Commentary

Philly's unlikely champions

Inner-city students follow unusual path, learn to play polo and win a national title

Updated: October 12, 2011, 10:36 PM ET
By Heather Lombardo | 'E:60'

PHILADELPHIA -- So how does a kid like Kareem Rosser, from a West Philadelphia neighborhood called "The Bottom," end up knowing so much about horses and polo, the so-called "Sport of Kings"? The same way dozens of other inner-city, at-risk kids do -- through the raspy-voiced, loud laughing, no-nonsense Lezlie Hiner.

Hiner, 54, is the founder and director of Work to Ride, a non-profit organization in which 20 boys and girls learn how to ride horses for free. In exchange, the students help with barn chores at the program's home base, Chamounix Stables, a safe haven deep within Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.

[+] EnlargeKareem Rosser
Courtesy Duncan HuylerKareem Rosser is awarded the Interscholastic Polo Player of the Year award. From left: Danny Scheraga, executive director of the Polo Training Foundation; Kareem Rosser; Lezlie Hiner.

A New Jersey native with a psych degree and distaste for white-collar-type work, Hiner started the program in 1994. She leases the 3-acre property from the city for $1 a year and scrapes by on donations to keep the old barn standing, the horses fed and the kids off the streets.

To join, each aspiring participant must write a 300-word essay, but it's not what they write that matters, said Hiner.

"If I don't get an essay, well then you obviously don't have enough of a will to be here," she said.

To stay, good grades are required. Hiner doesn't tolerate anything below a C average. But kids who slip aren't kicked out. Hiner has a classroom in the barn where tutors help them improve their grades.

Hiner will also help you clean up your language. Literally. Daymar Rosser, Kareem's younger brother, has the cleanest mouth in Philly.

"I used to curse a lot when I was younger. Bad words, like, 'F' you,' 'F' this,' 'I don't want to do this 'S.' Stuff like this, and Lezlie used to put soap in my mouth."

When Work to Ride was in its second year, some of the boys grew bored with riding their horses in circles and jumping obstacles. Hiner had started learning how to play polo. The boys were intrigued. The game was fast-paced and played in a wide-open field with sticks, balls and goals. It looked like hockey on horseback.

"As soon as we started the polo, there was no turning back and I was like, 'Aha!' A light bulb went off," she said. "This is what they're willing to work for."

Polo is expensive, exclusive and played mostly by wealthy white men. It didn't matter. In 1996, Hiner started the first African-American, inner-city polo team in the country.

"I didn't think about it. I just did it," she said.

With no practice facilities of its own, the Work to Ride team commuted to local polo clubs. Team members showed up with their rusty, squeaky horse trailer and played with hand-me-down equipment and mediocre horses.

"You couldn't help notice how everyone else was looking at us -- all the white folks," said Richard Prather, one of the original players. "We were wearing our baggy clothes and we talked like we were from the streets. A lot of the young Caucasian teenagers would ask us, 'Hey, you got any drugs we can buy from you?'"

Hiner never allowed the kids to entertain the thought that they didn't belong. It was five years before the team won a game. When the players improved, attitudes changed.

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Sandra SheldonThe Work to Ride polo team captured the Interscholastic National Polo Championship, becoming the first African-American polo team to win a national title. From left: Richard Prather, Kareem Rosser, Brandon Rease, Daymar Rosser and Lezlie Hiner.

"The talent is the equalizer," Hiner said. "So when you get a kid out there that just starts schooling the crap out of everybody, all of the sudden, it's not a black kid on a horse -- this is somebody that I'm gonna have to run down and get."

Seventeen years after starting the program, exhausting years in which Hiner relentlessly chauffeured her kids to polo matches and clinics all over the country, Hiner experienced her proudest moment. This past March, the team won the Interscholastic National Championship -- the first African-American team to win a championship title in polo history.

"It was just a super, super, super great feeling," she said. "I hope it has an impact on kids all over the world. Yeah, you can do this. Any kid can do it. That's what I'm hoping anyway."

Two months later, Hiner dropped Kareem, her team captain, off at a junior college where he'll spend a year before attending the Ivy League's Cornell University.

But Hiner and polo can't save everyone from their home lives. She lets the players stay at her house often, but inevitably they have to leave their polo community behind to go home.

Some of the players left Work to Ride permanently for the streets, drugs and crime. One was shot, twice. He lived. One didn't. In 2003, Hiner took home of one of her most promising players, 14-year-old Mecca Harris, after practice. Hours later, Mecca, her mother and her mother's boyfriend were shot to death in their home.

"What it brought home to a lot of the kids," she said, "is that you really have to be careful every day who you associate with, where you go and what your surroundings are because you just never know."

Heather Lombardo is a producer for "E:60."