The daily Post

READ OUR BLOG

Taking Back the City: An Interview With the Founders of About U

No one stumbles upon greatness. It takes a team of driven individuals, mentors, and resources to create something extraordinary, and that is just what George Lanese and Alex Coombs aim to bring to the boroughs of New York City. These two men are the founders of About U, a community-service driven organization that inspires inner-city youth to own their future. They know that New York is full of some of the nation’s top football talent in the country, but barriers like academic ineligibility, training resources, and guidance have kept these kids under the recruiting radar.  About U is flipping the script on the stigma of city athletes, helping young men and women reach their maximum potential, and putting NYC on the map as a football powerhouse.

Founded in 2017, About U is quickly emerging as a premier program for the way that it partners athletic performance with academic preparation. It might seem like a basic concept, but the organization’s success is attracting attention from other east coast cities who want to recreate it in their own communities. In only three years, About U has helped athletes commit to top-notch collegiate football programs such as Stanford, Purdue, UPenn, and UMiami. In the Class of 2021 alone, About U has worked with fifteen student-athletes who have received Ivy League offers. George describes that “what’s always going to set us apart is how much we care. We go above and beyond, and the goal has never just been about academics or colleges. It’s always been about jobs.”

Before launching this non-profit group, George worked in finance on Wall Street. An old friend reached out and offered him a coaching position at Cardinal Hayes, and he quickly discovered that kids were being misinformed. “There were not enough adults around telling kids that academics were the way. What I saw was that kids wanted it, but they just needed more support.” George noticed that kids living in the city did not have access to the same resources and opportunities as other student-athletes living in the suburbs. They can’t go outside and play because it’s not safe. Even simple tasks like getting to school and practice on time take tremendous effort, so these kids are essentially grinding 24/7 just to catch up. George says, “If they have to go through all that and still get there and do the amazing things they do, then more power to them. They are the true heroes, not us.”

George connected with Alex Coombs, a hustling and experienced trainer and coach, and together they began making an impact as a solution-based organization.

It just made sense to form About U and try to use sports and not let sports use kids. Historically, that’s been the issue here with with the city athlete, and in particular, black and brown kids. I want to see them have a brighter future, and if sports can help that in my area – Harlem and the South Bronx – we’re going to do that.

Alex’s passion is personal because he understands what the athletes are experiencing. He never had a mentor to guide him through the recruiting process, still, he made the football squad at West Virginia as a walk-on. He realized that talent was not the barrier for athletes in New York, but rather it was a lack of direction and inadequate instruction on how to self-advocate. His goal as a coach is to help promote his athletes to help them unlock opportunities he knows they are capable of.


Patrick Godfrey is the final piece of the trifecta, and George and Alex tell us that he brings electric energy. Much like Alex, he was a gifted athlete with big dreams, but lacking the knowledge of how to get noticed on the scouting scene.  He says,

Growing up my entire life, I heard the same rhetoric over and over again: that football is not an option at a high level coming from New York. It was really frustrating to me because I was such a big football fan and my dream was to play big time college football. There wasn’t really a roadmap for how to do it because I had never really seen anyone do it before.

Less than a decade later, Pat has become that roadmap. He declined some small D1 offers to play football, choosing instead to attend Clemson on an academic scholarship. He was one of only four kids to make the team out of one hundred who tried out, and in his three years at the school, he graduated with two national championship rings. Getting involved with Alex and George and About U has given Pat the platform to empower kids who are facing the same hardships he faced himself not long ago.

It was really easy for me to see when I got involved  that what these kids need more than anything is somebody who believes in them and verbalizes that. I’ll say things to them like “Hey, man, I played at Clemson, and you’re athletic,” or “Hey, you’re picking this up fast! You’re doing great and I think you have great potential,” and all that kind of stuff. It really is something that more kids out there need to hear. A lot of kids in New York toss headphones on and suffer in silence. What we need to do now more than ever is be that voice telling them “hey, you can do great things.” If you tell kids that enough, they’ll start to believe it, and then there’s not telling what’s possible.

