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For Black Brown athletics alums, sports remain central

Dennis Coleman ’75, Bekah Salwasser ’01 hold roles in sports law, nonprofit management

<p>Dennis Coleman ’75 (above) played quarterback for the Brown football team, and said his experience connected him to a wide range of individuals within the Black community at Brown.</p>

Dennis Coleman ’75 (above) played quarterback for the Brown football team, and said his experience connected him to a wide range of individuals within the Black community at Brown.

Dennis Coleman ’75 and Bekah Salwasser ’01 were both accomplished athletes during their time at Brown — Coleman started as quarterback for the Bears for two seasons while Salwasser was two-time captain of the women’s soccer team. Though they no longer take the field for Brown, sports remain central to the lives of both alums. Coleman currently works in the realm of sports law, and Salwasser holds major roles in the Boston Red Sox Foundation and the Red Sox organization more broadly.

The Herald spoke to both alums to learn more about the impact sports had on their time at the University and lives after college.

‘We, as African-Americans, belonged there’: Dennis Coleman ’75

Sports have always been a part of Coleman’s life. “Sports (were) always in my bones,” Coleman said. “Didn’t everyone start playing as soon as they could walk?” he quipped.

Growing up in Darby, Penn. as one of eight children, all of whom excelled in athletics during their youth, Coleman participated in basketball, baseball and track and field, but he found particular success in football.

Coleman was an all-state quarterback in high school and led his team to two seasons with 8-1 records his junior and senior years.

While Coleman was academically gifted and president of his senior class, his high school graduation coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. Rather than focusing on academics, Coleman fixed his full attention on the movement.

“I was really interested in the movement. (I was) old enough to understand; too young, slightly, to participate,” Coleman said. “I was more concerned about W.E.B. DuBois and (Ralph) Ellison (than Shakespeare).”

Coleman’s high school performances on the field earned him the attention of recruiters from the University of Southern California. USC encouraged Coleman to attend junior college at Arizona Western College for a year before transferring in order to improve his academics and gain muscle.

Determined to meet these goals, Coleman became a Ford Foundation Scholar at Arizona Western, an upward trajectory paralleled by his continued success on the field. “I figured that I was going to shut my father up, so I decided to study,” Coleman joked.

Coleman’s academic success at the junior college drew the attention of a Brown recruiter, Louis Farber ’29, one of Brown’s Iron Men.

Although Coleman had been set on attending USC, an after-class conversation with his philosophy professor changed the trajectory of his life.

“I get goosebumps when I talk about this… He said ‘If you go to school (at Brown), you’ll go to school with the sons and daughters of kings and presidents, and the very people that will someday run this country. And that is where you belong,’” Coleman recounted. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”

Coleman’s Arizona Western football team went on to win the Junior College National Championship that year, and though he was recruited by many universities, he ultimately chose Brown.

Watching a basketball game during a recruiting visit to campus in the winter of 1973 solidified Coleman’s desire to attend the University.

“Four out of the five starters on the basketball team were African-American,” Coleman said. “A whole side of the gym was filled with students and three quarters of those students were African-Americans with big afros and it was just amazing.”

Brown’s relatively large Black population at the time was a welcome change from Coleman’s prior experience in Pennsylvania and Arizona.

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“I was surprised … to see that many African-Americans at Brown … What I realized was, I’m one of the beneficiaries of the riots of Malcolm X, of Martin, of the civil unrest,” Coleman said. “Brown opened the doors to African-American students (that) should have been opened long ago … They didn’t lower their standards at all. We, as African-Americans, belonged there.”

Coleman noted that the socioeconomic diversity within the University’s Black community made its environment so unique. His role as a football player connected him to a wide range of individuals.

“We had African-American students who were the sons and daughters of African-American doctors and lawyers,” he said. “But we also had friends that came from single parents (and) working class families … It was a beautiful mix of people. It was a very welcoming place.” 

Black quarterbacks were so rare in college football at the time that some students at Brown were doubtful that Coleman would even have the opportunity to play the position when he arrived on campus the second semester of his sophomore year. “I came here to play quarterback, nothing else. That’s the way I looked at it,” Coleman recalled. 

On Oct. 6, 1973, Coleman made history when he faced off against Penn’s Marty Vaughn in the first-ever matchup between two Black quarterbacks in the more than 100 years of major college football. 

Though history was being made in the game against Penn, Coleman remained humble leading up to the event. “Oh, it was just another game. We were just going down to play Penn,” he said.

The Penn game marked Coleman’s return to playing in his home state. “It was my first time playing in front of my family since high school,” Coleman said. “My whole town was at the game. It was a big deal. Not the Black quarterback thing, but ‘Denny,’ as they called me at home, was coming home to play for Brown.”

Coleman recalled Vaughn saying after the game, “I didn’t even know that you were Black, man, until I saw you out on the field. I said to one of my teammates ‘Woah, they’ve got a Black quarterback, too!’”

“We became fast friends and are friends to this day and we talk about (that game) now. We laugh about it,” Coleman said.

Coleman’s transfer to Brown’s football team sparked a turnaround for the program. The University tallied a 3-30 record in the three seasons prior to his arrival. In Coleman’s first season competing for the Bears, the team improved to 4-3-1. The following season, he led the Bears to a 5-4 season. These consecutive winning seasons were the program’s first since the 1940s.

“People were going nuts about the success of the team,” Coleman said. “It was a big deal.”

Beyond the pride of turning the program around and winning football games, Coleman recalls gaining the admiration of Providence’s Black community.

