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In the last five years, Suffolk’s Athletics Department has seen momentous changes, including the addition of six varsity sports, such as women’s indoor track and field in which Emily Manfra, below right, was named an All-American. Investments were also made in new and renovated facilities, supported by brothers Larry, above, and Michael Smith. Photograph by Michael J. Clarke
Story by Nat Panek
If one word can accurately sum up an indoor track meet, it’s “distracting.” An announcer’s voice booms from the public address system. Athletes hurl heavy weights in the throwing events—and themselves in the jumping events—on the infield. The rising and falling cheers of spectators echo throughout a cavernous arena. All contribute to a sense of tumult, and all present a challenge to an athlete attempting to focus on performance.
This sort of commotion enveloped Emily Manfra, BS ’20, during the 2019 NCAA Division III national indoor track championships at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Manfra was competing in the mile event against nine other runners. Her family was in the stands, somewhere, urging her on.
But Manfra was focused. Her coach Will Feldman, BS ’12, stood beside the track each time she passed, calling out splits. And he was in her head—she repeated his mantra to herself over and over as she pounded down the track: Stay on the outside. Don’t get boxed in.
“By the last lap, everyone was full-out sprinting,” Manfra recalls. “I could see the girls in front, but I didn’t know who was behind me, I really didn’t think about it until I crossed. And then I was like, ‘Oh my god, I really did get fifth.’”
The significance of Manfra’s fifth-place finish was that the first eight runners to cross the line that day would be granted All-America status. The further significance was that she would become the first student-athlete named an All-American in women’s indoor track and field at Suffolk University, a program that was added in the 2016-17 season.
“When you see a student-athlete like Emily who has been afforded the opportunity to compete and excel in one of the newly added programs, there is a certain level of pride in knowing all the people who helped make this happen,” says Athletics Director Cary McConnell. And there are many.
The past five years have seen some of the most momentous changes in the history of Suffolk University’s Athletics Department. Chief among them is the addition of six new varsity sports: men’s and women’s track and field, both indoor and outdoor; women’s ice hockey; and women’s golf. The University also has invested heavily in its sports and fitness facilities, both renovating old ones and constructing or acquiring new ones.
Suffolk secured home-field advantage for its baseball, softball, and soccer teams at East Boston Memorial Stadium. Rams athletics staffed up, hiring coaches for men’s and women’s soccer and basketball, as well as for the new track and field teams and women’s ice hockey squad. Two full-time assistant athletics trainers joined the staff as well, to help care for student-athletes, whose numbers have jumped from 168 to almost 300 in 2019.
That near-doubling of student-athletes points to another dividend earned through investment in athletics—students are being drawn to attend Suffolk University who might not have considered it previously. And they’re coming from farther afield than has been the case in years past. “It’s really increased our footprint in terms of recruiting,” McConnell observes.
His observation is illustrated by the experience of Taylor Wasylk, head coach of women’s ice hockey. As she worked to put together her inaugural squad in 2017, she noted a geographic draw from well beyond Suffolk’s traditional New England domain.
“Cary asked me, ‘How many kids do we have from Massachusetts?’” she recalls. “And I told him, ‘Zero.’ He said, ‘Do we have a team?’ And I’m like, ‘Cary, yeah, we’ve got 24 kids!’” Wasylk’s new team was enrolling from hometowns in Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, even Canada. “His brain almost exploded,” Wasylk laughs.
There’s no doubt that a growing athletics program is broadening the University’s recruitment reach, says Suffolk President Marisa Kelly. But Kelly says there’s something even more fundamental at play. “This is one essential way that we are delivering on our mission,” she says. “As a University we are committed to creating transformational opportunities for our students. Yes, athletics is about competition. It’s about love of the game, but it is also about the development of leadership skills and confidence, team building, and skills of collaboration.”
Student-athletes also gain a greater sense of community in the center of Suffolk’s urban campus, Kelly says. “That’s important to the overall social experience we provide to our students.”
The belief in the transformational and community-building power of athletics is shared by two of the University’s most generous alumni, Michael Smith, BSBA ’61 and Larry Smith, BSBA ’65, brothers who in their own words, “bleed blue and gold.” Along with supporting the wider University, including through scholarships, they have become steadily more involved in boosting Rams athletics, starting with basketball—Larry’s sport when he was a Suffolk undergraduate. The brothers donated funds for travel costs as well as new uniforms—a change that, while modest at first glance, helped to cultivate a sense of pride on the team.
Their support for Suffolk athletics only grew from there. In 2016, the Michael and Larry Smith Fitness Center opened in the Ridgeway Building. Serving the greater Suffolk community, the new center was an instant success, as it filled with students, staff, and faculty eager to take advantage of top-of-the line spin bikes, elliptical machines, free weights, and circuit training equipment.
In November 2017, the University announced a $3 million gift from the Smith brothers, one of the largest alumni gifts in the University’s history and one that brought their total giving to more than $5 million. That support funded an interior renovation of the Ridgeway building that created a new training room and offices, new locker rooms, a varsity weight room, and a team film room. Giant decals now cover the walls of the hallways, and plush chairs in a lounge area are embroidered with the Rams logo.
Blase Cormier, Class of 2021 has spent three years as a Rams first baseman, long enough to note a significant change brought about by the renovations. “Now, you walk in on the (Ridgeway) second floor and you see people from multiple teams there just hanging out, doing homework, talking to each other, eating lunch. It’s created more community within the Athletics Department. That’s been a huge contribution.”
When Emily Manfra enrolled at Suffolk, track and field was not an offer—she initially ran on the cross country team. “I never thought I’d be running track and field during my time here,” she says. By the time she qualified for the NCAA indoor track and field nationals in 2019 she was among the top runners in the nation and had amassed a series of records and honors that former coach Feldman calls “staggering.”
