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Diversity in Division I college lacrosse averages just 3 percent nationwide, but you wouldn’t know it standing on Franklin Field in Dorchester.
“Fire it up!” echoes from the teaming huddle of seventh and eighth grade boys local to Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury. It’s an unusually cold and rainy Tuesday evening in May, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from turning up for practice.
Depending on which pinnie Coach Rod hands you tonight, it’s Hurricanes versus Blizzards, but every player is fully outfitted with matching gear from MetroLacrosse.
Founded in 2000, MetroLacrosse is a local nonprofit dedicated to fostering character development and healthy life choices among Boston’s urban youth through the sport of lacrosse. Most kids in the program are from Dorchester and Chelsea, where MetroLacrosse offers seasonal lacrosse programs at no cost to families.
“We’re trying to diversify the sport at every level. It’s an opportunity, not a challenge,” said Aaron Jones, CEO of MetroLacrosse. Jones is quick to admit that lacrosse is largely an affluent, suburban sport. “Many public schools don’t offer lacrosse because of the expense, so MetroLacrosse becomes their only opportunity to play the sport,” he said.
The majority of kids involved with MetroLacrosse are from urban backgrounds and, unlike traditional lacrosse programs, they bring a diversity all their own to the game.
Jones himself grew up playing lacrosse in an urban environment similar to today’s MetroLacrosse youth. A standout lacrosse player and graduate of Cornell University, he credits lacrosse for changing the trajectory of his life and inspiring him to change the lives of others.
But Jones isn’t the only one that’s come to MetroLacrosse to lead by example. 40 percent of the program’s coaches are MetroLacrosse alumni themselves. “They want to come back to try to replicate what they have done in their own lives with these kids,” said Jones.
In addition to year-round lacrosse programming from third grade through 12th grade, MetroLacrosse also offers academic tutoring, college prep programs, and summer employment for participating youth. Taking up lacrosse has proven to maximize opportunities on and off the field, resulting in academic improvement as players realize the same dedication and strategy they practice playing lacrosse can be applied in the classroom.
That’s because “teaching excellence in sport is transferable to life,” said Jones. Team sports demand determination, practice, leadership, and critical thinking. MetroLacrosse players are encouraged to take the same determination that fuels their game and apply it in life. “Whether it’s math, science, college applications, or relationships,” said Jones.
Dodson Bennett Watler, a senior at Jeremiah E Burke High School in Dorchester, is one local player that took what MetroLacrosse handed him and ran with it. He’s played lacrosse for four years as a Bulldog and served two as captain.
Watler, who’s quick to tell you about his clothing line and interest in entrepreneurship, was recently accepted to Bentley University, the school he singled out as his top pick back in freshman year.
Watler, who joined MetroLacrosse in the seventh grade and is now a coach in training with the program, is not the only one who keeps coming back. If kids complete one full season with MetroLacrosse, they average four years of participation. By the time players begin high school, they’ve averaged a total of six years with MetroLacrosse.
The program has proven that participation breeds opportunity and that better opportunity breeds diversity, not only among players, but also the sport itself.
“By removing the barriers that impede urban students and urban athletes from reaching their full potential, we organically diversify the sport.” – Aaron Jones
With 800 players enrolled annually and outreach that approaches 10,000 local urban youth, MetroLacrosse is doing its part to bring the sport to underserved communities.
Back on Franklin Field, though, the game is well underway.
The boys’ teams are finishing a scrimmage when Josh Hawkins, midfielder for the Boston Cannons, makes his way onto the field. He’s instantly recognized by a few of the boys, and those that don’t know him know that he’s somebody just by the way he handles his stick.
Or it could be Hawkins’ signature dreads that catch their eye.
“Especially for inner city kids, there aren’t many players that look like us that play the sport,” said Hawkins.
“I was the only one that looked like myself in my college locker room. Being able to spread the word and tell kids that it’s fun…and you can go places. I wish that I had people tell me when I was growing up.” – Josh Hawkins
The players gather around Hawkins for the final huddle of the evening as Coach Rod, a MetroLacrosse alum, introduces tonight’s special guest. Hawkins, who’s played lacrosse since the fourth grade, tells the group that they, too, can set an example for younger generations. It starts with the locals Hawkins noticed on his way in that stopped to watch a group of inner city kids take ownership of their futures through a sport that has—until now—been denied to them.
“You’re all ambassadors for lacrosse,” Hawkins tells them. “You can spread the game.”