Polo in Philadelphia: Work to Ride Proves the Game’s Not Just for Ivy League

 

 

 

 

The ball kicks loose from a scrum near the center of the field, and Diego Nuñez, a history and literature major writing his senior thesis on polo as an instrument of British imperialism, breaks away, crouching down in the saddle, mallet held high. With no one in front of him, he easily guides the ball home.

The match is barely a minute old, and Harvard leads, 1-0.

It’s a gorgeous day in Hamilton, Massachusetts, a half hour from Harvard’s campus­—the sky cloudless, the horizon rich with the burnt orange of fall leaves on distant trees. A group of maybe 20 spectators, hands jammed into pockets against an unseasonable cold, gathers around the low walls of the polo arena. The sound of horse hooves beating the dirt fills the air romantically. And for this moment, it seems that all the cultural expectations we carry will be fulfilled.

These Harvard kids are the brightest in the land. They bear literary names like Diego, Albany, Casra. They ride horses donated by actor Tommy Lee Jones (Class of ’69). They are each around 20 years old. And they play a sport that symbolizes Ivy League wealth and privilege.

The opposing team is known as Work To Ride. It is comprised of inner-city middle- and high-school kids from Philadelphia. Its best player is a sophomore named Daymar Rosser, a 17-year-old from a rough West Philly neighborhood known as “The Bottom.” Like his teammates, Daymar has labored—brushed down horses, mucked out stalls—in exchange for the opportunity to learn horsemanship and play polo.

The very idea of an underprivileged inner-city polo team sounds like cheap fiction—the poor having a go at the sport of kings. Then Brandon Rease, a hulking 17-year-old, hits a ridiculous pass that travels 40 yards and lands right in the path of Daymar, who quickly tucks it in for the goal. Tie game. Daymar scores the next three goals. By the end of the first seven-minute period, known as a chukker, the scoreboard reads: WORK TO RIDE 6, HARVARD 1. By halftime, the poor Philly kids hold a 10-goal lead.

Rosser and Rease stick out not for their blackness but for their skill. They seem to anticipate where the ball is headed, flashing to every crucial spot. Even the Harvard stable assistant who cares for the team’s horses,­ Ambroise Nanquette, proclaims himself a fan. “After every chukker, the horses the Harvard kids ride are exhausted,” he says. “Covered in sweat. The Work To Ride team is also riding our horses. But they bring them back not even breathing heavy. So they are winning and not even working the horses as hard to do it.”

The final score is emphatic: WORK TO RIDE 20, HARVARD 3.

Games like this have turned Work To Ride into a feel-good story in the pages of Sports Illustrated and on ESPN and 60 Minutes. It’s easy to see why. Inner-city black kids who make the most of an opportunity provided by unconventional means are a cultural staple, the narrative arc of countless movies from Dangerous Minds to Remember the Titans. The mechanism—a tough teacher, chess, athletics—makes little difference. The story of poor children overcoming their circumstances confirms the American Dream, fortifies our notion that the least among us can leverage effort into prosperity. But the truth is far less cinematic. A little more than 48 hours after this game, several of the Work To Ride kids will sit in a parked car in Southwest Philadelphia and watch, helplessly, as that truth manifests just beyond their windshield: a sudden reminder that after every match, these Philly kids must do something far more difficult than beating Harvard.

They must go home.


I KNOW HOW I WILL FEEL OUT ON THAT FIELD running to hit the ball air flying in my face, 12-year-old Mecca Harris wrote on her application to join Work To Ride. When I came to your last polo game just watching little Bee play I wanted to play as I was saying in my head look at him go so fast.

More than a decade later, Harris and the boy she witnessed, “Bee,” stand as the sad totems that haunt Work To Ride: the kids who don’t make it. “I think Mecca might have become the best female polo player in the world,” says Harvard women’s polo coach Cissie Snow. “I have no doubt Bee would have played for a living.”

Work To Ride produces a steady stream of talent. The team won the national scholastic championship last March, the first all-black team ever to do so. They might repeat this year. And they’re so good that most high schools no longer want them on their schedule, forcing them to challenge college teams like Harvard and Cornell instead. But … so what?

Work To Ride has never been about polo. Work To Ride is about moving kids from poverty to plenitude. It’s the brainchild of Lezlie Hiner, a brash white woman with a degree in psychology and a deep love for horses. Inspired by her experience mentoring an inner-city child, she founded Work To Ride in 1994. “I want the kids to see,” she says, “that another, safer world is available to them.”

