Irv Smalls, FC Harlem

Irv Smalls, FC Harlem

We had the chance to catch up with the Executive Director of our favorite soccer team in Harlem. We discussed everything from Nike and the English Premier League to the future of education and youth sports as the changing game evolves from a US perspective to a global approach.

Irv Smalls, FC Harlem

Irv Smalls, Jr. is the Executive Director of FC Harlem L.I.O.NS (Leaders In Our Neighborhoods), a youth development and soccer program whose mission is to use the world’s game as a vehicle to transform communities from the inside out, by empowering youth of color to have the pride and power to be fearless leaders in life.
Irv is a leading thought leader on soccer and youth development in urban communities in the United States. He attended Penn State University and Dickinson Law School. At Penn State, Irv played tight end for the Nittany Lions Football Team which went undefeated in 1994, winning the Big Ten Conference and 1995 Rose Bowl.

Irv’s goal when he took over leadership of FC Harlem was to create opportunities for more youth of color in Harlem. Under Irv’s guidance, FC Harlem has become one of the most recognized youth sports organizations and brands in the country. He has been successful in attracting the attention and support of some of the biggest names in the soccer industry including MLS, Pele, David Beckham, Tim Howard and several professional teams. In 2015 Irv structured a partnership with Premier League club, Chelsea FC to help build a one of a kind covered youth soccer field in Harlem. Additionally, the organization has received recognition from public figures and celebrities such as President Clinton and President Bush.
Irv’s accomplishments in improving opportunities for youth of color through soccer have led to speaking engagements including, the First Lady’s Partnership for a Healthier America Inaugural Summit in 2011 and the Ford Foundation in 2014. In July 2014, Smalls was invited to the White House to participate in the formal findings of President Obama’s Task Force for the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative for improving outcomes for youth of color and returned in 2015 for the White House Briefing on African American Leadership.

Irv has also been featured in several print, television and online media outlets from CNN, Fox Business, BBC Radio and The New York Times. Prior to FC Harlem, Irv worked in Business and Legal Affairs at Major League Soccer from 2000 until 2007. In Philadelphia he worked as a Victim/Court Advocate for Victim Witness Services of South Philadelphia and then in Business Affairs for McKissack & McKissack, the oldest minority architectural firm in the country.


Full Transcripts 

Jeffrey Henderson: 00:06 Okay. Irv, what's good?

Irv Smalls: 00:08 Oh man, hanging in there. Staying positive.

Jeffrey Henderson: 00:16 So, we got people listening in, so want to give a quick little introduction of yourself? You don't have to go into everything, just who you are and what you do.

Irv Smalls: 00:23 Yeah. I am the executive director for FC Harlem Lions, which stands for Leaders In Our Neighborhood. And our goal and mission here is to provide underserved youth in the communities of Harlem, Bronx, Washington Heights, opportunities to engage in the game of football and potentially think about being big-time leaders on the pitch and off.

Jeffrey Henderson: 00:48 That is a very well rehearsed, very well spoken explanation of who you are. One day I'm going to have that for myself, but I'm not there yet. I'm going to throw out the first I think I came to meet you. I didn't know what to expect. We had a mutual friend who was like, "Go talk to Irv."

Irv Smalls: 01:10 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 01:10 I was like, "Why am I talking to Irv?" "Just go talk to Irv." And I think the part that I didn't expect, and that most people didn't expect, is that soccer was not something you grew up.

Irv Smalls: 01:21 Yeah, yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 01:23 Talk a little bit about how you landed in soccer.

Irv Smalls: 01:26 Yeah. I like talking about it because again so many people now, including myself, understand and are very passionate about it. But definitely was one of those sports growing up that was not cool, not interested at all. Grew up in [Hershey 00:01:46], you play all kinds of sports but I'd been the guy that's been more focused on football. I played football in college at Penn State. I was in Philly in the late 90s and an opportunity to potentially go to business school in Philly, and I had talked to the dean about getting involved in sports business.

Irv Smalls: 02:11 And it just so happened that there was a position at Major League Soccer in New York. And I tell people that of course I took the job to get some sports business experience, but I actually struggled to get in the beginning because I was like, "Man, I do not like soccer at all." I remember just talking to my dad like, "I'm not really trying to get involved in soccer." He was just like, "Well, I thought you have a goal, get more sports business experience, you're going to come back to school," and I was like, "Yeah, that's a good point."

Irv Smalls: 02:46 Yeah, that's how I got into it. And I came to Major League Soccer, worked in business and legal affairs and doing a lot of sponsorship deals and IP. But I say all of that, but I joined them in 2000 and I still wasn't really focused on the game. I was just there working. 2002, the World Cup. At that point there were a fair amount of players that were in Major League Soccer that were part of the US national team. They had a pretty good team that year. I think they made it all the way to the quarter final.

Irv Smalls: 03:19 But what got me into the game was a couple of my colleagues were like, "Could you just come out, Irv? You got to watch a couple of World Cup matches." It was in Japan and South Korea so it was at night. The first thing that caught me was just that so many people were interested. And of course there's the contest, that the US was in it. And I tell people, as crazy as it sounds, the first match I watched, I think it was Senegal versus South Korea and I just hadn't seen that many brothers on a pitch before to be honest. I'd tell people like, "Of course, there was an African team," but I hadn't seen that.

Irv Smalls: 04:05 It was that initial piece, but then it was really more the athleticism and I was looking how they were playing, how they were moving. My identity of the most talented players, and I've always been biased, was football, even more so than basketball that I really appreciate too. But when I just started thinking about it and really looking at the game I was like, "Yeah, these might be some of the best athletes." It was really going out and watching some of those World Cup matches that had me starting to look at the game globally.

Jeffrey Henderson: 04:38 Right. Because before that, I mean, if you only watch American soccer it's usually through the lens of seeing it to be a suburban white sport.

