more information about the Hope Solo events, visit www.flatheadrapids.com.
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