The journey of legendary Martin Luther King High School soccer coach Martin “Coach Jake” Jacobson can’t be put into perspective by simply acknowledging the 17 New York City Public School Athletic League city championships the 71-year-old former heroin addict and Hepatitis C survivor has won in the past 21 years.
He arrived at MLK three decades ago and instead of undervaluing the proud immigrant community, he noticed that he had a gold mine of multicultural talent available at a school with an English-as-a-second-language program that accepted students from other parts of the city.
Jacobson tapped into the pipeline of soccer talent trained in West African, Caribbean and South American countries and quickly transformed the forgotten school into a soccer empire blooming with prideful future college students, U.S. citizens and positive contributors to society.
Today's workout is brought to you by MLK Jr HS in NYC: the most successful boys soccer program in NY state. On Sunday they go for their 17th city championship, the most by anyone. The amazing thing about this team is all the kids are sons of immigrants...
All of these years later, Coach Jake is still at MLK. On November 11th, he won his record 17th PSAL soccer championship with a convincing 4 -0 win over Beacon High School. The team, over the five rounds of the playoffs, scored 32 goals for and 3 against, finishing the season undefeated at 18-0.
Coach Jake is the winningest coach in any sport in New York City history, famous for helping to turn a disenfranchised area of hardworking people into a prime example of what an opportunity for excellence in America can produce when put into the proper, cultivating hands. Before that victory, the team was nationally ranked at # 4 by Topdrawersoccer.com and at #14 with the United Soccer Coaches poll (formerly the NSCAA ).
Uploaded by Coachs Corner NYC on 2017-11-14.
Coach Jake’s resilience and his obsession with winning on the soccer field never trumped his overall mission to help kids from humble circumstances acquire an advanced education and have socially redeeming lives. It’s as much a part of his saga as the soccer empire he built and the community pride he’s helped create at the school located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Manhattan.
At one point, MLK was considered one of the worst schools in the city before he launched the soccer squad in 1994. Coach Jake embarked on two challenges that year. Building a soccer program from scratch and also dealing with a diagnosis of the potentially deadly and progressive disease Hepatitis C.
“Most of these kid come to the United States and require a lot of love and help and in many cases some legal assistance with certain immigration issues that arise,” Jacobson told The Shadow League.
Coach Jake’s mission is teaching kids to "work hard and you’ll be rewarded", and over the years that mission has gotten stronger. He didn’t win a game during his first season running the program, but by 1996 his team was PSAL champions.
He’s maintained a near invincibility with his 96% career winning percentage since then. He’s won over 400 games and touched twice as many lives. He’s outlasted suspensions, investigations, criticism, accusations and haters, while still promoting excellence on the pitch, and in life, to every player that suited up for him.
MLK soccer coach Martin Jacobson struggles with his students and deals with his past.
With all of the success he's enjoyed, the season that came to define him as a coach, mentor, father figure and dedicated extended family member to the people of the MLK community was in 2015. Hoping to recover from losing in the 2014 playoffs, MLK reached the 2015 semifinals of the PSAL championship undefeated, but the tumultuous relationship between Coach Jake and his star players Tyrone Harrison and Ibrahim Lakanobo fractured team chemistry when they needed it the most, resulting in a second straight year in which MLK didn’t win the championship.
The results on the field may have been short of perfect, but true to Coach Jake's mission, the lives of Tyrone and Ibby continued to flourish after King, thanks to Jacobson’s tough love. Tyrone is playing first division in Jamaica and Ibby is finishing an associate degree at ASA college in Brooklyn.
It was the perfect MLK soccer season for filmmaker Ian Phillips to document Jacobson’s unique and compelling story in the award-winning feature documentary, entitled “Coach Jake.”
“Jake's a highly respected guy in the soccer community and in the school, and he rarely has any noticeable conflicts with his players,” Phillips told The Shadow League. “That’s why the turmoil he had in 2015 really made the film go.”
(Photo Credit: PSAL - NYC Dept. of Education)
Phillips is from the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended Beacon, one of MLK’s major rivals for soccer supremacy in the city. Phillips told the Shadow League he knew Jake for 10 years.
“I met him because I read an article about him and his team in the New York Times a long long time ago," said Phillips. "I read about his disease and how at that time he thought he was coming to the end of a career and his life. So naturally, the fact he was still going ten years later fascinated me. I was in film school and I did a short project on him, and then from that time on we just stayed in touch.”
They remained good friends and eventually, Phillips felt like it was time to embark on a more ambitious film venture and really try to sum up Coach Jake’s incredible life in an hour and 20 minutes.
“At first, I thought I was going to do a biopic sort of speak..,” said Phillips, a freelance documentary filmmaker and a full-time video editor who’s been making his own independent documentaries for the past 10 years on different subjects taking place in New York City.
“I didn't think the season was going to figure prominently in the film because MLK is a dynasty and always wins, so I didn't want the season to be the focus," he continued. "I wanted him and his life and his past to be the focus. But as the film progressed, I noticed there was a lot of conflict between him and a couple of players, and his family became more prominent during that season as well, so it ended up being a lot more dramatic and exciting. It ended up being an interesting time for Jake not only on the field because they ended up losing, but also because his disease was at a critical place and his relationships with his family seemed to be coming to a head. So all of these things kind of converged to make the film.”
(Photo Credit: PSAL - NYC Dept. of Education)
Phillips told The Shadow League that despite being a low-budget project of passion, the response to the film has been amazing and it is resonating at every viewing venue.