“The African-American community in Providence came to games, … and they would tell me ‘We never went to Brown’s games and we couldn’t believe that Brown had a Black quarterback,’” Coleman said.

Coleman’s status as a successful Black quarterback at Brown was inspirational to many Black youths. “I had kids that used to want my wristbands … that would tell me years later ‘You don’t know what it meant to us to have you as a Black quarterback at Brown,” Coleman said.

But even with all the athletic success, “The most wonderful part of Brown is that I met my wife … in September 1973 in the Ratty,” Coleman said. Coleman and his wife have been married for 42 years.

After graduating from the University with a degree in history, Coleman went on to attend Georgetown Law School. There, he found a sense of community with Black students who matriculated from schools like Brown.

Following Georgetown, Coleman returned to Providence in 1978 to work for Edwards and Angell LLP and became the first Black lawyer in Rhode Island history to work for a major law firm.

Three years later, he and some associates started their own firm on Waterman and Ives streets. This marked the beginning of his work representing athletes.

As a young Black lawyer in the 1970s, Coleman said he felt his racial identity gave him an advantage in the field among clients. “There were just a few of us —Black guys, that is — that were doing this work. And so Black guys were like ‘I want him because he’ll understand me,’” Coleman said. “I honestly believe that gave me a leg up. I used it that way.”

Today, Coleman is a Senior Counsel for Ropes & Gray LLP and leads a nationwide sports, media and entertainment practice. He represents a variety of professional sports industry clients, including coaches from the National Football League.

Coleman uses his influential position to mentor the next generation of Black lawyers. “I spend a lot of my time talking to young lawyers of color trying to help them navigate their way through Big Law. I really enjoy the opportunity to be a mentor to younger people,” Coleman said. “I honestly believe that I have a true obligation to young African-American lawyers … because it’s still a struggle.”

‘For me, it’s about making sure it’s not just my voice:’ Bekah Splaine Salwasser ‘01

Bekah Splaine Salwasser grew up in Cambridge, MA as one of five children, all of whom were casually introduced to sports at a young age.

“Because our house was so small and so crowded, the soccer field was a place where I felt like I could literally and figuratively sort of spread my wings and fly,” Salwasser said.

Excelling rapidly in soccer while discovering that time and effort invested into the sport often yielded positive results, Salswasser was recruited by many universities. She ultimately chose Brown because of its proximity to her family, sense of close-knit community, liberal values and commitment to diversity.

Although Salswasser was seeking racial diversity in her decision to matriculate to Brown, she recalls being the only Black player on the soccer team during her four years. “As you can imagine, it felt very isolating,” Salwasser said. “It’s something that a lot of people of color have to figure out, and it’s something that we have to navigate as a minority in a majority situation.”

Salwasser’s talent offered some relief from the burden of being a minority in the soccer world. “I was very fortunate on almost every field I played to be one of the best, if not the best, player,” Salwasser said. “And that allows you to position yourself differently.”

In addition to the challenges of being the only Black woman on the team, Salswasser faced a major physical challenge during her college soccer career. She had just verbally committed to play at Brown in January 1997 when she tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus. She then re-tore her ACL that July, requiring complete reconstructive surgery.

After months of rehabilitation, as well as overcoming the fear of another injury, Salwasser made her debut for Brown soccer her sophomore year in 1998 and earned the Ivy League Rookie of the Year honor.

A natural leader, Salwasser captained the University’s women’s soccer team her junior and senior years. “There’s no separating the fact that I’ve been a sports team captain and have also been an executive director of just about every job I’ve had,” Salwasser said.

Salwasser graduated from Brown in 2001 with a degree in psychology and child development and played soccer semi-professionally for the Boston Renegades after going undrafted in the newly-founded Women’s United Soccer Association.

Salwasser captained the Renegades and led the team to two national championships in both years she played for them. Following her stint with the Renegades, she earned a spot playing professionally with the Boston Breakers of the WUSA. “I am fueled by doubt,” Salwasser said of her achievement.

When the WUSA folded due to financial instability in 2003, Salwasser transitioned to nonprofit work. A former classmate from Brown who played on the men’s soccer team connected Salwasser to the organization Boston Scores, which works to combine soccer education with literacy for middle schoolers in the Boston Public School district. “I loved the idea of leveraging the formula ‘academics + athletics = success,’” Salwasser said.

After enjoying her work in the nonprofit realm, Salwasser continued to network in the Boston area and ultimately arrived at her current position of Executive Director of the Red Sox Foundation, where she has worked since 2018.

At the start of 2021, Salwasser took on a second role for the organization as executive vice president of social impact.

As head of the foundation, Salwasser manages a team of 12 individuals who provide opportunities in health, education and recreation to youth, families, veterans and communities in need across New England. Her team gives away resources such as grants, tickets and autographed merchandise. They also run a college scholarship program and offer a program called Reviving Baseball in the Inner-cities.

In her social impact role, Salwasser works to increase the diversity among the Red Sox staff in addition to ensuring equity in the organization and fostering a culture of belonging at the institution through an advisory counsel.

Salwasser’s identity as a Black woman in her newest role in social justice comes with added pressure. “You’re being asked to represent an entire demographic,” Salwasser said. “For me, it’s about making sure it’s not just my voice. There are other Black experiences. There are other Black female experiences.”

“I'm honored with this opportunity, but at the same time, we can’t just continue to stick with certain demographics in specific roles,” she added. Black people “have value to bring in all aspects of business and life and not just through the lens of (diversity, equity and inclusion).”



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