The building that is New York City’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School fits how the outside world views its occupants, fits the knees of the ML King Soccer team, fits the fields they play on. Scabs, the lot of them. Torn open with pain, healed, and torn again. The high culture and high polish of Lincoln Center looks down upon dirty windows and metal detectors whispering of hoodlum immigrants, gun shots and stabbings. Standing as a virtual prison yard, synthetic field turf berates nature behind a chain-link fence and locked gates where freedom is slashed along with the skin from a knee. This isn’t the norm for New York City Soccer, but it isn’t exactly odd either. What it is, is the story of the most prolific soccer program in the nation.
I waited alone under spitting clouds on the worn, plank-board bleachers at Manhattan’s East River Park, the roar of the highway substituting for that of a crowd. Five minutes past game-time and no sign of the ninth-ranked high school soccer team in the nation. With less than 20 minutes left on the forfeit clock, something the opposing coach had to have been wishing would run out, I peeped the Bad News Bears of soccer making their way to the pitch. The opposing team, Lab Museum High School, dressed and ready to go, mulled around the field a lenient herd of antelope unknowing of the lions lurking beyond the trees.
A Hulking man-child (turns out to be one of their forwards) whose afro looked bigger than most of Lab’s team led the procession through the gates. The last game King played they won 15-0. The program hasn’t lost a league game since 2002, a championship since 1999. This could be scary, I thought, or a joke, depending whose side you’re on. For the next few months, I’ll be on King’s side, following the team on route to what they hope will be their sixth city championship in as many years. Last year’s fifth broke a 110-year-old city record.
Earrings taped, shin guards strapped, hair braided and pulled back, clothes changed. Shy is not a adjective common to New York City, and this was no exception. No locker rooms meant the team stripped down to their underwear in front of the bleachers (which also acted as the team bench). Then they went out and got another win with barely a warm-up pass. King was bigger, stronger, and faster, with better skills, control of the game’s pace and discipline. It wasn’t perfect (remember this is high school soccer), but what I saw was as an impressive team that could be a lot better – and that is the scary part. At least a half-dozen off-sides calls left the score a manageable 3-0. It could have, and should have, been 10-0.
After the game, head coach Martin Jacobson, or Jake as he is commonly called, apologized to me for the poor introduction to his team. Oh yeah, you won 3-0, sorry. That should tell you something right there. Half inner city savior, half pop-star-boy-band manager, Jake is a self-proclaimed perfectionist in constant pursuit of victory in the face of ungodly odds. “Winning soccer games,” he said as he looked over his squad changing back into their street clothes, “is the easy part. It’s everything else that is hard.”
Eyes of the Beholder
There are two distinct ways to view King Soccer. Winners or Losers. Those claiming the former have the obvious advantage, and the soccer statistics are just the beginning. The real proof, as should be the case in any successful scholastic athletic program, is in edification. Jake agrees, and goes out of his way to make that crystal clear. “There’s one sign that was in my office,” Jake said. “It reads, ‘playing soccer for Martin Luther King is about getting a better life.’ And there is nothing else that matters. Winning just goes with it; being a champion just happens to be a side thing. I think Martin Luther King would be really proud about what this program has achieved.”
The soccer program, yes—since 1995, there have been players from more than 40 countries, way more graduates than drop-outs, more than 40 players with college careers and 3 MLS Players—but the school might reap a different reaction from the former civil rights leader. And its history is the soccer team’s.
MLK High School opened in the late seventies as a social experiment built upon the teachings of its namesake. Indoctrinated to be the first integrated educational facility in Manhattan, the school began with ‘A Dream’ that quickly turned into a nightmare. Unlike most American public school systems where students attend the school in their neighborhood, with no other choice but to move or pay for private education, New York City runs on a system of choice. Students can choose which school (often broken down to subject concentrations such as humanities, science, or arts) they want to attend and simply need to apply.
Once MLK opened its doors, white, affluent parents from the neighborhood began placing their kids elsewhere, leaving King with an almost entirely minority enrollment. Filling the vacated and unwanted chairs were those students who fit a similar profile. In a city where the poorest and richest are constantly crossing paths, the most impoverished people are almost always the immigrants. They inherited the seats at King.
Dozens of kids from even more countries. Poor (in the economic sense), some were even homeless. Most of those with a roof to sleep under also huddled under State supervision. The lucky few had loving biological or foster parents working long hours in a cab or kitchen, trying to provide their children with something better. Very few spoke any English, but many of them shared one fluency. Soccer.
Enter Jake. The Grandson of Jewish immigrants, he was born in Brooklyn, taught the game he loves by a Brazilian Jew who fled the Holocaust. He was raised on the same streets his students call home and he got out. Initially, anyway. A high school and college soccer stand out, Jake studied teaching and counseling before coaching New Mexico’s first public high school soccer team. Unfortunately, he was also studying the street-corner chemistry that led him into drug addiction and dealing.
Jake’s is a story unto itself: LSD, cocaine, heroin, warrants, jail, bankruptcies, extradition. It’s not an original story, his is but one version that he pays for every day, the hepatitis devouring his liver. For our purposes, his journey works to explain how he ended up back in New York City as a peer to the kids to whom he would soon become an angel.
To Be Continued…