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Detroit City FC players balance soccer dreams, day jobs

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Detroit City FC midfielder/forward Tommy Catalano works on the the lighting for the new runway at the at Detroit Metro Airport.

On most summer weekends, Sebastian Harris can be found roaming a soccer field in front of thousands of Detroit City FC fans.

But on weekdays, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., he sheds his No. 4 jersey for work as a parts manager at Wholesale Forklift Parts.

“I kind of sit at a computer all day working and waiting for calls to come in and just help customers get what they need for their forklifts,” said Harris, 28. “It’s kind of cool, but I’ve always been a salesman and I enjoy doing what I’m doing. It’s better than anything else I can really think of besides playing soccer.”

A center back in his third season with Detroit City, Harris is one of the team’s veterans and has logged the second-most minutes (772) this season. He has started nine National Premier Soccer League games for the club, which sits in a three-way tie for third place in the Midwest Region Great Lakes West Division at 4-3-4 entering Friday’s regular-season finale against the Michigan Stars.

Yet, the Oxford resident is just one of several members of the semi-pro team working a full-time job by day and living his dream by night.

■Midfielder/forward Tommy Catalano, tied for the team lead in scoring (four), is training to become a journeyman electrician. He has two years left in his inside construction wireman apprenticeship. He works 11-hour days, six days a week. He’s five months into a nine-month project focused on fixing lighting along six runways at Detroit Metro Airport.

■Midfielder/outside back Matt Ybarra, in his fourth season, works in the community outreach department at General Motors as the GM Student Corps program coordinator. He’s held the position two months. He oversees 130 students from 13 high schools in the Detroit and Flint areas who design, create and enact community service projects in their respective communities.

Summertime grind

The seasonal juggling act is nothing new to the three, but it doesn’t leave much free time — if any. Detroit City averages two games a week as well as 3-4 two-hour practices.

“I wake up some days at 3-4 a.m. and we have games at 7-7:30 p.m.,” said Catalano, a Shelby Township resident. “Days can get pretty long but it’s becoming easier as I get used to it. I’ve only been doing this for about 11/2-2 years, so I’m starting to manage it better.”

Tommy Catalano

But Catalano, 25, hasn’t been able to travel to the majority of the team’s away games — home matches are played at Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium — because of his schedule. Similar scenarios have forced Ybarra, 23, and Harris to miss a couple training sessions.

“If there’s a conflict because there’s something I can’t get out of for work or I just can’t make it that day, Coach (Ben) Pirmann is definitely good at working with the guys who are working full-time,” said Ybarra, a Ferndale resident. “The communication is open so we can stay involved with the team and make sure we aren’t missing too much.”

For Ybarra, striking a balance between his 9-to-5 job and Detroit City isn’t strenuous because he’s passionate about both.

“One nice thing I have going for me is I love what I do at work and it energizes me to work with the high school students and see the difference that can be made in those schools and communities when we give them the resources to empower them to do so,” Ybarra said. “And then with DCFC, when you play for such a cool team with a great group of guys and the awesome supporters, it’s not something I get tired with.”

Harris has an added wrinkle to his schedule — he and his wife, Shelley, are expecting their first child (a girl) July 29.

“My wife is a little upset at me but she understands that I love playing,” Harris said. “She understands that after work I go straight to practice and am stuck in traffic for an hour and a half getting down there.

“But my life has been hectic these last couple months just kind of getting ready, having finished the baby’s room. That took me a while to do and just get prepared and ready to bring someone else into this world and give them as good of a life as I’ve had.”

‘Dream team’

Harris played two years professionally in England for League Two side Northampton Town FC, but rarely takes a day off work, opting to save them up in case he needs to leave early for practice or a game.

Similarly, Catalano has bounced around professional teams throughout the U.S.

Sebastian Harris is a parts manager at Wholesale Forklift Parts and is expecting a baby with wife Shelley.

Yet, neither Harris’ nor Catalano’s dreams involve getting back to that level. Rather, their aspirations are more work-related, though it doesn’t take away from the fact they want to help DCFC reach new heights.

“I’m looking at it as I’ve got a couple years left of good soccer,” Catalano said. “As long as I’m able to keep up with the young college guys, I’m going to keep playing.

“Our Detroit City fans make it for me. They’re screaming and hollering all game long. You don’t really feel the physical aspect of it on our body. I’m working 12, 13 hours a day. Obviously it is manual labor and tough on my body, but 90 minutes doesn’t seem like that much when you have your whole fan section behind you and the adrenaline push they give you.”

Ybarra said he’s fortunate to love what he does for a living and play for the “best soccer team in the world.”

“It’s a dream job and a dream team,” Ybarra said. “And I think the cool thing is for me is how they’re kind of related. Both are very Detroit- and community-based so it makes it easy to be passionate about it when I see the love and the support the community has in soccer for DCFC, but then also how I can contribute back to these communities where I live and work through work.”

Harris said he’d still be playing soccer somewhere, but is humbled by the fact he’s able to play for Detroit City.

“I want to say 40, 50, 60 guys want to play for City all the time every single year, and (Pirmann) can only have so many,” Harris said. “It means a lot that he has faith in me personally and understands that I work full-time, understands that I’m having a baby, understands that I’m married and there’s things going on in my life.

“It means the world to put on that shirt and play in front of everybody and to just win games. That’s what it’s all about.”

Twitter @jamesbhawkins

Sebastian Harris