The West Philly native is helping his city’s African-American and immigrant communities.
By Owen Boyle
Nick Bibbs grew up playing soccer in the streets of West Philly, and now he is giving back to his city’s African-American and immigrant communities.
Bibbs is a former professional soccer player who has taken charge as the Director of Coaching and leads on-field coaching for The SWAG, a philanthropically funded, no-cost soccer training program for young athletes ages four through eight.
He also works as an assistant coach within the highly touted Philadelphia Union Academy.
“Things are coming full circle for me,” Bibbs said. “From my upbringing to my playing days, now I’m trying to make the game of soccer popular in the City of Philadelphia.”
Thanks to his Jamaican roots, Bibbs grew up with a soccer ball at his feet. Bibbs acknowledged that his stepdad was the one to put the ball at his feet.
Soccer wasn’t a popular sport in Philadelphia when Bibbs was growing up in the early 90s. He was the only one on his block near 55th and Chancellor streets to go outside and kick around a soccer ball.
“It was not cool to play soccer back in the day,” Bibbs said. “I would tell kids that I was going to basketball tournaments when I was really going to play soccer.”
Organized soccer was almost non-existent compared to basketball and football when Bibbs was a young child in West Philadelphia. Bibbs wasn’t introduced to organized soccer until he was 10-years-old and coaches started recognizing his talent.He recalled going out in the street or to Sheperd Park on Haverford Avenue with his cousins as the only way he could play.
“If I didn’t have the access to my family, then I probably would never have been introduced to the game in the first place, ” Bibbs said.
Bibbs’ family’s soccer background had big implications on the career path that the Jamaican-American would pave for himself. After his family moved to nearby Ardmore, he attended Lower Merion High School, where he would be an integral part of the school’s soccer team.
The Lower Merion name is of course familiar as the alma mater of the late NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.
“The basketball program was huge,” Bibbs said. “We wanted to make Lower Merion Soccer a powerhouse as well.”
While Bibbs was at Lower Merion, the Aces won three straight Central League titles and the 2008 PIAA District One championship. In high school, Bibbs was awarded Central League MVP, earned all-state honors, and was a Regional All-American.
Success with high school soccer led to an opportunity to play at the collegiate level for Bibbs. In 2009, he was verbally committed to playing at Hartwick College under coaches Ian McIntyre and Jukka Masalin.
The coaching duo left Hartwick for Syracuse, so Bibbs followed suit.
“It was a no-brainer,” Bibbs said with a chuckle. “I needed to figure out a way to get to Syracuse as well.”
Before heading to upstate New York, Bibbs spent his freshman season at Caldwell College.
He played at Syracuse from 2010 to 2012, starting 42 of a possible 43 matches.
While in college, Bibbs played semi-professional soccer in the summer for Reading United AC and the Ocean City Nor’easters. Bibbs left Syracuse halfway through his senior year to join a development club called Chicago Bridges FC based out of Chicago.
Bridges FC provides a pathway for American players to sign with European clubs. The team takes 18 to 20 of its best players to play overseas, hoping that some players can showcase their talents and sign with a club.
Bibbs was one of those players.
He signed with IFK Lammhult in the Swedish third-tier, spending the 2013-2014 season with the club.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better experience in Sweden,” Bibbs said. “It was one of those real experiences. As soon as I stepped foot in town, people knew who I was.”
Following a brief stint in Sweden, Bibbs came back stateside to join United Soccer League expansion side Saint Louis FC in 2015.
After a season with Saint Louis, Bibbs joined Bethlehem Steel, now known as Philadelphia Union II. He spent his final professional season with the Philadelphia Union’s USL affiliate.
“It [my professional career] was all about learning,” Bibbs said. “No matter how long you play the game, you are always learning.”
Bibbs went back to Syracuse to finish his degree, majoring in Child and Family Studies. While in New York, he coached at a youth academy called Syracuse FC.
Coaching wasn’t always on Bibbs’ radar, but he credits McIntyre, his former college coach, for leading him down this path.
“The lessons I learned from playing under him is a huge reason why I am coaching today,” Bibbs said. “I look to shape individuals the same way that he helped shape me.”
One day Bibbs received a call from his former Bethlehem Steel teammate, Ryan Richter.
Richter, currently an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Union, was looking for someone to help ramp up The SWAG program and assist with coaching the Philadelphia Union Academy Under-15s.
“It was a no-brainer,” Bibbs said. “I was able to come back home to coach and help with a really important initiative.”
The SWAG program was founded in 2018 and has a player pool of more than 2,000 youth soccer players. All 2,000 kids are offered coaching and training year-round. Over 95% of The SWAG players are of African descent or from immigrant families.
Bibbs joined The SWAG shortly after the initial Covid-19 lockdown.
As the Director of Coaching, Bibbs doesn’t just offer professional-level coaching. He and the other coaches serve as mentors, counseling players and their families as they evaluate future athletic and educational opportunities.
“It’s about teaching character and how to be a good person,” Bibbs said. “All the lessons you get with sports in general, we want to bring to these kids at a young age.”
The SWAG has been a consistent presence in certain areas of Philadelphia.
“The only way to get out of an underserved community is some form of ramp,” The SWAG’s Assistant Director of Coaching Ryan Griffith said. “We [The SWAG] provide the opportunities and resources and we see ourselves as being part of that on-ramp.”
Griffith has been involved with The SWAG since day one, but his role was different. Griffith started as a parent when his boys participated in the program. His involvement as a parent turned into a role as a coach.
“It has been incredible,” Griffith said. “Being able to provide for underserved communities and impact our kids through soccer is a beautiful thing.”
The Barbados native has been living in Philadelphia for the last 23 years and has worked directly with Bibbs for the last year.
Griffith and Bibbs run daily operations for The SWAG, from the Impact and Select programs to community outreach.
“Nick was born and raised in Philadelphia,” Griffith said. “He has a direct impact on the community and is able to build a strong relationship with each child through his coaching.”
Everyone involved in The SWAG has seen the positive impact that the program has had on underserved communities and how it can continue to develop.
“It’s [The SWAG] a game-changer,” Bibbs said. “Knowing that it can change the game of soccer in our country gets me out of bed every morning.”
As The SWAG continues to grow as a program, Bibbs continues to evolve as a coach.
“I’m an ambitious guy,” Bibbs said. “I’m looking to reach the highest heights I can get to.”