Plenty of organizations aim to support underprivileged youth, but About U is special. They keep kids at the center of their work, adjusting to their needs and strengths. For most of these athletes, sports specific training is the fun part, but George has a reputation as the “SAT Guy.” Performance isn’t the root of the problem of advancing to the next stage, it’s ineligibility, so George has taken on his very own “test prep boot camp” where he teaches the fundamentals just like he would on the field, and he starts with the kids as early as 9th grade. If that means meeting 1:1 with a kid at a Barnes & Noble on a Saturday, then that’s what About U has done before and will continue to do. Participants of About U score about 200 points more on the SAT than the average NYC student. Solutions that work in suburb communities won’t work here. The people, the setting, the situation is too different, so About U is constantly unearthing pain points in the system and coming up with creative ways to address them.

Most recently, About U played a huge role in the Elite V Showcase that took place on October 24th, which gave athletes a chance to perform virtually for an impressive list of college coaches. Covid-19 prevented athletic competition, so without a football season, high school athletes needed a new way to get noticed. As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” George pitched his idea to his team members, and after a few phone calls, they recruited the help of Joe Venice from Archbishop Stepinac High School and Jamal from the Harlem Jets (another youth sports organization). They created an event comparable to the NFL combine, which was not only a fun experience for the kids, but was also incredibly valuable for their future. They are already looking to host another one on May 22nd – stay tuned.

About U recognizes that bridging the gap in opportunities takes an army, and Rivals Creative is excited to be a partner on the front lines. It’s truly all about the kids and getting them the opportunities they deserve. Alex says,

Our kids are different because they’re willing to just completely outwork everyone regardless of the circumstances. Whatever the situation is, our kids are not going to use their hardships as a crutch.

If we are all defined by our ability to overcome challenges, then these kids are certainly getting it done. About U and their athletes bring a whole new definition to what it means to #LevelUp.

Forging Her Own Path

Nikki Michalowski is tough as nails, having found her strength and identity in her blue-collar family. As the youngest of five siblings in an athletic household, she quickly learned to endure their playful teasing and translate that grit into many sports growing up like soccer, cross-country and track, basketball, and softball.

Coach Nikki gets ready to for ground rules

She started playing softball at the age of five and it soon stood out as her favorite. Her oldest sister, Sarah, competed for Hofstra University when Nikki was in 6th grade, and, “seeing her at that level, and then being able to go to camps and meet her coaches made me realize that’s what I wanted to do.” She says that Sarah played a huge role in “lighting a fire under me.

Nikki went to the same Catholic high school as her siblings and played softball under the same coach too, yet she admits that recruiting was still a confusing time. Before visiting Hofstra and speaking with then-coach, Bill Edwards, the only thing Nikki was sure of was that she did NOT want to attend Hofstra. She was determined to forge her own path independent from her sister.

“Originally I was like, no. I’m not going there. They’re not even on my radar. And then it just felt right, knowing their traditions, knowing they have those rules for a reason, knowing they hold you accountable. I liked the discipline, and I was excited to be a part of the pride.”

However, the frustrations of freshman year tested Nikki. The novelty of recruitment had worn off and she was surrounded by teammates who were all on the same level as her. Her playing time suffered, but that only inspired her to “turn it up even more.

She “found herself in the weight room when no one else was” and put in the work to earn her spot on the field, which she did. However, she was sure to keep that work ethic up not only to maintain her starting position, but to also help make the team better.

Coach Nikki gathers team during defensive conference

Nikki is now the coach of the Sluggersville Blue Diamonds and tries to empower her female athletes so that they are prepared to stand up for themselves against the sexism that still exists in the sports industry. While she says that many people are accepting of women in coaching positions, she admits to having been mistreated by people because of her gender.

