Harlem World is in the house, and this time it isn’t for how to fly and dapper someone from the neighborhood is, but instead, it’s because of its new renaissance that begins with the global sport of football.
If you haven’t heard, there has been a movement in the neighborhood that is dedicated to using the game of soccer to provide positive impact and solutions for youth in the inner city. That movement is called F.C Harlem, led by Irv Smalls.
Irv serves as the Executive Director of the F.C Harlem L.I.O.N.S (Leaders In Our Neighborhoods), but his roots didn’t start with the sport and neither did his love for it. Irv grew up in Hershey, PA with his family where the cultural differences were undeniable. Irv grew up very active as he played various sports including soccer, baseball, and tennis, but those never really stuck out as much as the game of American football.
“I played soccer for a little bit, it didn’t register for me, I picked it up as just something that you do instead of seeing it as something you do long term”
As he believed to have found his athletic niche, he stuck with American football throughout high school and that led him to play at the collegiate level for Penn State, a school well-known for its rich winning history and the players that the program produced that went pro.
Smalls didn’t go on to the NFL though, instead he continued on with his education as a law student at Dickinson Law School. He then served as a victim court advocate in South Philly where a glimpse of what he would be advocating for today, was presented to him through an encounter with a student.
“And I remember I met this one brother who, you know, ran into a little altercation with some other kids at school, but like, he saw my Penn state ring and he wanted to play football. And so I just turned, we just had a good conversation and just kind of saw the power of sports or just giving engagement today to these guys and try to inspire them to be better “
Smalls truly saw the power that sports can play so much so that he decided to start working on the business side of sports and understand what that business could do for a community.
As he searched for jobs, he found an opening with at the time, a very young Major League Soccer (MLS) in New York.
“I remember I saw there was a position in the legal department at Major League Soccer, and I mean it’s interesting because I still remember to this day my response, I was like, Oh my gosh, I don’t like soccer at all”
He started working in the legal department by getting involved with contracts for players like Freddie Adu and other projects, which help him become a converted football fan. It was the 2002 World Cup that made it all make sense for him. It just happened to be a game where people that look like him were presented a platform and in that moment he realized how the sport he once didn’t care for much, could connect to his passion of working with inner city youth.
“I was thinking about it through the lens of, you know, my passion obviously is working with inner-city kids, giving more opportunities to black and brown youth, empowering them. And I said you know what? Sports is such a powerful skill and I think this sport right here, it looks more like life than any other sport.”
The once Penn State American Football player knew that this was a goal he would have to take a shot at in order to bring forth change. As time went on Irv made contact with Ruston Harris who was running Harlem Youth Soccer, whose offices were right next door to MLS, where he started getting involved.
“I started volunteering, leveraging some of the relationships that I had at Major League Soccer, you know, for the community, for the program. And then there was a point where we were kind of thinking about, what’s the next step for it? “
Irv realized that there was a need for a promising program that would provide opportunities to the youth in Harlem for educational and professional development. After a little bit of time and a lot of research, he decided to dedicate all of his efforts to Harlem and its youth and leave MLS.
It was time for him to apply all that he had learned to his dream and connect the dots. The task was about bringing the global game to Harlem and gain both black and brown fans. The question wass how do you do that in a place where the rich culture is heavily rooted in other things?
Fast forward to the present day in the neighborhood that houses FC Harlem and that wouldn’t be the first question that comes to mind. The club has built a reputation for developing talent and providing opportunities to black and brown student-athletes. It doesn’t just stop there though, the FC Harlem Lions have formed a very strong partnership with Chelsea F.C which has also led to a featured collaboration for a white kit with Nike that is flawless.
“And like these kids are important to me. So my approach always has been, I want the best. I don’t want hand me downs. I don’t want your shoes, I want brand new shoes. I want the nicest uniforms.I want the biggest clubs. And yeah, I’ve had a lot of people craning that can look at me like who do you think you are? Somebody that knows my value and knows my community’s value and know-how you will potentially benefit down the road. So you need to put more in. You know what I mean?”
Exciting things are happening through FC Harlem and the stats also show how amazing the sport has been, so far 97% of all high school participants graduated, 80% of those graduates have gone to college, and since the year 2006 FC Harlem has served more than 7,000 youth across all programs, and to pay it forward to their community, all the players dedicate a minimum of 25 hours of volunteer service annually.
This is an organization truly instilling value back into the community and its people, so much so that investing in these youth isn’t a fairytale, if you don’t believe it, ask former FC Harlem Player Joseph Koroma.
Koroma now a sophomore at Manhattan College and is a Harlem native with direct roots from Sierra Leone. He has been part of FC Harlem since he was 8 years old and has developed and grown as a player and member of his community. Joseph who is now getting closer to his pro football dreams has truly shown a path of constant progression. The Harlem native was being recruited by top academies across the country, which led him to attend US Soccer Developmental Academy where he exceeded 30 goals in 40 matches and was invited into the NYCFC academy after just two seasons.
In the time spent at FC Harlem Joseph has learned about what it takes, especially when you don’t come from a background where a quick phone call to a coach lands you a spot on the roster without a trial. He has been a prime example of what dedication and also his time spent volunteering in his community can provide. He is part of something bigger than himself and that opportunity to represent his neighborhood and his people provides a huge source of motivation.
Harlem is a neighborhood full of culture, history, heritage, and known for the great people who have cultivated the great elements that have now been passed down to be nurtured.
When thinking about the history of Harlem, a few words that you can attach to it are renaissance, innovation, and hustle. Many have been drawn by the creativity and energy of this neighborhood. It continues to birth ideas, ways of life, and now solutions through sport.
“If you commit when you work in our community, that’s how your brand grows. It doesn’t grow just because you said this is who you are. So part of it was constantly like, you know what? I’m a person who’s always believed in giving youth the best that you can give them.”
So when Irv Smalls speaks about the vision of expanding the FC Harlem blueprint from coast to coast, understand that the purpose is unique, but not unfamiliar to many inner-city youth across the country who have been left behind due to a pay to play system that steers away the love for a global sport that could change multiple lives.
The challenge isn’t getting in touch with football legends like David Beckham or Thierry Henry, to come and get involved and inspire the youth, it is instead breaking the barriers and myths around the beautiful game that has afforded many with the opportunities to learn, travel, and give back. However, FC Harlem provides opportunities and proof of being the solution to it all, because if a place like Harlem where history runs rampant from block to block can embrace the game of football, then the world should prepare to receive newborn legends from the Black Mecca to rule the pitch and be LI.O.N.s in there own neighborhoods.