Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
On a recent Sunday in South Philadelphia, on a bumpy, muddy pitch with almost no grass, two elite Pennsylvania girls travel soccer teams met for a match. The girls were mostly 10, 11 and 12 years old, nimble and athletic and a joy to watch. One of the teams was from greater Yardley, an affluent suburb north of Philadelphia, and every one of girls on the Yardley team was white. Nothing unusual there. In the U.S., girls soccer is an overwhelmingly white sport. The other team, the Anderson Monarchs, drawn from all over Philadelphia, was 100 percent black. That's most unusual. "As far as I know," said the Monarchs' coach, Walter Stewart, "we're the only all-black inner-city girls soccer club in the United States."
Well, nearly all black. Stewart is white. He gave up a partnership at a downtown Philadelphia law firm to become a teacher at a Catholic elementary school and to devote his out-of-school time to introducing soccer to black girls from working-class backgrounds who would otherwise not be exposed to the game he loves. Stewart's success rate is astonishing: His teams have about a .900 winning percentage and his players have about a zero percent dropout rate.
The club name derives from two magnificent sources: Anderson, as in Marian Anderson, the great opera singer from Philadelphia and specifically for a recreation center named for her and Monarchs, as in Jackie Robinson's Negro League team, the Kansas City Monarchs.
For the inspiring and magnificent work he has done, Walter Stewart is my Sportsman of the Year, and for the class and skill and joy they have shown on the field, the Anderson Monarchs are my Sports Team of the Year. You can't separate the team from the coach, or the coach from the team.
Stewart's life with the Anderson Monarchs is impossibly busy. This fall three teams, in different age groups, have been playing under the Anderson Monarchs flag. On weekends coach Walt runs from one game to another, receiving not a penny in pay, his van burning through gas at a rate of at least $1,000 a month, all year long. He spends some Sunday mornings painting lines on his field in South Philadelphia. He picks kids up at their houses, all the while keeping their parents or guardians in the loop, and serves as an all-purpose tutor on trips to Delaware and New Jersey and throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs. Talk about your labors of love.
"It helps to be poor," said Stewart, 49, who earns now, as a teacher, what he earned years ago, and in another life, as a rookie lawyer. "Your kids qualify for scholarships," said Stewart, who is divorced, has one child at Princeton, one at Bryn Mawr College and two at Baldwin, a private girls school outside Philadelphia.
The Monarchs' style of play, said Eugene Martin, a Temple University film professor who is making a documentary about the club, is more British than American. "American soccer is all about me," said Martin, who also coaches the game. "How long can I get the ball in the air for? It's a power and air game. Walt's teams are about speed, technique and controlling the ball." That is, the British game. Playing on a field with almost no grass, speed becomes even more of a factor.
Stewart has been with the Monarchs for a decade, and there have been some nasty moments along the way. He has heard his players called "effing animals." Parents have said they have heard even uglier racial slurs. Money is always tight. Family problems at home will sometimes impact team rosters. But Stewart keeps at it, and so do the Monarchs. He'll be taking a group of players to Barrack Obama's inauguration. "If anything happened to this coach," said Juanita Kerber, the mother of a Monarch, "it would be a devastation."
Stewart says that the fact that the team is all-black, playing the game of white suburban dreams, is striking only the first time you see it. "After that you get used to it," he said. Kerber said that when the Monarchs travel outside Philadelphia they often play clubs without a single black player. She said: "The first time I went to the suburbs with the team, the message you got was, 'Why are they here?'" The answer, always, is quickly apparent: because the girls of the Anderson Monarchs love soccer and love to win.
At the conclusion of the Yardley-Monarchs game the other day, on a raw and chilly Sunday afternoon, the Yardley girls stood together in a line and the Monarchs did the same. The field is surrounded by a church and row homes and a housing project looms a few blocks away. The field was a muddy mess. The Yardley girls could not have felt at home. Still, there they were, the girls all lined up, each and every Monarch and Yardley girl high-fiving one another: "Good game, good game, good game, good game."
That Sunday game marked the finale of the regular season, and it ended in a scoreless tie. These two teams, the two best in a premier league, will meet again in the playoffs. On Sunday, it was all good, the game and its message. All good and getting better.