Front & Center
by Jeff Henderson·
FC Harlem’s Director Can’t Hide from the Spotlight
The month of February was historical for the football club in Harlem that is polite-fully bucking the US soccer system. The pay-to-play model that drives youth soccer in America is not the model used by the rest of the world.
Irv Smalls is out to remedy that.
The Leaders In Our Neighborhoods acronym is far more than a tagline. The LIONS have been growing slowly for nearly 30 years and their presence is becoming more present in the culture of global football. For Black History Month both Nike & Uninterrupted showcased the team and their players because their movement fits a narrative in sports that is unmatched.
When our small organization previewed Uninterrupted’s ‘Becoming More’ Irv thought the opening remarks were unremarkable. He’d given that speech to his LIONS for more than a decade behind closed doors. Unapologetic and obvious, his tone is every bit of Irv when it’s game time.
While Irv privately wondered if those words were powerful enough to introduce the club and his mission to an audience outside of the football world, the rest of us knew that there was no better way to tell the world why these soccer players from basketball’s Mecca are ready to challenge the world.
I was introduced to Irv by a good friend who wasn’t sure how I could help — halfway because he didn’t know what Irv needed and halfway because he didn’t know exactly what I do.
Neither do I. Exactly.
Between the branded fields, top notch uniforms and his wealth of connections I was convinced Irv knew what he was doing with his program. I‘d quickly learn how big his vision was and prepared myself to help however I could.
Not exactly sure how.
What I would also learn is that Irv had been pushing this boulder uphill as the leader of the brand and wanted to take a step back from being the face. He wanted to let the team and the players and the coaches and the field shine.
Don’t get it twisted. Irv has no plans of stepping down from leading the charge with his coaches and his players. The trust and respect from parents and the community are too heavy to hand over.
Irv just ducks when the cameras are pointed in his direction.
Pepper-jack Cheese & White Sauce
In less than 30 seconds you get the purpose, vision and mountain ahead for a team from Harlem headed to Dallas for a tournament that would yield a few scholarships and a few professional try-outs.
“We’re standing out in more ways than one.”
Most Americans don’t know how to order a chopped cheese in a Harlem bodega, but most Harlem kids don’t know how different the world looks when you leave Manhattan to see the rest of America. This opportunity would expose them to a whole new world in more ways than one. They needed to hear what their responsibilities were.
In the Club
This isn’t the first time that Irv has put his young men and women on center stage. Partnerships with major brands in football and sports are nothing new to FC Harlem. While plane trips to Dallas and Beaverton may be firsts for individual players, Irv has delivered a 360º approach to every player that embraces the opportunity that the club has to offer.
Yet, this time around the opportunity feels different. The asks from Irv to sponsors, collaborators and players is different. Harlem as a community is different. The sport of football is different.
Unfortunately for the Director of FC Harlem, the face will be the same. He’s a star now.
Time to shine.