Irv Smalls: 04:49 Yeah, yeah. I mean, that's the way you grow up knowing it, as orange slices, mini vans. It's a suburban sport pastime. You didn't make a connection to it to the professional sports. When I played-

Jeffrey Henderson: 05:04 And to give-

Irv Smalls: 05:04 I was going to say, when I was playing football growing up, I used to play running back, I would think about myself being Tony Dorsett. You know what I mean? Or if I was running track, you would think about being Carl Lewis. [inaudible 00:05:16] think about being George [Hutton 00:05:19]. You were thinking these individuals. I didn't have an identity or connection to knowing anybody in soccer. It was really only till later on.

Irv Smalls: 05:29 Of course, when I was in college you knew names Pele, but to really understand who he was, the impact he made, understanding some of the different global cultures that are leaders in football, that didn't really come across to me until after really once I got to Major League Soccer and started to dive into it a little bit more.

Jeffrey Henderson: 05:51 Right. And it's tough for kids to process that, because now the world's a lot more global.

Irv Smalls: 05:55 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 05:56 Back in the late 90s there wasn't a real what's going on on the other side of the world conversation.

Irv Smalls: 06:01 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 06:02 There was no Facebook, there was no Instagram. So, me growing up, and we had this conversation, my mother gave me a Pele lunchbox when I was in second grace because there was a black person on the lunchbox.

Irv Smalls: 06:13 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 06:14 It wasn't for any other reason. She didn't have any idea who Pele was.

Irv Smalls: 06:17 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 06:18 I knew of Pele just from that.

Irv Smalls: 06:21 Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 06:21 But that was the end of my soccer education until probably I got ... I know that I was an intern at AT&T in New Jersey when the World Cup showed up and that would have been '94?

Irv Smalls: 06:32 The '94 World Cup, yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 06:34 And all the interns who were there, I remember Gabrielle Valdez, he was a Mexican kid who was like, "Yo, you're driving us to the World Cup," because I was the only cat who had a car.

Irv Smalls: 06:44 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 06:45 And I was like, "Why am I driving us to the World Cup? It's just a soccer game."

Irv Smalls: 06:48 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 06:48 And we go and I was like, "Yo, this is ridiculous." That was probably my first taste, but even then, once it was gone, there was no way to be a part of it in '94 because again there was no Internet, there was nothing else. And it wasn't until we lived in Japan and my kids were playing soccer and I started watching with an internal crowd, and this was what, 2004, 2005, and I was like, "Oh, this is what the rest of the world is talking about."

Irv Smalls: 07:18 To your point there on the '94 World Cup. Now that you brought that up, I remember this. Being in the US and knowing this is one of the biggest sporting events in the world and it didn't resonate with me. '94 for me was we just had an amazing season at Penn State and we had just finished 12 and Up. So, we were getting ready to play in the Rose Bowl.

Irv Smalls: 07:44 The other part was, I mean, I think it was the O.J. Simpson thing that was going on. I knew the World Cup but it didn't resonate, you know what I mean? And now I look back and it's like, "Wow." To know that that was here, and that's why I get excited about it coming in 2026 it looks like. Just being honest, I didn't care really that it was.

Jeffrey Henderson: 08:04 Yeah, right.

Irv Smalls: 08:06 Like, "Oh okay, there's a big soccer event in the US. Oh well."

Jeffrey Henderson: 08:09 So, when I first stepped in and met you and you started talking about soccer this, soccer that, and I think the connection point was we were both two people who grew up not caring about soccer, then had an appreciation later in life about what it was, to the point we could actually have an honest dialog about it. And the part that was I think the most compelling was when you started talking about, well, one is the pay to play, and we can talk about that in a second.

Irv Smalls: 08:36 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 08:37 But I was more fascinated by the fact that the global community embraces FC Harlem almost more so than anybody else.

Irv Smalls: 08:47 Yeah, yeah, yeah. Some of that is actually I think strategic by just where our first exposure has been as a club, but I think even before that it's just the recognition of the community, Harlem being, in my opinion, a global community. Harlem World. These terms were out there for a reason. Harlem Globetrotters.

Jeffrey Henderson: 09:10 Harlem is famous.

Irv Smalls: 09:11 Yeah. I mean, people know it. Maybe don't know it for soccer, but again I think for the organization, yeah, I think one reason why the global community knows it is that specifically there was a point where David Beckham did come to Harlem and we did a cleanup at that point. I think it was early 2007.

Irv Smalls: 09:35 So, I think there became a point where once you had such a key global icon in football like that in the community of Harlem with the organization, that put our name out there in the global landscape to the point where, yeah, you name it. Went to AC Milan or Manchester, you know, whoever's come through.

Irv Smalls: 09:57 We started being recognized in the global space within I would say professional football, but also I think what people start identifying with communities like Harlem, urban areas, aren't so foreign to football globally. It challenged people I think to know that ... Harlem, they don't think is known for soccer, it's thought about basketball.

Irv Smalls: 10:24 I mean, you tell me. I don't even think it's known for American Football, right? It's-

Jeffrey Henderson: 10:31 They got the Harlem Jets, they got the Harlem Jets.

Irv Smalls: 10:32 You got it, and I know we have all sports, but the identity ... And I think there's a point where globally we can connect ... I mean, look, you've got this big massive continent, you've got North America, we understand cities playing football. That's not new to us. You know what I mean?

Jeffrey Henderson: 10:47 Right.

Irv Smalls: 10:48 So, I think once there was some exposure around a global athlete then there started to be, I think, more paying attention to like, "Oh, that's interesting," because we don't know soccer in the US that way, what's going on there.

Jeffrey Henderson: 10:59 I think the other part is, I think you, and I've learned more about this as I said when I moved up to Harlem and you were one of the first people I met after I started getting out of my apartment, was the idea of how global Harlem is. Because I think there's a historic understanding of what Harlem is. There's The Apollo. There's, you know, that's where the black people live. There's some gentrification.

