By Liam Bowman Special to the Fauquier Times
It was a clear spring day in Charlottesville, and the well-manicured fields of the Virginia Polo Center teemed with players from around the country. To Kareem Rosser, one of the players competing in the southeast regional tournament, this was a world away from the tough streets of West Philadelphia. The opposing team had the finest horses and equipment. His hand-me-down boots were patched with duct tape. Rosser had driven to the tournament in his coach’s battered car. The other team had arrived on a private jet.
His opponents attended an elite military academy. Rosser lived in The Bottom, where going to jail or getting shot was just as likely for young men like him as high school graduation.
“Maybe today will be different,” Rosser thought to himself as he groomed his borrowed pony. “Maybe today we won’t lose.” But they did, badly, failing to score a single point.
Just three years later, however, Rosser was part of the first all-African American team to win the Interscholastic Polo Championship.
Thursday, Feb. 25, he will give a public talk about his journey as a polo player, which took him from childhood in a poverty-stricken neighborhood to success as an adult in a sport renowned for its exclusivity. Sponsored by the Middleburg’s National Sporting Library and Museum, the lecture is part of a virtual book tour for Rosser’s newly published memoir, “Crossing the Line.”
“I wanted to take the opportunity to go in depth,” Rosser, a financial analyst at Reath and Company, said in a recent interview with The Fauquier Times. “I think this story will resonate with people.”
Rosser discovered polo by accident. While exploring Fairmount Park in central Philadelphia one morning, Rosser’s older brothers, David and Jabarr, came across a run-down barn filled with horses. This was the stable for Work to Ride, a non-profit, after-school program where underprivileged children could ride horses. Lezlie Hiner, who founded the non-profit in 1994, saw David and Jabarr eyeing the horses and told them that if they stayed in school, she would teach them how to ride. The pair immediately agreed.
When Rosser found out where his brothers went after school, he begged to be taken along. “My first day [at the stables] … I just knew that this place would probably be my second home.” He started going to the stables every day.
Rosser was 8 years old at the time and lived in a small row house with his mother, a single parent, and five siblings. Having grown up in The Bottom, a predominately Black neighborhood in west Philadelphia where drugs, shootings and police beatings were common, Rosser felt that “the barn was… an island in the middle of all the trouble that we couldn’t escape otherwise.”
Seeing the potential in the Rosser boys, Hiner added them to Work to Ride’s fledgling polo team. “[Rosser] was somewhat timid around the horses initially,” Hiner said, “but he eventually grew out of it. When you have a good horse, it gives you confidence.” Rosser found his favorite horse, Cholo, and quickly developed an overwhelming passion for the sport.
Work to Ride was chronically underfunded, but the team managed to travel the East Coast, playing against some of the best polo teams in the country. “I wouldn’t have known anything outside of Philadelphia if I didn’t have this opportunity,” he said.
By the time he was 13, Rosser’s polo playing had won him a scholarship to the Valley Forge Military Academy. At 18, Rosser led the Work to Ride team to victory at the 2011 Interscholastic Polo Championship and accepted an offer to study at Colorado State University. He graduated in 2016 with a degree in economics.
David and Jabarr Rosser, however, drifted away from the program. Both dropped out of school and began dealing drugs. Both ended up in prison. In March 2020, David Rosser, newly released from prison, was fatally shot in The Bottom.
Rosser is unflinchingly honest about his childhood in “Crossing the Line.” He writes about a tight-knit group of brothers that fractures when his older brothers take to dealing and his subsequent feelings of alienation from them. He describes his mother’s struggle with drug addiction and her string of abusive boyfriends. Rosser also goes into vivid detail about his friendship with Mecca Harris, a fellow Work to Ride member, and her chilling murder at age 14.
The media has reported part of the polo team’s story before, he said, but never really touched on their personal struggles. “I felt that I would be doing myself a disservice if I left out all those important dark details,” said Rosser.
Rosser no longer plays polo competitively. In Philadelphia, he serves on the executive committee of Work to Ride. In 2019, the non-profit entered into a partnership with Ralph Lauren, which included a modeling campaign centered on Rosser and the organization’s other players. Now with more funding, including a college fund for players, Rosser works to expand the program that allows more at-risk kids the opportunities he was given. “I will not rest until Work to Ride has the kind of endowment that will keep it safe and solvent forever,” said Rosser.