“We've had the film in five festivals so far,” Phillips said. “We won a Programmer’s Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature at Bushwick Film Festival. We had a premier at The Urban World Film Festival. We had our first out-of-state screening at The Heartland Film Festival in Indiana. We're showing at these reputable screenings alongside bigger films and people are taken by an authentic New York City story, which is something you don't see anymore. People are really enamored with Coach Jake and they feel for him - his flaws and his good qualities.”
While Coach Jake took the 2015 season’s semifinals loss about as hard as anyone can take defeat in a high school game, he also got a clean bill of health from the doctors and returned in 2016 with a winning spirit and renewed energy. He revamped the chemistry on the team and led them to their 16th and then 17th city championship in 2017. As always, Coach Jake weathered the storm.
“I’ve always had situations to deal with or a few issues with kids but that's out of hundreds of players,” Jacobson told TSL. “There are so many stories over the past 20 plus years and issues I’ve had to deal with from a kid from Colombia’s dad being arrested for selling cocaine, with the Feds knocking his front door down years ago, to kids that have been homeless and I've had to find foster care for them. I have four kids from Ivory Coast that need help right now.”
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For every rough, urban jungle tale in Coach Jake’s soccer journey, there were way more positive stories that he chooses to focus on when speaking about his career.
His greatest victory isn’t a particular game but the life of former player Mansour Ndiaye, who enrolled in MLK in 1995 and became very close with Coach Jake and his wife. Jacobson said they fell in love with Ndiaye’s personality. The young man’s uncle worked often, so Ndiaye spent a lot of time with Coach Jake’s family and they ended up “unofficially adopting him,” says Jacobson.
“My son Ndiaye is my hero,” he says.
Ndiaye (seen bottom left of photo with Jacobson) went on to have an All-American career at MLK and then as captain of the University of Connecticut soccer team, leading the Huskies to a National Championship.
Ndiaye was drafted seventh overall in the 2002 MLS Draft by the New York/New Jersey Metrostars, but he decided to get his PhD in kinesiology. He's now Dr. Mansour Ndiaye, an Assistant Dean and Executive Director of CLAS Academic Services Center at UConn.
“Through the years we keep getting more success on the field and off the field after kids come play for King,” Coach Jake said. “There’s always been this theory that ‘playing soccer for King is getting a better life’ and that has increased each year. I graduate 96-97 percent of my kids, so many go on to great schools and different colleges. Any starter on my team that makes the grades, basically can go to almost any college he wants to go.”
“As soon as they graduate,” Jacobson told The Shadow League, “we start working on, 'where do we put you next? Where do you go after King?'”
When Jacobson launched the soccer dynasty in 1994, he described MLK as a “dysfunctional high school...very chaotic in the '80s.”
He says he started with “a rag tag group of kids with a passion for soccer." He had seven kids from Trinidad on that team. In '94, they were winless. The first goal was to teach them that if they work hard, wins follow. Three years later, MLK won the school’s first city championship and also had the first kid from the program to play Major League Soccer.
"So around that time, people started hearing about us," Jake said, "and our kids started getting recognized by colleges and enrolling in schools after King."
MLK won in ‘96, ‘97 and ‘98, took second in ‘99 and recovered to win five PSAL titles in a row. Jacobson pridefully tells the Shadow League, “You know the old adage from the movie Field of Dreams, 'If you build it they will come.'"
The perennially nationally ranked Martin Luther King High School's boys soccer team is comprised of immigrant kids from around the world. Coach Martin Jacobson (Coach Jake) believes in "learning life's lessons and helping others. That's two reasons why we're on earth."
Immigrants and children of immigrants who viewed soccer as a first sport, despite its secondary status as far as American sports are concerned, started hearing about the school and they found a coach who would not only help them on the field, but academically, while inserting himself into their lives as a saviour of sorts, fulfilling whatever capacity they needed. He was everything from a father figure to a friend to an academic advisor to disciplinarian to a legal advocate for different families.
He accomplished all of this without a home field. The school is still currently trying to raise money in 2017 for funds to construct a soccer field. For years Coach Jake’s teams played in a mud puddle that was Central Park and they were kicked off other fields or chased away. Riverside Park has also been a surrogate home for the team.
It didn’t hurt their success. "At one point I think we won 60 or 70 games in a row, " Jacobson told TSL.
Jacobson grew up poor and his mother worked tooth and nail to get him an education and provide food for the family. He learned the game of soccer at age 11 from a guy who was a Holocaust survivor and parlayed those jewels into a very nice college career.
Coach Jake says he was the first public high school soccer coach in the state of New Mexico back in the '70s and his first job out of college in 1968 was coaching junior high school and JV soccer. He’s been doing this a very long time. He is the immovable object in New York City sports.
“My instincts and tactical part of the game make me feel like I have an edge on some of these coaches,” he said. “Most soccer coaches in New York are in it for one season and that's it. I'm in it all year from my free summer program to the Big Apple Games. Passion breeds success and success breeds more success.”
(Photo Credit: PSAL - NYC Dept. of Education)
As long as he continues to breathe the air of life and can make a difference in the lives of the community, Coach Jake will be on the sidelines and managing the overall dynasty of educational and athletic excellence that is MLK soccer.
During the last decade or so, he has acknowledged that he’s getting older and has brought on soccer- savvy assistants to help him execute aspects of the game that he can’t physically show his players anymore, and to be there when he has to go to his doctor's appointments or visit with his family.
(Photo Credit: PSAL - NYC Dept. of Education)
He’s also heavily focused on The Coach Jake Foundation, which he started with a social group in California to help kids with college placement and immigration situations.
Now in the twilight of his life, Coach Jake deals with everything day to day, but history will look upon him kindly when it’s all said and done because he's made it his life's work to help people.