“I told my athletes that someone disrespected me because I was a female as their coach, and that they can’t let that happen to them. They need to use that power they have as a female to push through their entire life.”

Nikki’s story has come full circle. She persevered to reach her potential as an athlete, overcame moments of disrespect, and is now committed to imparting her wisdom on a younger generation of players. “Softball teaches a lot about life,” she says. “I think that being an athlete and having a platform is one of the most powerful things you can do.”

Softball has certainly been a tool that Nikki has used to carve her own path, push through, and rise up. She is a part of the Rivals Creative community, running social media campaigns, creating content, and taking photos for projects. Together, Nikki and Rivals redesigned her school’s logo and team uniforms, because when you look good, you feel good. For Nikki, softball is more than a game. It’s a space where she’s able to unleash her competitive, creative, and compassionate side all in one. “It really does come back to softball.”

August 9, 2020 - Union Tournament
August 9, 2020 - Union Tournament

Destined For The Dugout

Diana Fasano was in 3rd grade the first time she ever stepped foot on a softball field, and she hasn’t been able to step off since. Her passion for the game has been the key that’s opened every door for her throughout her life, leading her to Fairfield University, guiding her through her major coursework, and motivating her throughout her coaching and teaching career.

August 9, 2020 – Union Tournament

From the very beginning, softball made Diana’s life complete. Her father sent her to a Catholic high school when she was a child, and at first she did not want to go. “I really didn’t like it in the beginning, until, of course, softball started. Then I found my niche. I found my friends.” She had no awareness of how good she was until she made the varsity squad her freshman year.

Diana played other sports but focused on softball because it was what she was best at, and there were still so many opportunities for growth. She remembers her coach noticing her strong arm and training her to be catcher that following sophomore season. Without hesitation, Diana stepped up. “Of course. I’ll do whatever you need me to do, Coach. If this is what my team needs, this is what I’m going to do.” Doing right by the team helped her feel more apart of it.

Diana translated this same energy and passion into the college recruiting process. She instantly fell in love with Fairfield University, and although they offered her the smallest scholarship, her parents made sure that money was never a barrier to their children’s opportunities.

Coach Diana talks strategy

Fairfield Softball recruits catchers every two years, so when Diana arrived as a freshman, she was able to learn from an experienced junior. Although that didn’t afford her much playing time as an underclassmen, it allowed for the position to be hers to lose as a junior. Not only did she not lose her position, but she earned all-conference honors during her junior and senior campaigns.

Emerging from college with a major in sociology and minors in American studies and education, Diana began substitute teaching and assistant coaching, both of which she loved. She eventually went back to earn her masters degree in special education and continues to pursue higher levels of education because it helps her keep up-to-date in the classroom and work towards her dream of someday serving as an Athletic Director (AD). Anyone who knows Diana well will know that her favorite part of the day comes after the school bell rings and the team marches out for another day on the mound – sun shining, sweat dripping, and softballs soaring over the fences.

“I enjoy being on the field. It’s just such a different release of getting excited. I feel like when kids have a victory in high school sports, I see the immediate satisfaction, whereas with education, it might take people years to come back and say, ‘Hey, Ms. Fasano, you really helped me and I don’t think you were aware of it.’”

Coach Diana gathers team

Diana is the head softball coach at her alma mater, Immaculate Heart Academy in New Jersey. If she could pass on any advice to her athletes, it would be this:

Do it because you love it

Play for each other 

Be open to Opportunities.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic she’s been using these three mantras to better herself, completing Andy Frisella’s 75-day challenge of health and wellness, which includes two daily workouts, reading, drinking water, strict dieting, and forming other healthy habits.

“I’m trying to be an example for the girls. Motivating by example, leading by example, and showing them how to take care of yourself. I feel like all these things are things I’ve talked about before, but now I feel like they work.”

