New York Red Bulls Sporting Director Denis Hamlett has come a long way from the 10-year old who left Costa Rica to move to the United States to live with his mother in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Hamlett joined SportsJam host Doug Doyle to talk about his participating in this week's national mini-pitch effort. The first mini-pitches honoring Black Players for Change (BPC) were unveiled at West Side High School in Newark.
To mark the occasion, members of BPC, Black executives from the New York Red Bulls and the U.S Soccer Foundation and the West Side High School soccer team participated in small group discussions on October 5. Other partners at the event included Musco Lighting and Adidas.
Hamlett says the mini-pitches are a bright light given what's been going on in the U.S.
"The New York Red Bulls and the U.S. Soccer Foundation, we've created these mini-pitches throughout New Jersey. This one in Newark was an initiative taken by the Black Players Coalition which was started by MLS to fight injustice going on in our country right now. To be able to have this first one in our own backyard was something that was special for us as an organization with the Red Bulls and I think for MLS in general just to give back to give back to the community and give these kids an opportunity to be able to play soccer and enjoy those moments they can sort of get away from everything and be a kid again."
Hamlett says the Red Bulls players and organization have been sharing their own personal experiences and challenges facing Black communities today.
"Growing up in Costa Rica I probably didn't have racism as deep-rooted as it is here in this country, but for me this is something that I've seen since I came here at the age of ten. It's hard. Soccer was sort of my outlet to deal with it so for me when I was on the field they didn't see that I was a black person, they just saw me as a good soccer player. That sort of gave me that opportunity to be like one of the other kids which I thought was interesting. I always go back and think how sports bring people together."
Hamlett quickly caught the attention of his youth coaches when he played soccer in Maryland. In 1987, the young star began playing college soccer at UNC Wilmington. He would transfer to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia after his freshman season. Hamlett earned All-Colonial Athletic Association and All-Region accolades during his three seasons at George Mason where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in public administration. Hamlett was inducted into Geore Mason University's Hall of Fame in 2006.
Hamlett began his professional soccer career in 1992 and was the 12th overall pick in Major League Soccer's inaugural draft in 1996. His playing career ended in 1997 when he suffered a stroke caused by a blood protein deficiency. He would start a successful coaching career a year later when he joined the Chicago Fire.
In 2017, Hamlett was named the Sporting Director of the New York Red Bulls. He's hoping fans and players will soon be reunited at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. The coronavirus pandemic put a temporary hold on the 2020 season, but the MLS eventually resumed played. The Red Bulls have about 8 games left this season.
"It (COVID) was something that hit our country hard and there were no playbooks. I commend the Red Bulls organization because I think from the moment that COVID hit it's interesting when you look when you go through a crisis or a pandemic how much closer it brought us together as an organization in terms of communication, in terms of weekly meetings. It just showed again the commitment to work together and stick together and you'll be able to come through these moments of uncertainty."
What would Hamlett be doing if soccer didn't exist?
"Wow, that's a deep question. I probably would say I'd probably be back in Costa Rica. I grew up in Costa Rica and my dad took me to soccer games and that's where my love started in the game. If soccer wasn't there, my dad was a fisherman. I'd probably would have taken the footsteps after him. I remember as a seven and eight year-old he would take me out on the boat and we would go fishing. My wife always jokes I have an unbelievable sense of direction. I think I get that from my dad. Back then there weren't any compasses but he seemed to always find his way back home."
Click above to hear the entire SportsJam with Doug Doyle conversation with Denis Hamlett.