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Transition Game

One of the game's greatest players returns home to help introduce lacrosse to the city’s minority youth.

This time last year, Kyle Harrison came home and stepped onto something familiar—a lacrosse field in Baltimore—but saw a scene he didn’t expect: hundreds of school-aged black boys and girls running around with sticks and helmets and pads being exposed to the game that has touched nearly every part of his own life since he began playing at age 3. That was way back before he was cognizant of the implications of a black kid merely trying, then thriving, as he has, in an overwhelmingly white sport.

Harrison, a two-time Team USA member, 13-year professional, three-time All-American, and former collegiate player of the year at Johns Hopkins, had seen pictures and long heard stories about these free Saturday sessions. They’ve run for two hours each spring weekend since former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who played lacrosse at Yale, founded Charm City Youth Lacrosse League, or CCYLL, in 2009. Harrison was also well aware of the organization’s recreation and club teams and other year-round initiatives—he’d spent two years on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

But he was still shocked at the scope of what he now watched through his own eyes at Carroll Park in the southwest part of the city. Nearly 700 boys and girls—even if many were just learning to catch and throw—who looked like him were playing the beloved Maryland sport, one that’s pervasive in well-to-do communities all over the area but holds little sway in the minority-dominant neighborhoods of Baltimore.

“Where are these damn kids coming from?” Harrison said to himself. “And how are there so many of them?”

That’s a story unto itself, one the charismatic Harrison has been part of from afar, given his marketable reputation and reach as the game’s most recognizable black player over the past two decades. Since winning a national lacrosse title and graduating from Hopkins in 2005, Harrison has managed to make a living in the sport by cultivating partnerships with brands such as Baltimore-based sports equipment company STX, Nike, and LeBron James’ digital content network, Uninterrupted. He has also become an active player in the development of the new professional Premier Lacrosse League that is slated to debut in June.

While crisscrossing the country to host youth camps and clinics and play in pro games—he was Major League Lacrosse’s No. 1 draft pick out of college and helped lead the Ohio Machine to an MLL title in 2017—he has attracted more than 100,000 combined Instagram and Twitter followers along the way.

So now, Harrison’s footprint and backstory make him the almost singularly qualified and the seemingly inevitable choice to lead Charm City Youth Lacrosse. After spending almost a decade living in California and two years in North Carolina, Harrison, 36 this month, recently moved back home to Maryland with his wife, Meredith, and his two children, Brooke, 3, and Smith, 1, to be closer to his immediate and extended family. And that’s when he decided to add another title to his long list of commitments: Charm City Youth Lacrosse President/CEO. You could call it a full circle move.

“I look like you look. These are the opportunities lacrosse opened up for me.”

Harrison’s father, Dr. Miles Harrison—a successful surgeon who had been a member of Morgan State’s legendary Ten Bears team, the groundbreaking all-black college lacrosse squad that competed against NCAA Division I programs in the 1970s—introduced his son to the game early and sent him to Friends School, where he played lacrosse, basketball, and soccer. And while Harrison was often the only black kid on his youth teams there and in the Lutherville rec lacrosse program, he wasn’t thwarted from progressing in the sport, because the only thing he knew was that his father had always played and that probably meant black people everywhere did. It wasn’t until fans and peers started to recognize Harrison in college that he began to understand his uniqueness and stature and grew into his role as a potential change agent. “[I realized] that maybe they are looking up to me,” he says.

His return home is something akin to if Serena Williams returned to Compton, California, to head a nonprofit that encourages youth tennis participation.

“He adds star power to the leadership of the program, and he also leads by example,” Gansler says. “The vast majority of the players that are playing high school and college lacrosse don’t look like the players that are in our program. When Kyle Harrison comes and says, ‘I look like you look. These are the opportunities that lacrosse opened up for me,’ the message is that much more powerful and poignant.”

A decade ago, Gansler—who later ran for governor—started the league after watching his son play in a summer college recruiting club tournament in the suburbs with more than 5,000 participants.

“It occurred to me, sitting there on a hill, that these were all white kids, and there were no kids from Baltimore City,” Gansler says. “Everybody in the area either plays lacrosse, their neighbor played lacrosse, or their kids play, but in Baltimore City, there’s a donut hole. We needed to fill that in. Lacrosse has been an avenue for a lot Marylanders to go to colleges that they might not otherwise get to go to. It should be for the kids in Baltimore City as well.”

Gansler launched the CCYLL with 83 kids and a $50,000 budget from corporate donations. The Verizon Circuits, Cordish Blue Jays, and Comcast Comets were among the names of the first 10 teams that year, and students from private high schools such as McDonogh, Calvert Hall, Boys’ Latin, Gilman, and St. Paul’s volunteered as coaches for community-service credits. The Weinberg Foundation donated $10,000 for equipment.