At any given time, Hiner’s little nonprofit includes roughly 30 horses and 20 kids. Though many children show up during the week, Saturday attendance at the Chamounix Equestrian Center in Fairmount Park, a venue more run-down than its fancy name implies, is mandatory. The kids muck stalls, haul feed, clean the leather gear polo ponies require. They also must maintain “C” averages in school. In return, they receive tutoring and learn how to ride horses and play polo. But the most important thing they get is a broader perspective—a sense of themselves as people who can succeed in that other, safer world.

All of Hiner’s kids qualify as impoverished; only five of her current 21 come from two-parent households. In these terms, Mecca Harris and Bee exemplified what Work To Ride is all about—kids from struggling homes who can leverage polo into college degrees. “Those two,” says Hiner, “had every opportunity in front of them.”

But Mecca was assassinated in 2003, murdered at 14 because her mother dated a drug dealer targeted for robbery. A gunman marched Mecca, her mother and that boyfriend down to their basement, then shot each in the head. The positioning of the bodies, Mecca slumped against her mother, conveyed the girl’s terrible last moments: She watched her mother die, then waited for the bullet that ended her own life.

“Bee” is Jabarr Rosser, the eldest brother of the most accomplished players in Work To Ride’s history, Kareem and Daymar Rosser, and by all accounts more talented than either. But he punctuated years of brilliant play and edgy behavior—he always resisted the rules—by leaving the program at 16. Even now, at 21, he could easily return to polo, round back into form and go pro, playing for money in Florida or Argentina. Hiner’s door is open. But Jabarr chose a different path—one that now includes two arrests for drug dealing.

The lesson is raw: The streets can claim an innocent suddenly, as they did Mecca. Or they can get a kid the way they got Jabarr, slowly and insidiously. “I think people are hesitant to say it,” says Richard Prather, who knows Jabarr. “But the kids who go all the way, and truly get out, are special.”

He should know. Prather is a 32-year-old Work To Ride grad who now holds a master’s in criminal justice from New Mexico State University, with a concentration on at-risk youth. Prather says that while some kids will flee their volatile neighborhoods for Hiner’s peaceful horse stable, proximity to violence can still deaden their souls. “Poverty, shootings, drugs, is what these kids are used to,” says Prather, “and there is a sense of comfort in what’s normal. To embrace all the opportunities they get through Work To Ride and really get out—to free their minds—they essentially have to reject the neighborhood they sleep in every day, the kids they grew up with, maybe even their families. That’s hard for anyone to do. And we’re talking about children. It takes a special child, with a strong internal will, to do that.”

BRANDOM REASE WAKES AT 6 A.M. to the unwelcome blare of an alarm clock. Elsewhere in the house he can hear his mother, a school lunch aide, readying herself for work, and his sister preparing for school. Brandon is a big kid, more than six feet tall and around 200 pounds. But his bulk conveys no threat, only warmth; his steady, serious gaze suggests an almost precocious understanding of the dichotomy between the two worlds in which he travels. He gets dressed and pushes his way out the front door, emerging onto North Bonsall Street. All around him, dilapidated two-story rowhouses squat in the early-morning gloom.

“Bonsall Madness.” That’s what Northwest Philly residents labeled it back in 2004 when a running gun battle among warring drug factions claimed the life of Faheem Thomas-Childs, a 10-year-old boy waiting to enter his grade school. Six witnesses ultimately recanted their statements, marking Bonsall Street as the epicenter of the “stop snitching” mentality. Brandon was nine years old then. But nothing appears to have changed.

His walk to the SEPTA station near his house is littered with evidence of the underground economy: blunt wrappers, used condoms, empty plastic baggies from crack and heroin sales, spent needles.

By 8 a.m. he arrives, five miles and a worldview away, at South Philadelphia’s Academy at Palumbo, where he will debate the nature of the universe with his classmates in AP physics. He loves his math classes, aces English. He maintains a 3.76 G.P.A. After school, if homework dictates, he goes straight home. Otherwise he attends chess club, or sits in on hip-hop class. Often, he takes the 38 bus to the Chamounix stables at Fairmount Park. There, he practices polo or trains Billy, the horse for which he’s responsible. He burns time, enjoying some freedom before tucking himself back inside the little cell of his home.

Days with a lot of homework are the toughest. Then, Brandon goes straight home and stays there. But sometimes boredom and youth propel him outdoors. He’ll walk a few blocks to the basketball courts, passing kids who recognize his face but don’t know his name. They nod at each other. But Brandon doesn’t have a single friend in the neighborhood.

