Academy Rising: Jamaica
Hi and welcome to Academy Rising: Jamaica! My name is Ben Rojas and I'm producing my first independent television series documenting the Jamaica Youth Football Academy (JYFA). I, like many Cuban-American boys, played baseball growing up. Football (or…
Hi and welcome to Academy Rising: Jamaica! My name is Ben Rojas and I'm producing my first independent television series documenting the Jamaica Youth Football Academy (JYFA). I, like many Cuban-American boys, played baseball growing up. Football (or soccer as we yanks call it), was something people in foreign lands played. Something that every four years showed up on my TV and my fanatical baseball father made an attempt to watch with me. Fast forward 30 years and while working at a Spanish sports network, Pan American Sports Network, I quickly realized football was the biggest sport in the world. The rivalries; fierce. The drama; intense. The fanaticism; traditional. The passion; deep-rooted. It wasn’t until 2011 that I met a gentleman who’s “love for the ball” would infect me to my core. That man, Larry Allen, was a 40-year transplanted Jamaican living and coaching football in South Florida.
My then 5 year-old son was one of Larry's players. His genuine enthusiasm for football and love of coaching showed as he unselfishly shared his knowledge and experience with the children. His laid-back style of coaching allowed children the room to learn the essentials of football and grow within a structured environment. That group of children, who are all still playing together, garnered discipline and respect all the while having fun like kids playing sports should have. Parents loved Larry and in 2012, when Larry was stretched thin and coaching several teams in different parks, he was hard-pressed to to fit my son’s team into his schedule. Parents rallied to keep Larry on board and I volunteered to be his assistant coach. Wow! Little did I know what I was getting myself into! Sometimes Larry would run late or have to leave early as traffic was a nightmare getting from practice to practice. At times, he would have back to back games at different parks and even games going on at the same time at the same park! Coaching became a bit daunting for me, but I took it in stride and actually enjoyed the trial by fire. We got to know each other very well and along the way Larry began sharing his dreams of creating JYFA.
I enjoyed hearing Larry’s tales (his face really lit up). He would return to Jamaica on yearly pilgrimages; donating cleats and balls to children of lesser means. He would speak of giving back to his country and helping children who often struggle just to find breakfast. But once a year, while helpful, was more of a bandaid than a solution. He wanted to make a real difference and came up with a multi-faceted plan that would serve several purposes. He would start an academy that would locate the most talented football players among Jamaica’s youth and give them the opportunity to become the best players (and people) they could be. Providing world-class coaches and a structured professional atmosphere, Larry's goal to give Jamaican youngsters a chance to escape poverty was on track to become reality. Future plans included education, housing and most importantly feeding the children. Proper nutrition was at the top of Larry’s list and figuring out how to incorporate three square meals a day sooner than later was paramount. His focus was to groom these children to be future Jamaican National football players with the tools & skills necessary to play professional football in Europe or college in the US (another one of Larry’s long-term goals: setting-up athletic scholarships). For those who ultimately wouldn't have what it takes to play professional football, Larry’s main goal is to develop educated gentlemen who could contribute to society and give back to their communities.
So this is where I come in. As a 25-year veteran editor / producer in many facets of television and film, I felt Larry's JYFA story needed to be told. The timing couldn’t have been better. Three years ago (2011), I made a life-changing decision to leave my "9 to 5" with steady paycheck, health benefits, etc., behind to finally make a living as a film maker telling great stories. This was a dream I’d been chasing since cutting my first feature film in 2005. It was certainly not an easy decision and continues to be a challenge as I have a young family to support. While I’ve enjoyed success as an independent editor/producer for ESPN's award winning show Aussie's Abroad and my latest venture, Drug Wars, which premiers this fall on ABC/Univision's Fusion Network, I wanted more; something with my signature on it. I wanted something that inspired me deep down and gave me a chance to help others while still making a living. JYFA was it and Larry made big strides in 2013 starting non-profit foundations in both the US and Jamaica. But something this big you can’t do alone. I reached out to my good friend and fellow editor/producer Tim Coakley. Having worked together for 10+ years, three of those on Aussies Abroad, I knew Tim was right for the executive team. I also reached out to another colleague and good friend, Director/Producer Ivo Raza, who I met in 2008 when he hired me to cut his first feature film “Jarring". Passion for film making runs deep through his veins so I knew JYFA would intrigue him as well.
In Febuary 2014, Larry informed me that the academy was a go and try-outs would happen in April 2014. I vowed to be there whether the documentary had financial backing or not, but I still needed Tim and Ivo onboard. Larry’s passion and excitement is highly contagious and once the guys met him, I knew they’d be sold on the project. Such was the case. Tim and Ivo signed on a week prior to the try-outs, contributing their time and talent at no upfront cost. Me, well, my work was cut out for me as I had to pull together the money to fly, feed and house us. Luckily I had two great minds to help me with the priceless part, building the JYFA storyline. We went to work… the wheels were in motion!
We shot some interviews prior to leaving for Jamaica as we needed to start getting into Larry’s head. Once in Jamaica, time (or the lack of it) would be our constant enemy as we spent four days shooting from sun up to sundown following Larry and his team of coaches, player’s families and hundreds of Jamaican children looking for a chance to become part of JYFA's inaugural class. Our cameras rolled non-stop - on the field, in homes, in cars - basically everywhere we could to document this historic and special event.
But (and yes this is where I pitch for your support) this is just the beginning... a "first chapter" if you will. This rags to riches story needs your support so it can be told properly. Larry held a two-week summer camp in July to train coaches, follow-up on the progress of securing the facilities and basically keep the momentum going. Unfortunately we were unable to attend as financial challenges proved to be too much. We hope to be back in Jamaica in the fall of 2014 when the academy officially begins. Once there, we plan on recruiting local cameramen and producers in order to strengthen our team on the ground and have someone available to shoot at all times. We expect to document JYFA over the long-term; ideally 6 to 10 years, in order to see the inaugural class graduate and move on to great things as young men both internationally and locally. If you’re interested in helping us achieve this challenging goal, please contact me.