Jeffrey Henderson: 11:22 I think that was as far as people's lives really wrapped around. But they didn't understand the diversity of East Harlem, the immigrant population that lives in Central Harlem. Not knowing those pieces. Once you get that, you understand that global football is very much a part of what Harlem is.

Irv Smalls: 11:42 Absolutely. I think for all the years that I've lived in Harlem, and it still happens now, definitely pre Uber and Lyft when it was just the black cabs, a lot of it were African drivers and football would become the conversation. That's what I used to find so funny. I would tell people sometimes there's this connectivity I would have to football.

Irv Smalls: 12:08 Even jumping in a cab, if I was wearing something soccer, whether it was FC Harlem or whatever club I was ... the gear I was wearing at the time, first question they asked me, "You like football?" Football. I'm going to say football, not soccer, so that's why I've gotten now to say football. "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Then it's like, "Who do you support?" Then it got to a point where I would come in and if I see any little trinket hanging in somebody's car that suggests anything about you being immigrant, I'm like, "You like soccer? I mean football." So, yeah, that's definitely something where I think that international community ...

Irv Smalls: 12:42 And you can see it in so many different ways from ... Where we were running our program there would be a Mexican league that play between 6:30 and 8:30 before our program started at 9:00 on Saturdays. You knew where all the African cab drivers do, they'll have an adult league over 120th Street and Park. And this is just walking around and seeing these things over the years. So, there is definitely a global community and identity in Harlem. Soccer existed, it was just understanding more about that.

Jeffrey Henderson: 13:15 Yeah. One of the things again I picked up, and this was funny because this was our first conversation, I think we talked for like two hours because again somebody sent me there. I had no clue why I was there and you probably had no clue why I was there either. And we just had a good convo. You strategically put some pieces together on a program that had already existed for a dozen years before you got there.

Irv Smalls: 13:41 Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 13:41 It was already there. And I think that's the part where some of the pieces ... I mean, no disrespect to what it was but it was your regular community soccer program, and you turned it into a place where I think you embraced ... We've talked about this a lot. The value system of what FC Harlem stands for and what you want the players to get out of it, more so than just ... Every phone call we have where you talk about everybody's just looking at, "Oh well, this is a place to keep the kids off the street and safe."

Irv Smalls: 14:14 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 14:15 And that's not the conversation.

Irv Smalls: 14:18 Yeah. And I think what ended up happening again, it was really my experience at Major League Soccer. The organization had been around, done amazing work. It's the sister organization to Harlem Little League, which is definitely known and been a staple in the community for years.

Irv Smalls: 14:38 But traditionally, I think when I started looking at the sport, and again giving the context where I was coming from, is that one; I initially looked at it as just it wasn't cool to me, and then two; it's a sport that is defined by, again looking at it from the US, a suburban that you're trying to then import into Harlem, into an inner-city community that actually is global. That logic didn't make any sense to me. So, that's why for me it was so important when I first got involved to understand Harlem, understand the community. Get to know community leaders, go to community board meetings, get to know who the politicians were, the people who really are the stakeholders in the community and understand what was important to me.

Irv Smalls: 15:30 And definitely what I heard was community. What I definitely heard was culture. And in that culture, parentheses, black immigrant, you just know it as part of that, they're connecting to that. You know what I mean?

Jeffrey Henderson: 15:43 Yeah.

Irv Smalls: 15:44 So, I made it a point for me to really understand that. But where I really, and I've said this since day one and I still hold to it, was questioning, if you have a global community and identity, and in its people in Harlem, then a sport like soccer, if it's a global sport, should be identified globally not what's being done nationally. And that's not even getting into deeper discussions about whether it's proven results whatever yet. It didn't make sense to me because to me Harlem is big and it's global. You don't narrow it down into a suburban sport. So, I just have a different view of it. I don't think anybody who initially was looking at it having soccer be in our communities saw it that way. They probably just saw it as, "Hey, this is maybe a non-traditional sport, let's expose kids to different things, no problem." I just started questioning what that current system looked like.

Jeffrey Henderson: 16:41 Yeah. You definitely took the approach of ... Well, I think you looked at it through a different lens but I think it also helps that your background is a Division One powerhouse in college football, being at the MLS in a professional setting, but also your background on what you did in Philadelphia. I think you put it all together.

Irv Smalls: 17:03 Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 17:03 And you didn't just treat it as, "All right, let's go play lacrosse and have fun."

Irv Smalls: 17:07 No.

Jeffrey Henderson: 17:07 And that's the part where again it's so hilarious that your players, one; you just aired an Undefeated video, a movie, short, shot by Undefeated, and then your players end up in Nike gear. What's about that?

Irv Smalls: 17:26 Yeah. I mean, just to touch back on what you were saying about Philly. And I think that's a key point, is that when I was in Philly before I moved to New York I was working for the DA's office. It was an organization called Victim Witness Services. So, I was working as a victim advocate when I came out of law school with this organization, with people who were victims of crime. And one thing that ended up happening through that process was I was meeting a lot of young men who might have ... Well, they were victims. And a lot of it was just fights and stuff in school. I would always have my football brain on and that sparked conversations with them. You know what I mean?

Irv Smalls: 18:06 So, naturally, what would happen, while I'm working on compensation claims for them and finding out the details of what things happened and then having to pass this information onto the DA's, there was just ... And I was just naturally talking. I wouldn't even necessarily say, "Today I have a mentoring sessions with Z player or this young man." We were just talking. But you started seeing what the power of sports engaging these young men. Then some of them were already into sports and stuff and so it was like, you know what, they were using that like, "I want to be better."

Irv Smalls: 18:36 So, I think that was something that I saw that really got me excited of just how that's something that you can, sports can be a vehicle to inspire kids to be better, be different, maybe change their life. But that component was also very important to me as I was getting involved in community, and that's where I speak to that understanding the community and meeting with people and understanding what they're looking for.

