The Face of the Game

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It felt like a normal home lacrosse game at Koskinen Stadium — roaring fans decked out in their Duke sweatshirts, kids with their arms stretched out hoping to get a high-five as they yelled out our names.

As the seconds dwindled down to our opening face-off against Georgetown, I went through my routine — envisioning the game plan that coach Danowski had gone over in the locker room, running through plays in my head, analyzing the match-up.

But as we took the field and I got a glimpse of the Hoyas, two players immediately caught my eye.

They were African-American.

Just like me.

We had a big game ahead of us, but in that moment, one question ran through my head:

How did they get into this sport?

It even threw me for a moment, because you just don’t see many of us at this level of lacrosse. With that said, I should probably tell you how an African-American kid from Long Island even got into this sport, ended up playing Division I lacrosse at Duke, and was the first overall pick in this year’s Major League Lacrosse draft.

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Way back — before lax sticks and wall-ball, and before two national championships — I was like other kids growing up in my town. I played basketball and football. Basketball was my first love.

I would play basketball from the time I woke up until it got so dark I could no longer see the hoop. Basketball was my fall. It was my winter, my spring, my summer. AAU tournaments along the East Coast became second homes. My dad would shuttle me around while I’d be playing six or seven games per weekend.

It was at one of these tournaments that my dad finally realized that maybe this wasn’t the best life for me. While I was on the court playing, my dad was learning through conversations with other parents that basketball for their kids — who all had NBA dreams —  was a 24/7 job.

Lacrosse? Never heard of it — had no idea what it was.

He wasn’t willing to put me through that.

He understood the realistic chances of me ever playing in the NBA. At that tournament alone, there were over 300 kids. Maybe five of them had any real chance of even thinking about playing on the professional level.

It just so happened that one of the kids on my football team (another sport my dad was skeptical about because of injuries) had asked if I wanted to join the lacrosse team.

Lacrosse?

Never heard of it — had no idea what it was.

But my dad knew. They had played lacrosse at his high school, though he never played himself. He realized this could be a big opportunity for me.

So when sixth grade rolled around, my dad signed me up for our town team. I had no idea what I was doing. I was totally out of my element on a lacrosse field.  

But you know that whole “fake it ’til you make it” mentality? Well, lacrosse gear — flashy helmets and customized sticks — helps with that. A lot.

The first time you get lacrosse equipment — helmet, elbow pads and, of course, your stick — is almost like a rite of passage for laxers. I remember it like it was yesterday. My dad took me to the local store, Lacrosse Unlimited. I had no idea what “the cool thing” was to get so I just grabbed everything that caught my eye — which was basically the most colorful things that they had in the store.

But when it came time for my first practice, I still only looked the part.

I couldn’t catch.

I couldn’t throw.

I didn’t care.

I loved lacrosse.

From that day on, I spent my Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at the park playing lacrosse. Other days, we went to the home of one of my teammates, who had a net in his backyard. Before practice, after practice. Before games, after games. We just didn’t stop. Even if it was Sunday, even if we had homework, we were out there.

You know when you’re a kid and you you have this myopic view of what’s directly in front of you? Well, that was me and lacrosse. I just played with my friends and kept meeting other people who also played lacrosse. Nothing else really mattered….

Until I got to high school and finally noticed something.

None of the kids I played with ever looked like me.

Maybe it was because I was getting older, more mature, more self-aware, that I finally noticed the lack of diversity in the sport I love. With each tournament and each high school game I played, that awareness only got stronger.

But it never changed my love for the sport.

When people picture lacrosse they probably think of a bunch of affluent, Waspy bros, but for me and my teammates race never really mattered that much. Besides, once I really started to dedicate my time to lacrosse, the guys who I used to play basketball with wanted to join and sign up too. Let’s be honest, a sport where you run around in a helmet and pads checking guys with sticks would intrigue any young kid.

I got to high school and finally noticed something. None of the kids I played with ever looked like me.

So yeah, I noticed the sport’s lack of diversity, but I never thought of being on the field as much of a political statement. Like the rest of my teammates — black or white — I just wanted to lax and get into a good school.

And if you’re from Long Island and want to get noticed by D-I teams, then you have to get into the Empire State Games. They’re a pretty big deal, with scouts coming to check out possible recruits. We’re talking about high school All-Americans, future D-I players … serious laxers.

I was determined to be one of them.

During freshman year, I left school early one spring day and drove with my dad to Bayshore, N.Y., for Empire State Games tryouts. I made it through to the top 50, but got cut from the final roster of 30 players. I was bummed, but I told myself, Next year will be the year.

My disappointment didn’t last long because the coolest thing ever happened not long after.