Diana is the type of competitor that is always trying to find new ways to better herself, and sometimes the best ways to accomplish that is by helping others. She hasn’t been defeated by the adversity the pandemic had caused, and she’s looking to see which of her athletes are putting in that off season work too. Perhaps the photos that Rivals took of the team will serve as happy reminders of their collective love for the sport during these difficult times. After all, each of us are eagerly awaiting that triumphant return to the dugout. We commend you, Diana!

 

Coach Venice during game
Coach Venice during game

Steppin’ Up for Stepinac

Joe Venice knows what it means to remember where you came from. He was a standout student-athlete on the football team during his time at Archbishop Stepinac High School between 2000-2004, and he continues to contribute to the school today as a British Literature teacher, the Director of Student-Athlete Development, and the Offensive Coordinator for the elite varsity football squad.

He is using his positions at the school to give kids the same opportunities he felt fortunate to have received. He was raised by his single mother in Yonkers, New York. He says, “All my coaches growing up were really like father figures for me.” He especially credits legendary Coach Mike O’Donnell – the man who has been leading the program for 33 years including when Venice was an athlete – for being one of the most influential mentors in his life and helping him shape his core values and identities.

Coach Venice during 2019 game

For Venice, it’s not about the money or notoriety. “It’s about the kids.”  He never imagined becoming an educator or a coach, but when the offer was presented to him at a young age of 20 – while he was pursing a double-major in English and communications at Fordham University – Joe was ready to step up to the challenge. “Let me do the same thing and try to pay it forward,” he says.

When Joe started coaching, he was less than two years removed from Stepinac. He had been teammates with some of the athletes, only  this time he was wearing a coaching hat and whistle instead of a helmet and pads. With no prior coaching experience he says he just “shut up and learned everything he could from the other coaches.” He started his 12 year-to-date coaching career at the JV level and has worked his way up to varsity, crediting his incredible experience to an amazing staff at Stepinac.

“High school football is the best thing ever,” Joe says.

Not only does it give kids in New York a positive family and keep them off the streets, but it teaches them skills and tools that are applicable in communities and industries in the real world. He says “football is a metaphor for life.”

“I know college football and the pros do an amazing job as well, but there’s something about high school football that is special because everybody gets a chance to be apart of that.” Rivals Creative is happy to be apart of that too – conducting interviews, taking photos, designing graphics, and creating a fun atmosphere for the kids on events like Media Day, where they can feel like they’re getting that NFL style experience without all the pressure.

Joe had the opportunity to play ball at Fordham but decided to focus on his education. He sees teaching and coaching as the same because in both settings, you really have to reach the kids.

“It’s about teaching kids to do the right thing, make the right choices, and be accountable, because one day they are going to have bosses breathing down their necks – not football coaches. Not everyone will play the game forever, so we have to build leaders that don’t just lead to win games, but lead to do the right things for people around them.”

A big part of Joe’s job is keeping up with all the frequent changes in the education and sports communities. He recognizes that the recruiting scene is a bigger beast than it was when he was a senior in 04’, and Covid regulations are only making it harder for his athletes to get seen on scouts’ radar. However, for the sake of his kids, Joe Venice and his staff can’t let that be a barrier. He believes football should be used “as a vehicle for bigger and better things like college.”

Stepinac High School has teamed up with Rivals Creative Agency and commentator Kevin Davini to put on an impressive showcase that will highlight 300 student-athletes virtually to D1, D2, and D3 universities around the country like Clemson, Pitt, Dartmouth, Syracuse, and Stony Brook to name a few.

It’s a really exciting time for the kids to have something to look forward to, Coach tells us, especially since there won’t be a fall football season. There’s already a lot of buzz circulating for the showcase which will be held on October 24th. Rivals Creative would like to give a big thanks to Coach Venice and wish good luck to the Stepinac program!

Coach Venice with the squad!

Go Crusaders!

Contact

Your Team Awaits.

212-653-0007
1250 Broadway, 36th Floor, New York, New York 10001

    Contact