‘What they need is guidance and direction.’ SquashBusters celebrates 20 years of developing young people to prepare for college and beyond

people playing squash inside of SquashBusters
More than 140 graduates of the SquashBusters youth program are currently attending college. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

SquashBusters is much more than a fitness center on Northeastern’s Boston campus. It’s a university-sponsored community organization that has helped send hundreds of urban students to college while inspiring similar programs throughout the U.S. and beyond.

The facility—which uses the sport of squash to leverage academic, career and life skills—is celebrating its 20th anniversary under the leadership of Greg Zaff, its founder and chief executive officer.

“It was one van and him—that was how it started,” says Michael Davis, Northeastern’s vice president of campus safety and chief of police, who serves on the SquashBusters board. “He was the coach. He was the transportation coordinator. He was everything.”

Zaff was a former professional squash champion who realized the sport’s potential as he traveled to tournaments throughout North America in his 20s. In 1996, retired from competition, he began driving middle-school students to the squash courts at the Huntington Avenue YMCA and Harvard.

“I was a privileged kid,” says Zaff, who was All-American in both squash and tennis at Williams College. “It really started to bother me that here we have this unbelievable sport and it’s available to almost nobody unless you went to prep school or Harvard Business School or you work at a hedge fund. I’m overstating it, but you get the gist.”

He believed this sport of strategically hitting a ball against walls could help bring down societal walls—that squash could and should be applied to an after-school program of youth fulfillment that includes an hour each of homework, enrichment (including college prep) and squash practice on the upstairs courts each day. He also knew his nascent program needed a permanent home.

Richard Freeland, president of Northeastern at that time and a squash enthusiast, negotiated the plan for a shared space in 1998. Zaff raised funds to build the squash courts on Northeastern land near the Columbus Garage. The university paid for the facility’s fitness center, locker rooms and overall maintenance, enabling members of the Northeastern community to share the facility with the SquashBusters program. The partnership is similar to nearby Carter Playground, which the university has refurbished and maintained for the city of Boston.

“The idea [of SquashBusters] is that you’re using squash as the focal point because it’s such a difficult sport,” says Davis, who plays squash at the facility once a week. “The better you get at it, the more complex it is. It’s been described as ‘physical chess’ because you just can’t mindlessly hit the ball. The way I describe it is that it’s a metaphor for life.”

Opening the two-story facility on Columbus Avenue enabled Zaff to triple enrollment while adding high school students, which enabled SquashBusters to help guide young people throughout the process of preparing for and applying to college. 

Middle-school students spend 90 minutes per week on homework (often working with Northeastern tutors) as part of their after-school visits to SquashBusters. College-readiness workshops are added to the program for students in high school, along with SAT preparation, college visits, support for financial applications and college mentoring for every high school senior. SquashBusters staff stay in touch with program graduates to help them remain on track to graduate with college degrees.

“SquashBusters not only provides young people with the opportunity to learn and play squash, but also to receive academic support and engage in community service,” says John Tobin, vice president for city and community engagement at Northeastern. “SquashBusters is helping to shape the future leaders of our city and its impact is felt not only on the court, but also at Northeastern, our local neighborhoods and beyond.”

In all, more than 1,000 students have gone through the program with 98% of its graduates advancing to college. More than 120 SquashBusters alumni currently attend colleges, including Northeastern, where 22 have enrolled over the years.

“I was in Cartagena to see a program called Squash Urbano Colombia—a direct outgrowth of SquashBusters,” Zaff says of a recent trip. “The kids come from poverty and they are extraordinarily good at squash, like the best I’ve ever seen in any program. And just their manners and attitude and that sense of joy and team; I was incredibly proud. 

SquashBusters has expanded to Lawrence, Massachusetts (in 2012), where a new facility is being built, and Providence, Rhode Island (in 2017). The success of Zaff’s vision has spawned urban squash programs in more than 20 cities around the U.S. and beyond as part of the Squash and Education Alliance.

“The likelihood that all of this would have happened without the Northeastern example is small,” Zaff adds. 

More than 150 students in grades 7 through 12 participate in SquashBusters activities three to five days per week at the Northeastern facility. Four Boston Public middle schools have partnered with SquashBusters and more than 20 Boston high schools—public, charter and pilot—send students to the program, mainly from the communities of Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the high-walled squash courts upstairs are filled with students, as are the adjacent classrooms. Helping oversee the program is Mikhail Darlington, a SquashBusters graduate who originally signed on as a seventh-grader.

“We did community service, we did a lot of exploration into the city and we traveled to other states to play against different schools,” Darlington says of his student experience. “It was an all-encompassing experience and I think that’s what really drew me to it as a kid. I played a lot of sports growing up, but this was the first one where I felt like it was more than just practicing the sport. I was always a good student and I became better from connecting the sport’s lessons that I learned.”

After graduating with an international business degree at Temple University, Darlington tried a career in property management. 

“I didn’t feel like I had a purpose. I felt like something was missing,” he says. “So I spent a lot of my time on the weekends here, volunteering, driving kids to tournaments, helping out on Saturday practices.”

Now he’s a full-time program director at SquashBusters. 

“One of the biggest misconceptions about what we do is that we’re somehow saving kids or changing kids,” Darlington says. “I tell people all the time: The kids come to us hardworking, they come to us curious, they come to us wanting better for themselves and for their families and for the community. What they need is guidance and direction to figure out how they’re going to do it. So we help create that place.”

An irony for Zaff, who is preparing to retire as SquashBusters CEO, is that he rarely plays the sport that so inspired him 28 years ago.

“I got up as high as No. 2 in North America,” he recalls of his ranking on the pro squash tour. “I only won one tournament my whole career and it happened to be the biggest tournament there was—the Canadian Open in 1990. So that was the pinnacle of my squash playing. And I can tell you, what we’re doing here blows that away in terms of satisfaction. When you win a squash tournament, it’s just about yourself.”
Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at i.thomsen@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.