Basketball offers only a small diversion. Brandon plays furtively. Like a deer at a watering hole, stealing a sip before looking up in search of predators, he enjoys a moment of fun before glancing toward an active drug corner nearby. There, the neighborhood trade gets plied by young boys in the uniform: white t-shirts, baggy blue jeans.

Any inner-city kid knows the corner’s rhythms. Brandon can feel when something is amiss. Arguing, a car circling the block, some kid pulling out his cell phone and making a show of calling his boys—all can signal looming gunplay. Brandon will put his head down, walk home. But the sound he’s trying to avoid reaches him even there sometimes. Every week or two, there’s gunfire, a pop! pop! pop! in the night. If he’s in bed, he listens till the echo fades and the barking of dogs rushes in to fill the silence. Then he goes to sleep—a 16-year-old boy working toward a better life, shutting his eyes to a neighborhood where only his mom knows his name.

DEBATES OVER NATURE AND NURTURE ARE ENDLESS, largely because there is no actual winner—just a long contest between the world we find at hand when we first reach for our mother’s breast, and our individual efforts to maximize the possibilities inherent in who we are. Work To Ride is a lesson in this complex alchemy—demonstrating how some kids like Brandon push toward a better life, while others remain stuck in the only lives they know: the drama of their streets.

“Most underprivileged kids live only within their neighborhoods,” says Work To Ride grad Kareem Rosser, the middle child between Jabarr and Daymar. “They only ever see what’s inside that 15-block radius. And for most kids in the program, what they see isn’t good.” “I saw shootings, lived around drug dealing, all those things,” says fellow grad John Fields. “Most kids in the program have.”

The stable represents a break from all that fear. It also exposes the kids to the world of legitimate commerce. They travel to polo matches, horse shows, country clubs and university campuses, in moneyed areas of Virginia, Maryland, New York and Massachusetts. When Work To Ride really works, they learn something else: They learn they can belong there.

The success stories impress: Work To Ride grad Tasha Harris is a senior geology major at Temple; Fields is in his second year at Community College of Philadelphia. Fellow program grad Prather sponsors two deserving Work To Ride kids per year on a weeklong West Coast road trip. He actually chaperoned Brandon Rease a couple years back, and remembers seeing the joy of revelation as the teenager accessed a whole new world.

The pair had driven deep into the desert, with nothing in sight on the horizon but blue sky and rolling brown land. Brandon stood and turned a slow circle in the vastness of this space. “This is incredible,” he said. “It’s a whole lot of nothing, but a whole lot of something!” Prather could feel what Brandon had grasped—a sense of his own unbounded place in the world, and the sudden certainty that by taking right actions today, he could live anywhere in it.

But this process is neither easy nor assured. The Work To Ride kids must survive their current environments, and Hiner and Prather must teach them how to navigate the strange new worlds of college campuses and country clubs. Do not filch all the crab legs from the buffet. Say “please” and “thank you.” Wait your turn to order. Don’t swear.

Some kids resist these ministrations; others blossom. Daymar Rosser now attends the Valley Forge Military Academy. Kareem led last year’s championship team, graduated from high school, and moved out of Philadelphia entirely. They embody the program’s success. But real life isn’t like The Blind Side, where all any black kid needs is Sandra Bullock to teach him how to play left tackle. If anything, that movie famously obliterated real life, rendering its central character, Michael Oher, into an oafish second fiddle—the generic black kid saved by White America. In real life, Oher is smart, and he played football, very well, before the white lady ever swanned into view. He was, in fact, the heavy lifter in a collaborative effort—pushing past his history as the son of a crack-addled mother and an oft-jailed father, embracing the new, safe environment he’d been generously provided, to save himself.

Much the same is true of the Work To Ride kids.

Consider Kareem Rosser’s life post-graduation­: He was offered a spot on the Cornell polo team, but his SAT scores weren’t high enough for admission. Faced with adversity, he hasn’t given up. Instead, he’s currently in his second semester at a community college just outside Ithaca, New York, where he hopes to leverage stellar grades into acceptance at Cornell next fall. In the meantime, he helps out at Cornell’s stables. “Lezlie teaches us that the point of the program is to get out,” he says. “To get an education. And that’s been my focus.”

In this context, Hiner’s prodigious labors, between 80 and 100 hours a week, give her kids a chance. But it’s Kareem Rosser who worked in those stables, who discovered what had opened up for him, and who continues to make smart, forward-looking choices. Not all of Work To Ride’s stories are so filled with hope.