The team expansions enabled by the University’s investment and the Smiths’ support opened new opportunities for her to develop her individual talent, she says, including a sub-5-minute mile. Newly graduated, Manfra is now embarking on a PhD program in nursing at Boston College.
As the Rams look ahead, events like the coronavirus outbreak stand as vivid reminders that some things can’t always be planned for. But the community spirit rising from the University’s investment in athletics makes a very real difference in the resiliency of an institution when that institution is tested by extraordinary events. And they illustrate a compelling truth: The rise of Ram Nation is the rise of the entire University.
The end of competition came swiftly for Suffolk’s women’s softball team last spring.
The Rams were training and playing games in Florida in March when, boom, the season was over in the face of a growing coronavirus pandemic. “We got back to Boston, and everybody was already gone,” says Head Coach Jaclyn Davis. “It was very quick. It was like, ‘Let’s clean this up and then pack your dorms up.’”
But that was not the end of spring athletic engagement at Suffolk. After giving players about two weeks to breathe, the coaches stepped back in. Knowing players were craving structure, athletics staff began to put programs together to engage them. They connected with student-athletes on fitness and conditioning, but also on their personal transitions and academics. “We did team meetings. We did individual meetings,” Davis says. “We talked about school. We talked about life and what’s next.”
Coaches collaborated across sports. They got creative and tried to keep it fun. They organized a virtual trivia night where teams of athletes and coaches competed. They put training programs together with enough variety to keep it interesting—conditioning and strength training athletes could do in their driveways, their basements, their garages. They incorporated elements of competition because, well, athletes are competitive. “I guess it’s just the nature of the beast, right?” Davis says. “That’s what we ask of them—to be competitive people.”
In the end, athletics at Suffolk did not stop with the coronavirus pandemic. In some ways, they became more important than ever before. Earlier this summer, the Rams’ new athletic conference, the Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC), joined many other leagues in suspending intercollegiate athletic competition for the fall. Despite that, Suffolk’s coaches will still be working with student-athletes. Low contact sports, as defined by the NCAA, such as golf, tennis and cross country, still expect to compete. Training and appropriately adjusted practices are still planned for students that choose to participate. And the support will be there, as well.
“It will be a different experience for student-athletes, but it will still be a very valuable experience,” says Suffolk President Marisa Kelly.
In unsettling times, Kelly says the pivot to engaging athletes in practice pods and virtual trainings, and the efforts to help them stay fit, connected, and supporting each other are as important as anything that could have happened on the field of play. —Greg Gatlin and Katy Ibsen
For Michael Smith, BSBA ’61, and Larry Smith, BSBA ’65, brothers who grew up without means in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, the opportunity to attend Suffolk University changed their lives.
A basketball star at Chelsea High School, Larry Smith met Charles Law, Suffolk’s first athletics director, who saw potential in the lanky, tenacious defender and rebounder with a matching work ethic off the court. Larry would get up at 5:30 a.m. and go to work as a window and floor washer in Boston, then change into his school clothes for classes at Chelsea High, and then again for basketball practice. Law was impressed and gave Larry a full scholarship to attend the University and play on the Suffolk team.
The cost of tuition back then: $600. “It could have been $6 million,” Larry says. “It wouldn’t have mattered. I just didn’t have the money.”
For Larry, that scholarship was a lifechanging gesture of faith. Indeed, both Larry and Michael say Suffolk gave them an education and a grounding in aspects of business that prepared them for professional success. It helped them grow. And most of all, they credit Suffolk for taking a chance on two kids from Chelsea, Massachusetts.
“I love this university,” Michael, overwhelmed with emotion, said at a 2018 ceremony naming the Michael S. Smith and Larry E. Smith Residence Hall in the brothers’ honor.
The Smiths’ story is in every way the Suffolk story. Gleason Archer, the University’s founder, had someone take a chance on him, too. As the story goes, in 1903 a Boston businessman, George Frost, took an interest in helping Archer, who aspired to become a lawyer. Frost loaned Archer money to complete his legal education. When Archer later tried to repay the loan, Frost wouldn’t allow it, asking only that Archer do the same for others if he ever had the chance. In 1906, Archer started the Suffolk School of Law to provide the opportunity of education to all capable students—paying it forward before the term was even coined.
Over the years, the Smith brothers have paid back Frost’s largesse and then some. They’ve endowed scholarships for students, including one in memory of their Chelsea friend, Pvt. Sheldon R. Cohen, who was killed in action in Vietnam. The brothers subsidized uniform and travel costs for Ram Nation teams, funded a dining hall in the Samia Academic Building, a new basketball court, and the flagship Smith Fitness Center.
They have made some of the largest Suffolk alumni contributions ever, with more than $5 million in total giving. That philanthropy has supported major renovations of Suffolk’s athletics facilities and improvements in student life. Both brothers have been inducted into the Suffolk University Athletics Hall of Fame and Larry serves as a University trustee. Inspired by legendary Suffolk Men’s Basketball Coach and Athletics Director Emeritus Jim Nelson, the Smiths founded the new Athletics giving society, the Coach Nelson Club, which honors Nelson by enhancing competitive opportunities and ensuring an excellent experience for current and future student-athletes. Their generosity is serving to elevate Suffolk athletics, and it is building community among students. Even the Suffolk Rams-branded team bus was inspired by Michael’s vision.
“We were raised to believe that if you made it, you had an obligation to give back,” the brothers have said.
Giving back. Paying it forward. Larry and Michael Smith are proudly keeping that tradition going strong.
Gleason Archer would be proud. -Ben Hall