Polo star models a different path in the sport of kings
Polo has a colorful history: The strenuous team sport began more than 2,000 years ago in Central Asia – a game that doubled as war training on horseback. It spread to Persia, China, Japan, and India, where British military officers seized upon polo and started the first official club in 1859.
From there, the sport of kings – first formalized by Persian nobility and cavalrymen – galloped to Europe and beyond, becoming a famous passion for the British royal family. These days, polo often is associated with exceptional horsemanship and with the glitz and glamour of people who can afford exceptional horses. Closer to yachting than to the ragtag nomads who got it rolling.
Enter Kareem Rosser.
He is a Colorado State University alumnus and former U.S. high school and collegiate polo star who is rewriting the high-society story line. Rosser, 27, came from a tough neighborhood in inner-city Philadelphia and grew into the most successful and visible African American polo player to date. He has recently advanced into a polo leadership role, helping to attract disadvantaged kids of color to a sport that opened an unlikely path of opportunity for him.
“I love the sport. It’s opened a lot of doors for me,” Rosser said, while visiting campus in October to accept the 2019 Graduate of the Last Decade award from the CSU Alumni Association. “Being able to share what I’ve learned through polo and give that back to a younger generation is so rewarding. There’s nothing more satisfying than to be able to change lives. It gives me purpose.”
And there’s a new shine to his star turn: While working to boost younger riders, Rosser landed the partnership and financial backing of Ralph Lauren Corp., the American fashion empire whose core brand, Polo, is knitted to the equestrian sport. In Spring 2019, Polo Ralph Lauren launched a cross-promotional campaign featuring Rosser and a dozen young riders with Work to Ride, the Philadelphia nonprofit that gave Rosser his start in polo. The striking campaign – with Rosser as a top model – established him as a leading champion for Work to Ride and captain of a growing push to break the mold of privilege in polo.
“It’s pretty special. I couldn’t be more happy,” Lezlie Hiner, Work to Ride founder and a longtime cheerleader for Rosser, said of his achievements.
It began when Rosser was 8 years old and met a gray Shetland pony named Angel at the Chamounix Equestrian Center near his home in West Philadelphia.
Rosser grew up 200 miles and a world away from well-to-do Westchester County, north of New York City, where newspaper publishing scion James Gordon Bennett Jr. introduced polo to the United States in 1876. “It was one of the toughest neighborhoods in West Philly,” Rosser said. He was raised by a single mom with six children – “a kid raising kids,” he said. His impoverished neighborhood was the site of drug dealing, fatal shootings, and other violence; many teenagers did not graduate from high school. “Being around all that negative influence, it’s easy to get pulled in,” Rosser said in a 60 Minutes interview in 2012, as he grabbed attention for his prowess in polo.
A new door opened to Rosser when he was in second grade. It was a barn door, to a program called Work to Ride. The educational nonprofit, which Hiner started in 1994, gives kids ages 7 to 19 the chance to learn how to work with and ride horses – and, ultimately, to play polo – in exchange for barn chores and commitment to school. In one way, the sweat equity is about horses; in another, it’s a route to discipline, teamwork, achievement, and exposure to new people, places, and pathways.
“It’s a vehicle to get kids through high school and then to focus on higher education. The horses are a means to an end,” Hiner, a lifelong horsewoman with a background in psychology, explained. As the founder and driving force behind Work to Ride, Hiner has been a mentor for Rosser and many other participants. “We focus on the whole child and the long term,” she said.
Two of Rosser’s older brothers signed on, soon introducing him and younger brother Daymar. “We had an immediate love and affection for the horses. It was an escape for us and a place where we felt safe,” Rosser remembered, describing the Shetland mare Angel, his first equine companion. “I got on, and I never wanted to leave the barn. My mom couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t clean the house, but we were happy to shovel manure out of the barn.”
Rosser’s riding skills were quickly apparent. He matured into a phenomenal polo player while attending high school at Valley Forge Military Academy near Philadelphia, with scholarship aid from Work to Ride. With help from the nonprofit and often at the invitation of sponsored teams, Rosser vied in top polo tournaments across the country and in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. And in a sign of things to come, he was invited to compete with the acclaimed BlackWatch team sponsored by Ralph Lauren and led by polo superstar and fashion model Nacho Figueras.
In 2011, Rosser made history as captain of the Work to Ride team that won the U.S. Polo Association National Interscholastic Championship – the first African American team to claim the national high school title. His brother Daymar rode with him. The same year, he was named Polo Training Foundation Interscholastic Player of the Year, another first for a black high schooler.
His ride wasn’t over: Rosser came to Colorado State, where he graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Here, he was captain of a competitive club team that uses donated polo ponies and is managed and coached entirely by its student members; by contrast, most of the team’s rivals have professional coaches and barn staff. In 2015, the CSU team won the U.S. Polo Association Men’s National Intercollegiate Championship, Colorado State’s first national title in 16 years. Again, Rosser was named Player of the Year.
In a segment of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, aired when Rosser was 11 years old and Work to Ride was gaining an early round of media attention, the young rider told reporter Mary Carillo that without the program, “I’d probably be on the streets right now.” But with Work to Ride, the youngster pronounced, “I just want to go to college and do polo, that’s all.”
The show caught up with Rosser 12 years later, as he was preparing to graduate from Colorado State in 2016. He had grown into a poised college student and renowned player in a fierce and fast-paced sport likened to hockey on horseback. Polo had been his “passport to the world,” Rosser told Carillo during the second interview, as he sat on a hay bale in a CSU horse barn. “I had the opportunity to leave Philadelphia and do things that I dreamt of as a little kid,” he said with a wide grin. “I’m trying to break barriers and let people know polo is more than a sport just for kings, millionaires, and wealthy white people.”
Four years after graduation, Rosser is back in Philadelphia and starting a career as a financial analyst. He hung up his competitive polo mallet but returned to Work to Ride in a leadership role: as executive director of Friends of Work to Ride, the nonprofit’s fundraising arm. In this capacity, he hopes to demonstrate for up-and-coming riders the value of education and their potential with polo. “Winning a polo game is not comparable to changing kids’ lives,” he said. “I’ve done enough in the sport. To open doors for others – that’s what I see as my role.”
The foundation is launching an ambitious fundraising campaign to expand programming, improve facilities, build an indoor riding arena, and start an endowment whose earnings would sustain the nonprofit, Rosser said. To this end, he pitched the concept of a collaboration to Ralph Lauren. The company agreed, and the partnership is paying off as a new source of financial support; as a bonus, the collaboration has provided major visibility for Work to Ride – critical for any organization reliant on donations. As Amy Reinitz, senior director of global brand communications and public relations, said in a statement: “Ralph Lauren, a brand that has always had a deep affinity for the equestrian lifestyle, is proud to support Work to Ride with a grant that will directly fund collegiate scholarships for Work to Ride high school athletes.”
Even more, Rosser is followed by other program ambassadors who are turning heads and earning titles in collegiate polo – and likewise are part of the Ralph Lauren campaign. They include Daymar Rosser, his brother, founder of the championship polo team at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island; and Shariah Harris, a national phenom who captains a powerhouse team at Cornell University in New York and is the first African American woman to play at the highest level of U.S. polo. The two are featured in a new video, “Why I Play,” produced by ESPN’s The Undefeated.
“It’s all coming full circle,” Harris, a 21-year-old senior at the Ivy League school, said of Kareem Rosser. “The fact that he’s coming back and helping the program brings everything home. It shows you never forget your roots. You never forget the people who helped you along. It’s inspiring.”