Philly teens discover ponies, become polo champs

Polo Champs
Emmie Shea

PHILADELPIA - Like a lot of the kids who grow up on Viola Street in West Philadelphia, Kareem Rosser was born with three strikes already against him: an overworked mother, an absent father and a crummy neighborhood.

"I'm one of six children - my mom was a single mother," Kareem said. "My dad just sort of up and left."

CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman reports Kareem's odds weren't good. "I had no idea what was going to get me out," Kareem said. "But immediately, when I found the horse stable, I knew that was my departure."

"Shoveling poop was your way out?" Hartman asked.

"Basically, yeah, it is."

Learn more about Work to Ride

At least it was the start. When Kareem was 8-years-old, he joined "Work to Ride", a non-profit horse stable founded by Lezlie Hiner.

For the last 15 years or so, Lezlie has been making a deal with the kids: work around the stable and you can ride. And if you really want to be adventurous, you can also play polo - the sport of kings.

"We're the only inner-city, African-American polo team in the country," Lezlie said.

Polo is a sport traditionally reserved for the rich, the famous, and -- if I may be blunt -- the white.

"I didn't even know what polo was, I never even heard the word," Kareem said. "I knew nothing about polo."

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This year's three-man team includes Kareem, his younger brother Daymar and their friend Brandon, who grew up down the block on Viola Street.

"Ralph Lauren Polo - that's all I knew about Polo," Brandon said.

They compete in the official Polo Association high-school league. Where, again, they enter each match with three strikes already against them.

First, their practice field is a busy public park. Second, the park is full of divots. Third, their polo ponies are race track rejects. "We can't go out and practice every day. We don't have well-manicured grass," Kareem said. "We practice on some of the worst horses."

Watch: The new face of polo

Those disadvantages have always been part of Work to Ride polo, especially for Lezlie's first few teams who didn't do to well against the rich kids, she said. She said they "just spanked us week after week after week."

But after three years competing, something amazing happened - they actually won a game. It was against a girl's team, but they won nonetheless. And over the next 10 years, they have continued to improve.

This year the Work to Ride team made it all the way to the national championship game to play the Baltimore Polo Club, a perennial powerhouse. When the buzzer finally sounded that afternoon, the boys from Viola Street were the new high-school polo champions. Final score 24-17.

"From where I come from in the inner-city, what I want kids to take from this is that you put your mind to anything and you can do it," Kareem said.

And also -- unless you're playing baseball -- three strikes doesn't have mean you're out.

Because of their polo connections, Kareem and his brother now attend a $40,000-a-year private high school on scholarship. And all three kids are planning on going to college.

  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.