Irv Smalls: 19:00 But in addition to that I think, like you said, the experience definitely at Penn State because there was an expectation of the best. I tell people this all the time, I'm sure there's organizations like working with me because when you're doing something for youth in the community you should appreciate what people give you. I have some gently-worn shoes or ... Appreciate this? And I'm like, "Nope, I don't want that." I want-

Jeffrey Henderson: 19:30 Nope. Irv is not going for any extra hand-me-down, we got some bottom-tier-

Irv Smalls: 19:36 No. I want this, I want that. Like, who are you? Well, you know what, at Penn State I got free shoes. If my shoes ripped, Nike had another pair of shoes sitting right there for me. Got my meals, so yeah, I got high expectations.

Irv Smalls: 19:50 But also that came from family and the school system that we went to in high school, but I think part of the approach I've mentioned to you before is I actually have something called Three C's. So, it's Community, Culture, Cool. And a lot of this I think, to the point of where we started working with big brands, big clubs that would come by, was one highlighting that culture and highlighting the culture around the game, which is synonymous to what Harlem is, culture. Let's build that piece up first. You know what I mean?

Irv Smalls: 20:29 Build that piece up, which was culture. I saw it as two ways, Harlem and then the global community. I would intentionally, I would tell people, I actually would say, "Community, culture, cool," and then soccer was the last lens. Wasn't really quite ready to deal with that yet. Because one, first and foremost, I'm not a soccer expert so I'm like, "I'll let the soccer experts deal with that when we get to it." You know what I mean?

Jeffrey Henderson: 20:57 Fake it till you make it kind of.

Irv Smalls: 20:58 And again, when I got to that, yeah, I could tell you, you look back at this stuff. If people could see, if there was a camera on the wall of meetings I used to have with coaches, volunteer coaches, you'd just see me at the center of the table just rubbing, my head would be in my hands, I'd just be rubbing my head because I'm like, "I can't get these guys to agree on anything. Just what is the style of play? My Caribbean coach different than my ... My Mexican coach was different than the African coach."

Irv Smalls: 21:28 So, I was actually being exposed to the culture of the game through a lot of coaches that I had involved, when it got to the point where it's like, "All right guys, Harlem is known for this. We have got a style of play. It's aggressive, attacking. I don't know nothing about soccer. What is that? What formation is that?" I would ask them the worst questions you should ask with multiple coaches sitting around the table. All your pizza will be gone that you bought, and you'll have no solutions at the end of the day. But-

Jeffrey Henderson: 22:04 But what's wild is you went from the local coaches who brought the players, who brought the different nationalities and their style of play, but you've been working with some big names and local-

Irv Smalls: 22:18 Yeah, and I think part of the strategy was ... I think there's an idea that you fake it till you make it, or you bring people around you who are good at what they do. For me, once I started getting connected a little bit to the global community ... And there were some things I'd seen FC Harlem had done in the past before, around some World Cup campaigns and things. There was a part for me that I think was really important to listen to that side.

Irv Smalls: 22:46 So, when I mentioned that different organizations might be in the city, through let's just say there might have been a tournament in the United States that summer and a couple of teams came into the city, if we met with them or did clinics with athletes and stuff I would always have an opportunity to sit down and try to talk a little bit of business. Whether that was Man U coming in and sitting down with them like, "Hey, what are you looking to do here in the US?" Thierry Henry, connected with him and his agent, went and met with them and sat down. "What do you think you're going to do later on, after you've moved on with soccer? I think there's things in the inner cities."

Irv Smalls: 23:20 So, I was always looking to appreciating the opportunity to do things with those teams, these key figures in the global game, with our kids. It's important that they had that experience because I wanted them to see they were being valued and being connected to this sport that they saw on TV. Like were FIFA to get the game and all these things were starting to play, but they were connected to these games. And now seeing these athletes, these teams connecting with them.

Irv Smalls: 23:50 I also want to connect with those people as well as to the game and the cultures, to educate, you know what I mean? And what are some of the opportunities to learn from you guys and maybe bring some of your knowledge here to the US, specifically through our organization.

Jeffrey Henderson: 24:08 I think the most healthy part of any conversation with Irv Smalls the way you're, and I guess this comes from not only your professional background but your upbringing, is that the way that you equally distribute your leverage for one side and the other in the spirit that ...

Jeffrey Henderson: 24:28 There's brands that come in and they want to put the cool, which sometimes just equals the black kid, that face in front of their product. At the same time, there's the opportunity that those players have to then go to a campus, to a world headquarters, and meet with business people and walk through, "Why are you doing this? What is the advantage of us doing this and what's the business proposition that occurs here?"

Jeffrey Henderson: 24:54 I think you were quick to say, "Look, we're going to both use each other in the correct way, and we're not just going to again throw some cheap, poor, bad shoes out just so you can play. Oh by the way, we're not going to go out and play terribly and enjoy this free product just because we can. We're going to appreciate what they're doing for us too," I think.

Jeffrey Henderson: 25:15 Your conversations and the reality I think, what I love is that if there's somebody who wants to talk less than me it's you. And the fact that for the video in Uninterrupted, that first two minutes is just you, which you kept saying, "Why would they put that there? It's a private conversation."

Irv Smalls: 25:31 Yeah. It's definitely been my approach, and you know this and other people have been talking to me recently. We know your approach, everybody knows you're in the background. You know what I mean? That's your thing. You're back there. I'll get up there when I need to, but I'm pretty much in the background.

Irv Smalls: 25:49 But to your point, when it's working with these companies or these big local brands and football clubs, I think for me it's also the piece of being at Penn State and working, just being around Nike at Penn State and all the different things we got exposed to, there's a lot more than what's just on the field. And for me, it's just a passion for if our communities are being identified, products, athletes, we should know the business of it.

