Former professional footballer, now Forge FC manager: ‘Don’t be put off by being the only black person in the room’

Jelani Smith’s parents told him a long time ago something he’s never forgotten: Sometimes you have to be two or three times better than your colleagues at the same job.

“That definitely stuck with me and it’s something I’ve always thought about and carried with me even now,” Smith, 32, said.

The former professional footballer has been head of football operations at Forge FC — a Canadian professional team based in Hamilton — since 2019.

Having made the transition from player to coach with the Canadian Premier League team, Smith said he is in a unique position to encourage younger players to look beyond being athletes.

“Don’t limit yourself or your abilities to just your contributions on the field. You are just as capable and just as smart to be in those positions and roles as an executive,” he said.

As a young player, Smith says, he didn’t see anyone like him in management roles in Canadian soccer. (Submitted by Jelani Smith)

He also has words of encouragement for young black athletes in particular.

“Don’t be discouraged because you’re the only black person in the room. Don’t be discouraged (or) think you don’t have the experience to do it. Don’t be discouraged from putting your foot in the water and trying for yourself.

“You’ve done it your whole life as an athlete, you’ve taken those risky chances and it pays off every time. Take the same heart you put into your hours on the court and apply it somewhere new,” he added.

Parents helped develop tools to overcome barriers

Rising to the coaching level as a Black Canadian soccer player was no walk in the park for Smith, whose career included stints with the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, Italia Shooters (now called the York Region Shooters), Toronto Lynx, Sturm Graz II, Jeddeloh and Sigma FC.

He said that during his time as a player, “football wasn’t as different as you see it now”.

“In my younger days, the majority of Caribbean, Black or colored people were playing either cricket or basketball, so you had a big European group of people (in soccer),” Smith told CBC Hamilton.

“I can often be the only black player on the team and generally the only colored player on the team.”

It was eye opening even at a very young age to see the microaggressions and racism you face even locally in Canada.– Jelani Smith, Forge FC head of football operations

In addition to what he called “inherent difficulties,” Smith said he experienced “microaggression” as a young black football player.

“It was eye-opening even at a very young age to see the microaggressions and racism that you face even locally in Canada,” Smith said.

On how he was able to overcome these challenges, Smith credits the support of his parents, who had “the strength and the wisdom to have a difficult conversation with me at a very young age to help me understand and deal with and also equip me with necessary tools to succeed.”

“Most of the time, it was just strength and determination to overcome whatever obstacles, or hurdles, or red tape there were,” Smith said.

“There were times when I was definitely more talented than the players and I wondered, ‘Hey, why didn’t I get the same opportunity,’ or why did I perform better than this guy, but he was given the MVP.”

A close-up of Jelani Smith on a soccer field.
Smith admits it was difficult to step away from the game and into the role of manager. (Submitted by Jelani Smith)

As a young player, Smith didn’t see anyone who looked like him in management roles in Canadian soccer.

He said he had three out of four black coaches growing up.

“In terms of executive roles or team management roles … there were no black executives, there was no one in black leadership roles, so I never realized we had an opportunity to represent at that level,” Smith said.

Learning to leave the game behind

Smith admits it was difficult to step away from the game and into the role of manager. But five years later, he’s convinced it was the right decision.

“The first thing I had to come to terms with was walking away from the game … to suppress my feelings and emotions that I wanted to be on the field,” he said.

“I feel like I still had the ability to play, knowing these were the guys I was playing with and seeing how critical the league was becoming.

“I struggled with it my first year and a half … but in the end, I’m happy with the decision I made and I think, looking at things (now), it was the best choice.”

Jordan Wilson and Jelani Smith are both sitting at a desk in a studio.
Jordan Wilson, left, and Smith, right, have been lifelong friends. (Submitted by Jelani Smith)

Smith said he continues to learn, mature and develop professionally with the help of some “great” people, including backroom, technical and executive staff.

“I think like any job in any profession it has its days where it’s demanding and it’s a bit scary, but I think I’ve grown into the role and developed in a way that I’m proud of what I do. I did it and how I represent my family, the club and the young black quarterbacks.”

“I knew he would be great”

Former pro player Jordan Wilson said Smith was always “disciplined” even as a boy.

Wilson, 31, has known Smith since he was 13 and calls him his “lifetime friend.”

“He was just a great friend and always had a lot of potential. I knew he was going to be great, I knew he had a lot in him,” Wilson told CBC Hamilton.

“In a room, he would stand out, not just because of his height, but just the way he presented himself and the way he talked. I always knew he would be successful… I think that’s a huge asset and a positive ( to see him in this role).”

Another close friend, Triston Henry, first met Smith about seven years ago when they both played for Sigma FC.

Triston Henry
Forge FC goalkeeper Triston Henry, shown here, first met Smith about seven years ago when they both played for Sigma FC. (Submitted by Triston Henry)

Henry, 29, is currently a goalkeeper for Forge FC. He describes Smith as “a great guy” who is “really thoughtful” and “takes care of his own.”

“As far as his work goes, he’s really, really good at his job, (with) great attention to detail and he’s just great with people,” Henry said.

According to Henry, Smith also displayed “real leadership qualities” even as a player.

“He’s always been vocal in the locker room, vocal on the field, and not vocal in a way that maybe he’s taking a stand, but he’s always there to help people and try to give them knowledge and get feedback. too,” said Henry.

“He always had this food with him.”

Regarding the “lack of opportunity and lack of representation of Blacks in management roles,” Smith said “that’s something that needs to change.”

“It would be good to see some faces that look like me and I know there are a lot of people who are capable of filling those roles and positions, but ultimately we have to start knocking on doors and start making our way. and let our voice be heard.

“I don’t think you can sit back and be as patient as we once were. I think this is a great time to be black … a great time to start representing ourselves in these positions and start making sure that it’s known that we want those positions, that we can succeed in those positions,” Smith added.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians – from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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