Just 65 percent of Work To Ride kids graduate. That compares favorably to Overbrook High, where an estimated 85 percent live in poverty and just 58 percent graduate. But it isn’t the number we might expect from fawning media coverage of the polo team. The movie version of their story would end with the presentation of that championship trophy. In real life, the drama of their story continues, unabated. “In a weird sort of way, it’s almost like winning the championship hurt us,” says Hiner. “Because people hear that you have the best high-school polo team in the nation. They see you on ESPN. They see Kareem is in college. And they figure everything must be great.”

But everything is not great. In the recession, money has dried up, with total revenue plunging 22 percent, from $329,415 in 2008 to $256,198 in 2010. Then there are the kids who simply get lost to the streets, the third who don’t graduate. The ones like Mecca. Like Jabarr.

His brothers admit they want Jabarr to return, but don’t expect it. In fact, in separate interviews, Daymar and Kareem supply the same practiced answer on The Matter of Jabarr: “He has made his decision,” they say.

Daymar and Kareem see Jabarr on special occasions. They say he never mentions coming back, and rejects any suggestion­ that he should. Whatever pain Daymar feels over his eldest brother’s choice reveals itself obliquely. A long, lean, affable kid, Daymar has a confidence and polish befitting a military­-academy cadet. But when I ask him why Jabarr doesn’t return to polo, he looks at the ground. “I don’t understand what he’s thinking,” he tells me. “But … he has made his decision.”

I called Jabarr, who quickly begged off when I told him I was a reporter. “I’m jammed up right now,” he said. “Can you call back in 20 minutes?”

I called back, repeatedly. He never picked up again. And maybe that’s who he is: the kid who has made his decision. The kid who refuses to be reached. I suspect he didn’t answer because he knows the only real question I could ask is: Why? Why won’t you just come back? He probably has no answer for that. Just, perhaps, a feeling inside himself that the second, safer world he saw is somehow not where he belongs.

Because for some people, no matter how big the opportunity, the neighborhood can’t be escaped.

AFTER THE MATCH, THE KIDS FROM WORK TO RIDE join their opponents at the home of Harvard’s married polo coaches, Crocker and Cissie Snow. Those of age drink wine; soda flows for the under-21s. Great heaps of food are prepared: roast turkey, maple ham, buttered corn. An early Thanksgiving in mid-November.

Through a long night, the kids of Philadelphia’s inner city hold their own with the faculty, staff and students of Cambridge.

They talk about polo.

And horses.

And college majors. Casra, a Harvard economics student, talks to the kids about majoring in business, which both Daymar and Brandon plan to pursue. Brandon is targeting Georgetown, which has no polo program but an excellent business track. “It’d be nice if I could play polo in college,” says Brandon. “But this has always been about getting a college degree.”

The next morning, Crocker Snow takes the kids on an hour-long excursion on foot around his “family land”—a hundred acres in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He teaches the kids how to identify the different trees—the papery bark of the birch vs. the smooth gray maple. He describes a time in winter when he stumbled upon two coyotes feeding on a deer. The city kids stare at him, rapt, their wondering expressions suggesting that in their mind’s eye, they are re-creating all the details—the raw meat and the coyotes’ teeth, the deer blood staining the white snow.

“I could live here,” says Brandon, “in nature, in a metropolitan area, where I would have easy access to a city, on a train or by car. I’d like that.”

“I could, too,” says Daymar. “It’s peaceful. It’s quiet.”

The incredible thing is, this world is available to them. Lezlie Hiner has opened an escape hatch. But the very next day, after another polo match in Maryland, the world they’re all endeavoring to evade will come rushing back.

It happens in Southwest Philadelphia.

As Hiner is dropping off the first of four members of her girls team late in the evening, a car pulls up behind her truck.

From there, events unfold in slow motion and with unforgiving speed. A man emerges from the car, walks around Hiner’s vehicle, and draws a gun. There is a second man, already standing near Hiner’s truck. The gunman takes aim at the man.

The shooting starts. Four shots, pop-pop-pop-pop!, falling one upon the other. Through the windshield, Hiner and her girls see the bullets strike their target—tearing flesh, drawing blood.

The gunman never looks at Hiner or her girls. He just casually walks back to his car and drives off.

Almost immediately, a little girl comes running out from a nearby house until she looms above the shooting victim, now crumpled on the ground. She looks down, peering at the wounded man’s face.

And laughs.

The sound is … delighted.

“I thought that could be my aunt,” the girl hollers, to no one in particular. Then she skips away, still laughing—a ghost of what Hiner’s kids could be, melting back into a milky haze of Southwest Philadelphia streetlights.

A man opens the front door of a nearby house. He shouts to the girl Hiner is dropping off, calls her inside. And off she runs, leaving the Work To Ride program behind for the night, leaving for home.