Irv Smalls: 26:24 So, whenever possible, it's always trying to have that conversation and say, "Hey, yes, let's do an event, let's do an activation, whatever that is. Is there also an opportunity for a student to get X opportunity? Can we bring some players down to the office? Can we go and do some sort of event and would it learn more how that business operates?" You know what I mean? It will always happen. It's just another lens that I'm always going to do. Put the time and energy on the opportunity, the event, let's get it done, been in those rooms for years. But also at the same time, I like to get that information and bring it back into the community with our kids. "Here's what this opportunity is. Who's going to be there?"

Irv Smalls: 27:08 I joke with kids at times, I say, "Look ... " You talk to them, not in a preachy way, you just talk to them and let them know what's going on. "Hey, so you're going to be down in the field and there's probably some of the most powerful people in football, senior athletes. So, what do you do with that? You just going to play in the event and then go sit on the sidelines until your next time to play, or are you walking around introducing yourself? What do you want to do with that?"

Irv Smalls: 27:32 That's the way I would try to engage them to think about, "These rooms, these events, these deals that are being created are not just for the event. We're creating the rooms for decisions that are being made at a level that engages you on something you like to do, football. Be in those rooms and start asking some questions."

Jeffrey Henderson: 27:51 And I think building just those I think reflective muscles in terms of how you conduct yourself in any one of these environments, I know Mill Bank is the same in the way they ... I mean, the kids walk up and say hi to everybody and greet everybody with a smile and ... Well, it used to be a handshake but now it would just be a nod from across the room.

Jeffrey Henderson: 28:10 But I think those are pieces that when you deliver ... I love being with you on this journey. We've discussed this. Coach switching has gone away, but there definitely was I think those times like you talk about when you used to wear a suit and show up. And that didn't necessarily come across as the reality of the neighborhood, the community, or even what people expected when you were downtown. But then to take that to the other side, if you had on a sweatsuit you were just the coach, which only happens [crosstalk 00:28:45].

Irv Smalls: 28:46 Yeah. That's the point that I was telling somebody. I mean, there was a couple, there was actually a situation recently and I think I mentioned it to you, where ... The kids know that through our partnership with Chelsea I'll go to London and I'm meeting with different people there. And I say, "Yeah, I'm meeting with the chairman and we're close." The kids look at you like ... They hear you but they don't believe me. You know what I mean? They don't fit-

Jeffrey Henderson: 29:09 Because you don't fit their descriptions.

Irv Smalls: 29:11 [crosstalk 00:29:11]. "You're in the neighborhood. You live in Harlem. We know where you live. We can't know you in that way and also tell us you're sitting in suites with people who run billion dollar football clubs. That doesn't work." You know what I mean? It's like, "Yeah I know, okay."

Irv Smalls: 29:33 But I remember when we actually took the team last year that was in the film, the Dallas Cup, and we went up to Boston to play New England Revolution U18 team, and the boys were focused on the game. Of course [inaudible 00:29:50]. But just for them at that point right before we got started you have the chairman of Chelsea Football Club and the CEO of Chelsea Football Club come over and greet these guys.

Irv Smalls: 29:59 I said, "Now, these are the people from the biggest clubs that ... This is who we talk to." Now, they were dressed the way they were dressed and I was in my Nike track fit that I'm always in. You know what I mean? "Wow. You do know these people." "Yeah, yeah."

Jeffrey Henderson: 30:17 "Mr. Smalls, you can roll like that."

Irv Smalls: 30:18 And I do have funny stories about things like that when I've been in London and there have been times where I was going to do things with Chelsea to engage the players, and Chelsea exec would joke with me. He's like, "You know you can't come in no suit and tie like that tomorrow. You need to dress it down a little bit." I'm like, "I got this. I work with teenagers in Harlem. I'll be all right."

Jeffrey Henderson: 30:43 Their expectations you're going to show up in a polo-

Irv Smalls: 30:45 Yeah, like you said, to your point ... I literally was talking about this to someone the other day. I said kids, when you're in a sports organization, when you're engaging, and I think it's strictly engaging, the loose times you're a coach ... They know me as executive director, but you're a coach. I don't coach them, but that coach means something else. I think it's bigger than you're my basketball coach. They know Caetano is the football coach, but when they see me they still say coach and they've never seen me coach, never. Yes. It's-

Jeffrey Henderson: 31:30 Coach is almost like uncle, it's like family. It's something that executive director does not replace.

Irv Smalls: 31:36 Yeah. I mean, some kids are like, "I know the guy who runs the program," but when they see me, "Hey coach."

Jeffrey Henderson: 31:46 Right.

Irv Smalls: 31:52 That's it.

Jeffrey Henderson: 31:53 I think for most people it's hard to explain again the difference between what is global football and what American soccer looks like, and the fact that ... I mean, there's been a lot of talk now about the pay to play programing that is American soccer and how I think programs like yours upend that conversation.

Jeffrey Henderson: 32:14 I think the scary part about, again, when I first walked in and started looking at pictures when you took that team to Dallas, and there were all these kids who were head to toe in all white Nike gear and how intimidating that just looked from the time they got off the bus. Because when you saw pictures of the other teams-

Irv Smalls: 32:34 I mean-

Jeffrey Henderson: 32:35 ... the gear was nice, but it didn't look like it rolled off Nike.

Irv Smalls: 32:38 Right. I mean, we noticed. Our community was like, "You look good." You know what I mean? But it's also about, it's Harlem.

Jeffrey Henderson: 32:48 You looked good.

Irv Smalls: 32:48 I think I told you this one time, just what connection means to represent Harlem, where our boys were in a bus getting ready to head to the airport to go down to that tournament. And this brother just walked down the street and he saw the bus, and he just saw the coach and a couple of us were standing outside and he was like, "Who are y'all? What's going on? Who's in there?"