One afternoon, a letter arrived to our house. Sender’s address: Duke University, Durham, N.C. Inside: A handwritten note from men’s lacrosse coach John Danowski, inviting me to the team’s Junior Day. Turns out, I’d made an impression at tryouts.

Only one problem — I was still a freshman.

So I wrote Coach back telling him that I was too young but asking him to keep in touch. That’s kind of when I realized that D-I lacrosse might actually be in my future. You know how it’s the little things that end up really inspiring you? Getting cut from the Empire State Games was kind of a downer, but after I read Coach’s letter, I grabbed my stick, went outside and just threw the ball around for hours.

I still keep that letter at my parents’ house.

And the following year, I made the Empire team.

As for college, it wasn’t just Duke that was interested. More offers arrived over the next year — from Carolina, Virginia and other top-tier programs. I took all the letters and I put them in a pile. I sat down with my dad and I picked out six schools that I really liked.

Duke was different. I felt that the other programs were pressuring me about my decision, while coach Danowski always let me just focus on high school and take my time. I played two other sports in high school and couldn’t make as many recruiting visits as other players. Coach’s understanding of my schedule, more than anything else, really influenced my decision to become a Blue Devil.

Four years and two national championships later, I’ve thought a lot about my identity in the sport. A lot of other people have thought about it as well, and how we’re finally seeing more and more African-American and minority lacrosse players — even at Duke.

Coach Danowski likes to call it it “the Myles Jones Effect.”

There weren’t a lot of minority lacrosse players when I was playing in middle school and high school, and it seemed like there were even less at the D-I level. In my first three years at Duke, the number of African-American men’s lacrosse players in D-I grew by more than 50%. It’s changing, but it’s still something you don’t see too often. 

Which explains my double-take at our Georgetown game.

In high school when I visited Duke, I’d stay with their goalie at the time, Devin Sherwood. He’s a Long Island guy and his dad and my dad are pretty close. We’d hang out and I’d ask him a lot of questions, including, “What’s it like being the only black kid on the team?”

When kids came to visit and they and their parents asked me that, I thought how weird it was that things had come full circle.

So what did I tell them?

That it was actually kind of cool. I’m different and most students respected me because of that. Listen, I grew up with kids whose parents struggled, whose parents worked dead-end jobs, and I think some kids who go to Duke can’t really understand that. Their parents are retired at 50 and 45 — I know kids from my neighborhood whose grandparents are still working. But there was a genuine interest at Duke in where I came from and my perspective.

I know that hasn’t always been the case, even for guys who came not long before me.

There’s sort of this fraternity of African-American laxers — Kyle Harrison is one of my mentors, and Chazz Woodson just recently reached out to me. We stick together not only because we know it’s still a rare sight to see African-Americans on the field, but also because we all really want to grow our sport. Chazz has mentioned the racist comments that were directed at him during his time at Brown. But when we catch up with each other, we’re not really talking about the past. We’re talking about the future — how we can build the game, how more kids can get a stick in their hands.

Because the fact of the matter is that there is a reason why you think of affluence when you think of lacrosse. It’s expensive. You need equipment and field space. And in places such as Baltimore and Harlem, where I’ve been working with groups like Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership to teach the game to inner-city kids, those things are hard to come by.

Growing up on Long Island, my friends and I always had at least two nets and plenty of practice space. When I’m in Harlem, we’re playing in between two buildings and trying to figure out where we can fit a net on a playground.

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Coach Danowski and I often sat down for talks in his office. My senior year, he wasn’t as concerned as he once was about me finding my place on our team or finding my confidence. Instead, he would ask me if I ever felt pressure about being called the “face of lacrosse?”

I told him that I tried not to think about it too much, but that, yes, I did feel this unique responsibility. I represent my race in a sport that’s historically white. So I have to act a certain way because lot more people are looking at me, a lot more eyes are on me — everything I do is under a microscope.

I also have a responsibility to bring more kids like me into this sport. It’s part of the work I want to do when I will join the Atlanta Blaze, Major League Lacrosse’s newest expansion team. Atlanta isn’t exactly a lacrosse hotbed, but what better place for an African-American lacrosse player? I’ll be part of bringing the game to a totally different demographic. I see the changes coming, and I see our numbers growing.

Just knowing that those two African-American guys were playing for Georgetown makes me hopeful that maybe another kid will see them playing and think, I want to play, too. Maybe he’ll go with his dad to buy a stick and gear. Maybe he’ll even play on a Division I team.

And maybe when he steps onto the field for a D-I team, no one will do a double-take and wonder why he’s there.

Left Out

There were so many things that had to happen for me to get to where I got. If you’re a poor kid with raw ability, it’s not enough. You need to be blessed with many mentors to step in and help you.

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