Each year since, the organization has slowly grown and added programs. Its board includes people like Kendra Ausby, a Baltimore judge and former player at UMBC who has helped grow the league’s women’s teams. Last year, CCYLL’s operating budget was $300,000, and its programs included competitive teams in the Maryland Youth Lacrosse Association, indoor lacrosse games at the Under Armour House and Myers Pavilion, elementary and middle-school gym classes, academic and college admissions mentoring, and inspirational guest speakers such as congressman Elijah Cummings. In a handful of cases, if a player from the CCYLL program is accepted to an area private school, the organization will help cover part of the tuition.

But CCYLL is still a very grassroots operation, and it has just one full-time employee, executive director Artie West, a former women’s player at Towson. West, 33 this month, reaches out to volunteers via email and social media. News and information gets around town by word of mouth, and donations are always welcome.

Harrison’s presence and connections provide an opportunity for the organization to grow its profile. And, for a new generation of players, he embodies a link—via his father—to the greatest historical piece of minority involvement in the sport, save for football and lacrosse Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown, who famously starred in both sports at Syracuse University. Today, CCYLL jerseys feature 10 stars on them in honor of Miles Harrison and the rest of Morgan State’s trailblazing Bears, who upset the No. 1 ranked team in the country in 1975. “He brings so much weight and value to our program,” West says of the younger Harrison. “I can’t wait to really see where he takes this thing and where he propels the organization to go.”

His impact is already being felt. In October, Harrison announced a new CCYLL partnership with Nation United, an elite national club initiative that connects players of diverse backgrounds to college programs. According to NCAA statistics from 2018, 85 percent of men’s college lacrosse players and 84 percent of women’s players are white, compared with 4 percent and 3 percent black representation, respectively. And that’s actually an improvement from the 2 percent black participation in men’s and women’s lacrosse a decade ago.

Harrison has publicly addressed such [racial] incidents over the past year.

Ultimately, Harrison envisions CCYLL’s high-school level and burgeoning elite team, Charm Nation, becoming a feeder program for Nation United and serving as a gateway for city kids to play in college like he did. Fifty kids from the high school classes of 2020 and 2021 tried out last summer for this year’s Charm Nation team, which played in a major youth tournament for the first time in San Diego. Seventeen black kids and two white kids made up the roster.

“The overall struggle for these kids is to have the ability to progress in the sport,” says Bryce Spruill, a former player at Stevenson University, who is Artie West’s brother and Charm Nation’s coach. “Some kids are from the city, and there are some from the county that don’t want to play for these expensive club teams, or can’t afford it.”

Charles Pitt Jr. is one of those now aspiring collegiate players who heard and got Harrison’s message. The Park Heights native, a 17-year-old senior at Mervo High and MVP of the city high school boys’ lacrosse championship game a year ago, started playing the sport as a freshman after a friend recommended it. And, having followed him on social media and watched his instructional videos, Pitt was already well aware of Harrison before he first arrived at a CCYLL high school team practice last year.

“Picking up the sport, I was watching a few pros,” says Pitt, who was in love with basketball before lacrosse, “but I never thought that I would actually meet one, especially a legend like him. We were practicing one weekend and he just walked on the field. The whole atmosphere just changed. He makes everything better. Everybody is more involved. He brings us together as a whole group.”

In the fall, Pitt verbally committed to play at Virginia’s Ferrum College, a Division III school where he’ll study computer engineering. Erwin Johnson, who plays at Douglass High, was the team’s MVP last year, and a couple of other CCYLL players have made local private school rosters. But for every success story, there are also setbacks: Black players, including Harrison’s own nephew, being called the N-word on the field. The uncomfortable situation when white teammates blast similar profanity-laced songs in the locker room, which Harrison has experienced. Social media posts with direct or indirect racism.

The pushback Harrison got when he and fellow pro Chazz Woodson organized an all-black touring team that also put on youth clinics. More comfortable as an ambassador for black players, Harrison has addressed such incidents—on Twitter and elsewhere—over the past year, and he accepts the broader societal challenges at hand.

And then there’s the deep-rooted, systemic struggles of the city. On the eve of last year’s city Division A championship game, a gunman murdered 17-year-old City College captain Ray Glasgow III in what police say was a case of mistaken identity. Two days later, in the title game, Pitt, on the opposing team, wore his close friend’s jersey No. 10 in remembrance and scored four goals.

Several years ago, Gansler recalls watching a young player effortlessly run around the competition at Carroll Park “like they were trees” and talking to a coach from a local private school who was interested in his potential. “We had him tested,” Gansler says. “The kid was in fourth grade and couldn’t read. You can’t take that child who can’t read and put them into a private school in Baltimore and hope they’re going to succeed. So the promise is often sort of never realized.”

Examples like these lead Harrison to say that diversifying the sport he loves, and in Baltimore, will take time. “It’s going to be a slow, gradual change,” he says. “It’s baby steps . . . years ago, it’s almost like folks felt like there’d be a switch flipped. Like everything would be perfect, minorities everywhere. That’s just not the reality.”

What’s real is what happens moment by moment, interaction by interaction, on lacrosse fields like the one Harrison arrived at on that Saturday morning last year—when all the players of color that he witnessed amazed him. That’s right where he’ll be again this spring, hopefully watching more kids that look like him, excited to be part of what happens next.