Irv Smalls: 33:15 And he's like, "That's a basketball team or something?" We're like, "No, no, that's a soccer team." "Oh, so there's a bunch of white boys up in there?" "No." I said, "You can go ahead and look if you want to to." He walked on the bus, he looked in there, and he gave them a speech about what it means to represent Harlem. "Now, y'all represent Harlem so y'all better go down there and win. If not, when you come back ... " Am I allowed to swear on this? He's like-

Jeffrey Henderson: 33:43 Knock yourself out, knock yourself out.

Irv Smalls: 33:45 ... "I'll come down and kick your ass myself, all right?" But I speak to that even in the sense of ... I remember when we were getting our kits, we were going down there and we were looking sharp. Even a conversation I had with somebody from a big brand a couple of weeks ago just said to me, "It's good to finally talk to you. I didn't know if FC Harlem was a professional team, what it was, because the identity of the thing, I thought it was some professional team." That's good. That's what I want.

Jeffrey Henderson: 34:16 I mean, from not only just the uniform, but from the logo to the photography. I mean, you got Joshua [inaudible 00:34:24] and Mel Cole shooting your team, just players kicking a ball around. That's extra. How much of that was a learn from the big brands that you already had connections with, and how much of that was ... I mean, we have this joke, your sister telling you [crosstalk 00:34:40].

Irv Smalls: 34:40 Right, right. Well, I mean, honestly, I'll tell you. From day one when I got involved with FC Harlem, and it actually is a key person to all of this and where it is now is a guy Roger Rodriguez, who's not here now, he's now in Texas. But he was a photographer and I think he had shot something for Major League Soccer. I remember he reached out to me because he said, "I just was outside MLS and I saw FC Harlem on a sheet or a document. I was just like, 'Who's this?'" Blah blah blah. And they told him. He lived in Washington Heights so we connected. He was really the first person to start taking images of the club, and we literally would sit down and we would think about it. We would look at campaigns because he did a lot of shooting for ESPN and things like that.

Irv Smalls: 35:33 So, we would look at certain types of campaigns. "Let's shoot something like that. Let's go get a bunch of the boys and let's go on the subway and shoot something creative here. Let's go shoot a little video." So, we always have tried to bring this creative approach to it and to look like the big boys. That is intentionally what we were trying to do, you know what I mean?

Irv Smalls: 35:55 I remember there was an interesting Nike video and I always used to watch it, from the 2006 World Cup. This, this kid on the beach of Rio De Janeiro. He's like, "You ever see the English when they play football? They're so serious. We have fun here. We've got culture, we got flare, we dance." You know what I mean? And I remember this kid said that. I remember I was always saying to Roger, "I want to tap into that while looking like a professional club." A lot of times that was our approach on how we were doing things, but again, yeah, I mean, I think for kids and I think what we were trying to do is we knew what that Harlem brand.

Irv Smalls: 36:37 This is New York City. It's very competitive, it doesn't matter what industry you're in. I'm saying this to acknowledge this as a fact and a reality, but I don't play the game the way other clubs or people in the industry may play it. It's competitive in its nature that we're all out there trying to attract kids. And we know what the Harlem name means. We've had people say, "Oh, your gear is always fly. You guys got [NUX 00:37:09] logo, you got this ... " And you got haters. "Y'all got some nice gear, but can you play?" Know what I mean? You're going to always get that.

Jeffrey Henderson: 37:18 Right, right. There's definitely attention, I think, and what's really strange is that the most Harlem organization in terms of sports I've been around is the soccer team. Which doesn't make any sense in my mind because I'll go and watch the basketball AAU teams, and they come across as very New York basketball. But there's a piece of it where I think you get ...

Jeffrey Henderson: 37:47 And there are a lot of kids who are the children of immigrants who come and there's a little bit of assimilation of, "Basketball is the cool sport in the US. I'm going to play that." But what you get with FC Harlem is clearly straight up, "This ... from, and I'm going to go play World Cup of soccer uptown. I'm going to go to all of those events. My family's going to participate. I am going to still feel like I'm New York, I'm going to feel like I'm Harlem, and I'm going to feel like I could be from Senegal."

Irv Smalls: 38:20 Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 38:20 All of that's going to come out. It's dope, the way it all gets put together.

Irv Smalls: 38:26 I mean, you see it, right? And even as you're saying that I'm just processing like you'll have a kid ... Again, a lot of the kids that we work with, we do have a lot of immigrant kids and they're looking at the global game.

Irv Smalls: 38:37 So, they will have one fresh white FC Harlem jersey, and then they will have the little band that is the colors from the African country that they support. You know what I mean? Or someone's got on their African continent necklace on. You know what I mean? They make the connections. We have kids who say, "I play for FC Harlem but I live in the Bronx."

Jeffrey Henderson: 38:59 Right.

Irv Smalls: 39:00 Being clear about that, where you're from, you know what I mean?

Jeffrey Henderson: 39:05 Exactly, exactly. [inaudible 00:39:05]. Yes, you definitely get that vibe from that squad. And I think from the photography to the conversations, there's definitely professional interaction. Right now, you have a field. That's a mini pitch, it's great for practices, to do a youth workout session there I guess when we all get to go back outside. But you're also planning a couple of other builds.

Irv Smalls: 39:38 Yeah, yeah. I mean, right now I think where we're at is we're thinking about how we can better the infrastructure. And to improve on the infrastructure, you want to start having these loftier goals of giving kids more access to the actual pathway system, which is what kids are talking about.

Irv Smalls: 40:00 Just to walk back to your question, we've had kids who've come to us over the years, and most recently probably about four or five years ago, just sat down with us and we're just like, "We get the realities of not being a professional at any sport, but we want organizations to show us, like FC Harlem, like other ones throughout the community, to show us how we could be the best soccer players. We want that."

Irv Smalls: 40:30 And so for me there's a part of listening to that, and maybe the kids don't understand this, but that then says okay, you've got to have infrastructure in place, you're going to have to have places where they can go. It's just that simple. I mean, I tell people all the time I take the [PALS 00:40:44] model. Before kids can go places, they have to have a place to go. Always loved that model, think it's great. You know what I mean?

