MINNEAPOLIS - Soccer was their refuge. Growing up in a remote orphanage in Kudymkar, Russia, Alex, Jake and Roma survived bullying and worse. Afternoons, they would kick a weathered ball around a dirt lot, aiming at a goal lacking a net.
The fields are more plush in the United States. So are their lives. Saturday, in front of the adoptive parents who rescued them, the boys will play for the St. Croix and Apple Valley soccer clubs in the U-17 Minnesota State Cup championship game and revel in the international game that helped them grow American roots.
"Getting involved in sports really helped these guys get on their feet," said Charlie Devine, Roma's adoptive father. "They went into the orphanage around the age of 5 or 6 and came here when they were 11. None of them had self-esteem. Roma weighed 52 pounds. They didn't speak a word of English. They didn't come from great backgrounds.
"They had to lie, cheat and steal to survive. Now they can laugh about it."
The boys were laughing Wednesday. On a practice field in Eagan, they made a soccer ball dance and levitate like a yo-yo without a string. They never played organized soccer before being adopted. Now they're standouts.
"It helped when we came to America, when we had TV and YouTube, so we could look up soccer tricks," Alex Diperna said.
The boys met at the orphanage. They were adopted through the Journey of Hope program through the European Children Adoption Services in Plymouth.
Alex is 16. He plays for the Apple Valley Soccer Club and Bloomington Jefferson High School.
"My dad passed away, and I had nobody to support me," he said. "The orphanage was not that bad. Older kids bullied the younger kids, and the teachers didn't do anything about it, but you just dealt with it.
"It was hard, but I had those guys, so I had good friends with me. It wasn't the worst orphanage. I know how people usually think orphanages are bad, really depressing, but when you have these guys, it's better. We'd just find a soccer ball and go knock it around."
Jake Punch is 16. He plays for St. Croix and Eagan High School.
"The person who took care of us at the orphanage wasn't the nicest person in the world, so we got abused a couple of times," he said. "But it wasn't too bad, I guess. I had a lot of freedom. I got in trouble a lot.
"Soccer has helped me find my place here."
He smiled and said, "And it's kept me out of trouble."
Roma Devine is 17. He plays for St. Croix and Stillwater High School.
"I never met my father, and my mother died," he said. "I was living with my sister. I left to go to my stepdad's. It was night and I was sleeping, and I saw this dude, an older man, I think he was homeless.
"He was sleeping on a bench and it looked more comfortable than where I was sleeping, so I went by him, and then the police came and took me to the orphanage.
"You had to be tough. The older kids used to drink, and younger kids started smoking cigarettes. Most of the young kids there, they had not a very bright future."
Older kids would force Roma and his best friend to fight, "to make us better." Roma tried running away from the orphanage three times without success. With a shrug and a sentiment that has echoed through Russian history, he said: "Life is life. You deal with it."
When researching the adoption process, Charlie Devine learned that two-thirds of homeless children in Russia never make it to an orphanage, leaving more than a million on the streets. "Even if they make it to an orphanage, they kick them out at 16, give them, basically, 100 bucks and say you're on your own," he said. "Within two years, 10 percent of them commit suicide.
"These boys were in a relatively good orphanage, but even there, it got pretty bad. Drugs. Prostitution. The Russian mafia. The year they were adopted, there were only 5,500 kids adopted from Russia to the U.S., and less than 500 of them were over 4 years old. So the odds were slim and none, and within a year after we went through this program, Russia cut it off. Very rarely do they allow older kids to be adopted here.
"The people were very nice, but the Russians were very proud. They didn't like that Americans were adopting their kids. They were saying, 'Russia's as good as America.'"
When Julie Punch's sister-in-law hosted a child from the Journey of Hope program. Julie watched a DVD profiling kids from the orphanage.
Jake appeared, saying he liked to fight, that he wanted a future in the military. "He looked like my son, but he didn't sound like someone I could handle," Julie said. "Then he said, 'I want a mom to take me from here.' I said, 'Whoa.'"
Charlie thought Roma resembled his biological son. He adopted two Russian kids.
"When we adopted Masha, she was 8 years old and weighed 36 pounds," Charlie said. "These guys say they didn't have it that hard, but they realize now they're pretty lucky.
"They've adjusted well. I tell Roma, 'You know, 75 percent of you is a normal 17-year-old and 25 percent is the baggage, and you're never going to get rid of the baggage. You just have to manage it."
Give them a ball, and they look like any other boys who love playing soccer with their friends.
"Soccer," Roma said, "is my future."
It's not a bad present.