Former pro soccer player, now Forge FC manager: 'Don't be discouraged being the only Black person in the room'

Jelani Smith, head of soccer operations at Forge FC of the Canadian Premier League, says that when he was a player, 'soccer wasn't as diverse as you see it right now.'  (Submitted by Nico Correa - image credit)
Jelani Smith, head of soccer operations at Forge FC of the Canadian Premier League, says that when he was a player, 'soccer wasn't as diverse as you see it right now.' (Submitted by Nico Correa - image credit)

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

"That definitely stuck with me and it's something I always considered and held with me even till now," said Smith, 32.

The former professional soccer player has been head of soccer operations at Forge FC —  a Canadian professional club based in Hamilton — since 2019.

Having made the transition from player to manager with the Canadian Premier League team, Smith said he's uniquely positioned to encourage younger players to look beyond being an athlete.

"Don't limit yourself or your abilities to just your contributions on the field. You're just as capable and you're just as intelligent to be in these positions and roles as an executive," he said.

Submitted by Jelani Smith
Submitted by Jelani Smith

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

"Don't be discouraged by being 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 testing yourself.

"You've done it your entire life as an athlete, you've taken those risky chances and it's paid off every time. Take that same heart that you put in your hours on the field and apply it somewhere new," he added.

Parents helped develop tools to overcome barriers

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

He said that during his time as a player, "soccer wasn't as diverse as you see it right now."

"In my younger years, the majority of Caribbean, Black or people of colour were playing either cricket or basketball, so you had a large European contingent of people [in soccer]," Smith told CBC Hamilton.

"Oftentimes I might be the only Black player on the team and in general the only person of colour on the team."

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

In addition to what he called "inherent difficulties," Smith said he experienced "microaggression" as a young Black soccer player.

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

As to how he was able to face those challenges, Smith credits the support of his parents, who had "the strength and wisdom to have a difficult conversation with me at a very young age to help me understand and cope and also equip me with the necessary tools to succeed."

"More often than not, it was just strength and determination to overcome whatever barriers, or obstacles or red tape that was there," Smith said.

"There were times when I was definitely more talented than players and was wondering, 'Hey, why did I not get the same opportunity' or why I performed better than this guy but he was given the MVP."

Submitted by Jelani Smith
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 of four Black coaches while growing up.

"In terms of executive or team management roles … there were no Black executives, there was no one in Black leadership roles, so that it never even dawned on me that we had the opportunity to have representation on that level," Smith said.

Learning to leave playing behind

Smith admits it was difficult walking away from playing and transitioning to the role of a 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 the emotions and the feelings of me wanting to be on the field," he said.

"Feeling that I had the ability still to play, knowing that these were the guys I played with and seeing what the league was crucially growing into.

"I kind of struggled with that within my first year and a half … but ultimately, I'm happy with the decision that I made and I think, looking at things [now], it was the better option."

Submitted by Jelani Smith
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 daunting, but I think that I've grown into the role and I've developed in a way that I'm proud of what I've done and how I'm representing my family, the club and young Black men general."

'I knew he was gonna be great'

Former professional player Jordan Wilson said Smith has always been "disciplined" even as a boy.

Wilson, 31, has known Smith since age 13 and calls him his "lifelong friend."

"He's just been a great friend and always had tonnes of potential. I knew he was gonna be great, I knew that he had a lot in him," Wilson told CBC Hamilton.

"In a room, he would stand out, not only because of his stature, but just the way he presented himself and the way that he speaks. I always knew he would be successful … I think it's such a huge plus 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 at Sigma FC.

Submitted by Triston Henry
Submitted by Triston Henry

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

"When it comes to his job, he's really, really good at his job, [with strong] attention to detail, and he's just great with people," Henry said.

According to Henry, Smith also displayed "real leadership qualities" even when he was a player.

"He was always vocal in the locker-room, vocal on the field, and it wasn't vocal in a way that he was maybe taking a stand, but he's always there to help people, and try and give them knowledge and take feedback as well," Henry said.

"He's always had that nurturing side to him."

Regarding "the lack of opportunity and the lack of representation of Black people in management roles," Smith said "that is something that needs to change."

"It'd be good to see some faces that look like me, and I know that there are a lot of people that are capable of filling these roles and positions, but ultimately we need to start knocking on the doors and start making our way and making our voices 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 these positions, that we can succeed in these 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.