The nation’s first all African-American high school polo team is headed to the national championship at the University of Virginia this weekend. Yes, that is the game played on horseback–mostly by society’s upper crust. But the Philadelphia-based “Work to Ride” program has been quietly cultivating skilled players from underprivileged neighborhoods since the mid ’90s.
On a cloudy afternoon, tucked away along Fairmount Park’s scenic Chamounix Drive, just a few miles from the hearts of both North and West Philadelphia, three teens are trotting around an open field on horseback. They look like sentries as they ride with long mallets raised above their helmeted heads. They swiftly sweep the mallets down and hit hard white balls across the ground. The sound echoes through the trees.
While riding their bikes through Fairmount Park, Kareem Rosser’s two older brothers discovered the stables of the “Work to Ride” program, and eventually began riding. The program is free to boys and girls from low income families. Now, Kareem is a senior at Valley Forge Military Academy, and is the polo team captain.
“I started riding and started to get familiar with the system, and before I knew it, I was a big part of the system,” he said.
Kareem’s younger brother, Daymar, now a high school freshman, plays alongside his brother. He says some friends from his West Philadelphia neighborhood don’t believe him when he says he’s a highly ranked polo player in three-player indoor polo.
“I’m like, you can go on the Internet. I’m on the Internet. You can look up my name. They were like: I don’t believe you, so I’m like all right, whatever,” he said.
The brothers, along with teammate Brandon Rease, are the first all African American team to win a regional title. The three are from the same neighborhood. They took the Southeast Region several weeks ago, which vaulted Work to Ride to the number two interscholastic polo rank in the country.
“You know, it’s gone from the kids learning a skill set and competing, you know, on a local level, to you know really putting some teeth into the sport and just really wanting to win the national title, and go for it.”
That’s Lezlie Hiner, who founded “Work to Ride” 16 years ago and raises the money to keep it going. She says while it’s not a game many in Philadelphia’s inner cities know about, polo has inherent appeal.
“It’s physical, it’s fast, there’s an element of danger involved in it because the kids are traveling at such high speeds,” said Hiner. “There’s a lot of hand-eye coordination, and it’s really neat to watch the talent that the kids show when they’re controlling the ball and making plays, and it’s just like any other sport where it is a team sport. There are team plays that the kids make, and so it’s not just whacking the ball and running up and down. There’s a lot of strategy in it.”
Back out on the field, Brandon Rease hits a ball that travels about 50 percent farther than ones his teammates hit. If the team were a baseball team, Rease would be the clean up hitter. Think Ryan Howard in a saddle.
“My teammates, Kareem and Daymar, they were involved before me, and I just kind of tagged along. It seemed like an interesting thing to do,” said Reese.
The thought of controlling a half-ton animal while hitting a four inch ball is daunting. But the boys make it look effortless. It’s hard to overstate how good the team is right now. They could hardly find worthy opponents at the high school level this year, so they played colleges like Harvard, Cornell, UConn, and University of Virginia. Kareem says they were supposed to be warmup games for those schools.
“I guess it’s funny because I think we’re supposed to lose and not win, so it’s kind of funny that we end up winning or we end up with a close game,” he said.
Those experiences have helped the boys aim high. The Rosser brothers used to be decent public school students in Philadelphia, but are doing well academically at the rigorous Valley Forge Military Academy. Kareem is a straight A student with his sights set on Cornell. And Brandon Rease, still just a sophomore, says he’d like to attend Georgetown.
“Playing polo pretty much helped me open up my eyes to the world, like see what’s out there other than Philadelphia,” he said. “Ever since being in the program, I just, it kind of gave me motivation to do more in life, to want to do more. To accomplish something.”
And Lezlie Hiner says helping inner city youth see what the world has to offer them is one of the program’s primary goals.
But first, the team will try to cement their place in history, attempting to become the first all African American team to win a national title. They’ll take on their first opponent in the national championship Sunday.