The stereotypes about lacrosse—who plays it and where it's played—continue to be shattered as the sport gains popularity. Lacrosse is the fastest growing team sport in America.
For a generation now, lacrosse has been played by the sons and daughters of cops and firefighters and teachers as much as it's played by the kids of doctors and lawyers. But lacrosse is still predominantly a white game, although that's beginning to change too. The top preseason player of the year candidate entering the 2016 NCAA season is Duke midfielder Myles Jones, who is black.
And this spring, Hampton University will become the first historically black university to field a men's NCAA lacrosse team since Morgan State dissolved its program 35 years ago.
"I think this is even more significant because I've always felt that this sport is lacking diversity," says ESPN lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra. "It shows that we are making grounds and we are hitting those pockets that were never really hit before."
Jim Brown, who played at Syracuse before he became an NFL star, is considered one of the greatest lacrosse players in the history of the game—the lone African-American inducted to the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame—but he's been a rare exception.
The work of organizations like Harlem Lacrosse, the Brooklyn Lacrosse Club and Charm City Youth Lax have turned a new generation of players, from the Bronx to Baltimore and beyond, onto a game that's gaining popularity and transcending racial and social barriers that once blocked many kids from playing the game.
"I don't think Hampton has lacrosse today if it wasn't for the work in places like Harlem or Baltimore City," Carcaterra says. "That's the foundation."
Mike Crawford helped set the foundation at Hampton, a historically black university in Virginia with an enrollment of less than 5,000 students, during his senior year in 2011.
Crawford's goal was to start the school's first club team. But Crawford never lived to realize his dream. He died of an enlarged heart during winter break before his final semester at Hampton.
But Crawford's parents refused to let his dream die. Following their son's death, Verina and Errol Crawford enlisted the help of Lloyd Carter, the president of Black Lax, another one of those grassroots programs that was growing the game in urban Baltimore. Carter, who played at Morgan State from 1977 until the program was dissolved in 1981, started the club team at Hampton in 2012 and helped to make Mike Crawford's dream a reality.
What happened in May of last year was beyond Crawford's dreams. Hampton announced it would begin playing Division I lacrosse in 2016. Crawford's dream of having a club team evolved into a varsity squad, the first historically black school ever with a Division I team. Carter was named the head coach.
"When Morgan dissolved its program, I always wanted to do something to give other people, especially African-Americans, the opportunity to play at the collegiate level," Carter says. "That's why we started the inner city program Black Lax and we started the Morgan State club team. I just felt compelled to do that because I had that growing up."
Now Carter is tasked with turning a club team into a Division I lacrosse program. He's had just a few months to mold a roster of relatively inexperienced players into a real college lacrosse team. Carter has no scholarship money to recruit players.
Hampton's first game was Feb. 13, a 20-3 loss to Division II Roberts Wesleyan—a sign of the challenges ahead for the new program.
"They came to Hampton to be students," Carter says. "They joined the club team as an outlet and it became a Division I program. That's a big jump."
While Hampton may not have a roster packed with blue-chip recruits, the Pirates have a coach that was a member of one of the most respected teams in college lacrosse history. The Morgan State team he played on was born during a period of intense racial tension in Baltimore and is credited with helping to desegregate the sport.
"I knew it was something special," Carter says. "I felt that we were unique. We never took that for granted. Because of that, we always tried to be competitive. We always tried to represent what Morgan stood for and what the program stood for. It was one of the best times of my life. We just had fun. We competed in practice and we were competitive in games."
Morgan State folded its program in 1981 because of financial challenges tied to Title IX. Many schools who have added women's teams have been unwilling to adjust their spending on popular sports such as football and basketball in order to allow for non-revenue sports such as lacrosse.
"They had a damn good team," says Dave Cottle, a former NCAA coach who played against those Morgan State teams while he attended Salisbury State.
"They had some really good athletes and some top players," he added. "I was saddened when Morgan State dropped the program. But this is a step in the right direction and shows lacrosse is growing at economic levels, at social levels, and this is all part of the change."
Morgan State was the first black college to field an NCAA team. Now Hampton is the second.
"Morgan State is always in the back of the lacrosse community's mind," says Connor Wilson, the publisher of LaxAllStars.com, a website dedicated to the growth of the game. "Hampton is much less oppositional and more aspirational."
Carter has dedicated himself to trying to bring the game to black communities. He launched Black Lax in 2003, started a club team at Morgan in 2004, and helped to get the Hampton club team off the ground four years ago.
Carter is humble and says he's blessed for the opportunities he's been given. But as he prepares his ragtag Hampton team for their first NCAA season, there is an undeniable sense of unfinished business for him. He has a chance to continue what was started at Morgan State.
"As much as the sport of lacrosse is a fraternity, embracing this Hampton opportunity is only going to give the fraternity more diversity and exposure to some great things," Carcaterra says. "As much as the sport of lacrosse can give Hampton an opportunity, I think Hampton is actually giving the sport of lacrosse a better opportunity."