Irv Smalls: 40:51 So, to that point, we have the one field, we control that which is great. Just talking to my coach the other day. We understand the unique, maybe lack of a better terms, competitive advantage we have in controlling a small space in this current COVID environment and what that looks like post-COVID and maybe do some small-sided things once clinically things are okay to go back.

Irv Smalls: 41:12 But what we also know, and I was having this conversation, we need that engagement off the field. So, right now we're looking at two things. One is getting our first ever clubhouse and having that as a location where it can be a place for our office staff, but really more importantly a safe place where kids can come, where they can be engaged not only in the football development that happens off the pitch but really that youth development, personal development, where we can bring in mentors, other community-based organizations to help them in so many different areas of life. Whether that's all the different aspects of personal and health development, mental health, emotional health, so that they can just be the best person they can be.

Irv Smalls: 41:59 In addition to that we got access to more land to build the first covered soccer field in New York City. So, I would say if we're talking about New York, I mean, we haven't studied, but the obvious part is land is hard to come by. I think we've been in a unique situation. A lot of it's just hustle, showing there's opportunities where we've been able to do one small field where there's a community giveback with Children's Aid Society, which I think that field has become multipurpose.

Irv Smalls: 42:33 It's not just soccer, but just creates opportunities for so many different sorts of sports for kids over at Children's Aid Society to engage in. But also then having our field for more soccer development. But we think by having a year-round field we can get more hours, kids can get more touches, we can service more kids, and we're looking to do that over in West Harlem.

Irv Smalls: 42:57 But all these fields right now, again I'm going to be clear, I definitely will tell you, I looked to internationally what was being done in a lot of the climates where there's a lot of rain. Thailand, a lot of these places, we noticed a lot of covered soccer fields that were open on the side. These were all in densely-populated areas. Even some places in London, some places in Brazil. And so when you look at the land that we have, it's like there's an opportunity to do what is referred to as small-sided or Futsal-type fields. Just because it's a smaller field, a coach will speak to this a little bit better, but it helps with their touches, their creativity.

Irv Smalls: 43:48 Things that naturally you find for youths that come out of urban environments, so that creativity that you might naturally just see with kids in urban environments through their dress, their clothes, their music, the fashion, the lingo that they talk. I see how that can also translate onto these pitches, but you got to build the facilities first.

Jeffrey Henderson: 44:11 Yeah, yeah. I think what's always scary about the conversations, not just with you but your squad, I think you have the nerdiest, and I mean that in the best possible way, coach in Caetano who breaks down ... He broke down exactly what you just said in terms of the reason there's the ability to play in close spaces in large urban areas is because it's just densely-populated.

Irv Smalls: 44:36 Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 44:36 So, you watch and those kids who learn to any sport, in New York City they learn to operate with 20 people trying to take whatever they have from them.

Irv Smalls: 44:47 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 44:48 It plays into the education that you put into the development of any of these projects. I mean, you're not just having a conversation about building a covered field. You're traveling around the world with the conversation of what do other fields look like in densely-populated areas, and then having folks like NYU, Columbia, chime in and go, "How can we help you pull this off?"

Irv Smalls: 45:11 Yes.

Jeffrey Henderson: 45:14 Again, this is not your average not for profit, this is not your average soccer team. There's a little more going on to I think the way you're approaching things, and I think that's amazing.

Irv Smalls: 45:25 Yeah. I think to that point, and this speaks to the system a little bit, but it was first and foremost really looking at the system. And once you start, I started having more exposure globally, understanding that the game globally was player development. That yes, it takes the form of teams, but it's player development. And what I started recognizing, again I say this and it may frustrate the larger youth soccer community, but there seemed to be a focus on team versus player. Again, this is not personal opinion. This has been talking to people who run professional football academies overseas and breaking it down for me how, "This is what you guys do in your country. You're putting your hand out saying, 'Pay me,' to a coach. But over here, we identify players."

Irv Smalls: 46:16 There's money involved. Let's be very clear, costs. But we're identifying players for player development because the money's on the backend, not upfront. So, when I started understanding that then I started saying, "What do you want to do? Do you want FC Harlem just to bring Harlem into the current US soccer ... " when I say US soccer, United States, just youth soccer space, and just say, "Guess what? There's an FC from Harlem and now it's part of the game." Or do you say, "But let's actually try to do something different, groundbreaking, revolutionize this whole game." That's what Harlem is. So, it's crazy and it's going to be hard. I have all the reasons, every day, people tell me why you can't, can't, can't, can't. Whatever.

Jeffrey Henderson: 47:05 And the scary part is this is how other sports operate and function in the US. Soccer and baseball's turned into a pay to play, get the team going and if you can't afford it I guess you won't be coming.

Irv Smalls: 47:22 You're going home.

Jeffrey Henderson: 47:22 Whereas football and basketball, it's very much a, "Can you play? Let's get your mind right, but can you play?"

Irv Smalls: 47:31 Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 47:31 And by the way, they have their own issues like everybody else. But I think that's the part where the crafting of FC Harlem, which feels like ... I thought it was a made-up program the way, what is it, FCRB in Japan is. It's just a fashion delivery. I was like, "This is really cool? There's an actual pitch? Wow, they put a lot of money into faking this."

Irv Smalls: 47:55 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 47:56 Oh, turns out it's actually a real club with a real guy with a real point of view.

Irv Smalls: 48:01 Right.

Jeffrey Henderson: 48:02 That's cool. Well, thank you for taking the time. I got one big question for you that I'm trying to ask all guests and be exclusive, so I've blown it a couple of times. It's a conversation we have a lot. One; you're dealing with really young minds, trying to figure out which way is up.

Jeffrey Henderson: 48:25 But I think there's also some not so young minds of folks who are, they got their first job, they're working in the sporting industry, they're working in these places that I think we imagined and we didn't know we'd be 20 years in doing any of this. Like going into Major League Soccer, that was brand-new, you didn't know what you were supposed to get out of it. What would you go back and tell high school, college, to really focus on and really do? What advice would you give?

Irv Smalls: 48:56 I mean, a big one I would say is don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask questions. Where I'm a little bit nerdy is I like learning on my own. It doesn't need to take the form of a formal classroom. You know what I mean? There's people who know me that's like, "You know too much random facts and stuff," but-

Jeffrey Henderson: 49:21 A side note. Irv will Google anything you tell him while you're in a conversation.

Irv Smalls: 49:25 No, yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 49:26 He'll be like, "Hold on. You said three words I didn't know, you said three characters in a movie I haven't seen, so let me Google them while we [inaudible 00:49:35]."

Irv Smalls: 49:36 Oh yeah. Someone yesterday walked me through a whole ... There were lawyers doing some stuff in the White House. He was like, "Oh yeah, so there's a whole new tax code that got put in." As he's explaining it to me, you know this Jeff, I'll be like, "Uh-huh (affirmative). Yeah, yeah." That's just to keep the conversation going.

Jeffrey Henderson: 49:48 Irv's not really listening now, Irv's not really listening now.

Irv Smalls: 49:51 I'm writing notes and then later I go Google it and I'm just, "Oh, okay."

Jeffrey Henderson: 49:58 Yep.

Irv Smalls: 50:03 It's not so much about questioning authority. It's not accepting what somebody gives you as the only source of information. Ask questions, dive a little bit deeper. Of course, when you say what would you say to high school, the whole climate has changed a bit, right? Because there was no Google, there was no [crosstalk 00:50:21] to check.

Jeffrey Henderson: 50:22 Right.

Irv Smalls: 50:22 But now I feel like where kids have a tool, it's more about ... It's something I thought about yesterday. And for some other things we're talking about, is setting goals. If they can set a goal, and they don't have to know a hundred percent what they want to do, but set that goal and you can work back. And talking to the right people, "Can I get access to this?" whatever that may be, so you can start getting and forming an identify of what you want that to be.

Irv Smalls: 50:51 But I definitely would say I look back and say no, people have the best interests for you or they have a path they think is best for you, put you on that. Learn from it, but also be ready to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask questions. And start to be comfortable with where you see you want to go, and then how do you up-skill yourself to be prepared to be successful in that area.

Jeffrey Henderson: 51:17 That's actually I think one of the reasons ... People were asking me, or actually one kid made a comment that never really occurred to me, that, "Oh, well Jeff, you actually achieved your childhood dream." I was like, "Well, no ... Oh, I guess I did." It was the first time I think I had ever thought of it in that manner. One of the things I tell people all the time is, "Think out loud. Make sure you put everything that you want to do out in the universe."

Jeffrey Henderson: 51:47 I think people say that, put out in the universe, like it's something magical. The reality is if I tell a bunch of people I want to design shoes, guess what they're going to think about when they aren't around me or when they are around me? "He wants to do this, I should introduce him to this. He wants to do this, I should show him that article." They start filling up your bucket of that thing that you said you wanted to do.

Irv Smalls: 52:07 Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 52:07 And so you asking questions. If someone's willing to answer, they know going right into it that you are going to be unknowing about that one thing.

Irv Smalls: 52:17 Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson: 52:17 Cool. At least they know it. It's not going to be a surprise. And I think, yeah, asking those questions-

Irv Smalls: 52:23 There was something you said on that, that I think a couple of days ago I was listening to a talk online, and this person was speaking about obviously the context of people being bored right now. And what she was saying is that when you get bored, there's an area that you're interested in, when you focus in that ... She actually was making this reference of just staring out the window. She said you don't understand how your brain starts to really process that thing you're interested from so many different levels. You know what I mean? It was basically a discussion of being bored is a great vehicle by which to spur creativity.

Jeffrey Henderson: 53:07 Yeah.

Irv Smalls: 53:08 And we lose some of that because the device in our hand takes up that time, and multitasking really does not ... They were explaining biologically your brain does not multitask. It does not process this, this, and this all at the same time. It's actually hurting it doing that. But when you focus, and you just will start hitting it from all sorts of different levels. You know what I mean?

Irv Smalls: 53:34 So, that's the part and sometimes I think about it with kids. I literally focus on a couple of our players every day. It's like it, "I'm bored." "Just think. Just look out the window and you'll realize what your brain will do to that idea and go deep into it." As soon as you said that thing about achieving your childhood dream, I'm also just thinking about where we didn't have access to certain things growing up that we would have the ability to let our brains wander and think a bit more.

Jeffrey Henderson: 54:02 Right.

Irv Smalls: 54:02 Versus seeing things now and then being on the phone like, "Oh ... " I was telling my sister this morning that I saw this picture that said they would show all these black umbrellas ... Typical thing we've seen a million times. All these black umbrellas and one red umbrella, where everybody's looking to be the same or be comfortable being different. And I was just like, "Your artwork don't need to look like anybody else's. Your artwork is yours."

Irv Smalls: 54:30 You know what I mean? Yeah. That's just a big thing I want ... Whatever these kids are interested in doing, ask those questions. You have tools in your hands. Ask people. Go achieve that, you know what I mean? Don't let people lay out what they want for your life. That might ultimately be the safe thing to do, whatever, but there's a point to really go pursue that. I think when you can pursue your passion, to a point, I think they're going to achieve better success.

Jeffrey Henderson: 55:03 Well, thank you Irv for your time.

Irv Smalls: 55:05 Good catching up.

Jeffrey Henderson: 55:05 Appreciate you sitting down and having a conversation where we didn't have to go solve something right away.

Irv Smalls: 55:10 I know, right? It's all good stuff.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published