To a casual observer, it looked like any spirited lacrosse game—hardly a rarity in Baltimore.
The Howard University Bison took the opening face-off, but were quickly met with hard body checks from the Morgan State Bears. Bodies flew through the air, defenders attacked elbow pads and gloved hands with their long poles, knocking the short sticks to the ground. Slashing penalties were handed out within the first few minutes. The game finally settled down when Morgan scored a goal on the team’s first man-up offense.
The players certainly knew the significance of that lacrosse game on May 7, 2005—the first ever between two historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs). For them, it was a moment to savor, the hopeful beginning of a new era in lacrosse history.
But for Lloyd Carter, Morgan State’s coach that day, it was a throwback to another era, a largely forgotten one, when African-American lacrosse players were among the best in the country and Morgan State had a feared varsity squad that beat top teams like Harvard and Georgetown.
Carter was a star at attack for the last Morgan State varsity lacrosse team, in 1981. For him, the rise of a new generation of lacrosse players at Morgan was part of a long-deferred dream come true. “I felt like I still had unfinished business,” he says.
Lacrosse is widely considered a game for wealthy white people, but the history of the Morgan State team highlights an alternate narrative, in which African-Americans have long been part of the sport, struggling for recognition and respect.
The new Morgan State lacrosse team, which played its first season in 2005, isn’t a varsity team like the school’s squads in the 1970s, but a club team, akin to junior varsity. They play in the National Collegiate Lacrosse League (NCLL) against club teams from Johns Hopkins, Towson, Loyola, and UMBC. They’ve seen their share of success, having topped Johns Hopkins in 2009, and narrowly losing to former league champs Towson in 2008, but the players’ mission is to become a NCAA-sanctioned varsity team, to recapture the decades-old glory of its alumni.
The team has significant support from Baltimore’s lacrosse community, particularly from alumni of Morgan’s varsity teams from 1970 to 1981. About 300 fans gathered at Howard’s Greene Stadium for that 2005 game, which Morgan won, 14-9. But Carter saw it as a step toward reviving the grandeur of the original team. He imagined parades with floats, maybe a battle of the bands at halftime, tailgate parties where old timers would share stories of the good old days.
But five years later, with little support from its student body or administration, Morgan’s lacrosse team still struggles for respect.
Morgan State’s lacrosse history dates back to fall 1969, when Miles Harrison Jr., a sophomore who had been a standout at attack for Baltimore’s Forrest Park High School, floated the idea of starting a team to some classmates who had also played at Baltimore high schools. The students approached Morgan football coach Earl “Papa Bear” Banks, who, in turn, asked Chip Silverman, an assistant dean at the school who would later become known as one of Barry Levinson’s buddies immortalized in Diner, to be their coach. Silverman agreed and, that spring, the students played a schedule that consisted of local club and freshman teams. They played well enough to become a varsity team, entering the ranks of NCAA’s Division II the very next year.
The initial team was stacked with seven all-city players from Baltimore, and a couple who were all-state. But Harrison, who had been accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school just before the season, says the players were nervous before their first game, as they watched their oversized opponents from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (RPI) take the field.
“I’m thinking, ‘I haven’t really played in two and a half years—are we ready?’” recalls Dr. Harrison, now the head of general surgery at Maryland General Hospital. “We beat them like 17-3 and I thought, ‘Yeah, we still got it.’”
The team went on to an 8-4 record in 1971, and Harrison played in the NCAA’s North-South all-star game. He says opposing players—who were almost uniformly white—sometimes used “racially charged” language during that first season, but that it died down as the team won games and earned respect.
Many college campuses—including Morgan State—endured student unrest and civil rights protests in the early ’70s, but Silverman ensured that his players weren’t involved by threatening to kick anyone who participated in protests off the team. “I watched the revolution from my dorm window,” Harrison says.
Morgan was ranked in the Division II top-ten four of its first five years and peaked in 1975, when the team stunned number-one team Washington and Lee—who hadn’t lost a game at home or during the regular season in three years—in its season opener.
Silverman, the only white person in Morgan State’s Hall of Fame, stepped down as coach after the 1975 season and, in 1981, Morgan’s athletic department ended the program. Administrators pointed to a lack of funding, but former players suggest the administration chose not to support the team.
The team’s tenure was immortalized in the 2001 book Ten Bears, co-written by Silverman, who died in 2008, and Harrison. Warner Bros. optioned the book’s movie rights in 2005, but dropped them in 2008.
For alumni, the program ended too early. “They said it was a lack of funding,” says Carter. “I’d rather they just said they didn’t support it—don’t insult my intelligence.” Carter has been lacrosse coach at Northwestern High School for 11 years, and runs a program called Blax Lax, created to promote lacrosse to inner city youth and, specifically, to bring a varsity program back to Morgan State.
The second generation of lacrosse at Morgan State got its start when Mitch Waters, a 2004 graduate of Baltimore’s Carver Vocational-Technical High School and a standout defenseman, posted fliers on campus with Kareem McKnight, a defenseman from Long Island, and Shannon Johnson, a midfielder from Baltimore County’s Woodlawn High School intent on starting a women’s team.
“We got a small room, not expecting many people,” says Waters. “It was so packed, people were listening in the hallway.” The first meeting consisted of both men and women, and for the first year, they practiced side by side.
Carter coached the team along with Gene White Sr. and Donnie Brown, teammates during Morgan’s final varsity season.
Carter turned the program back over to the players in 2007, but without any faculty support and minimal financial support from the school’s Student Government Association, the team wasn’t even able to practice on campus and was barely able to sustain itself.
For the 2008 season, Waters worked as both team captain and coach, but he was spreading himself thin. He asked Bill Krehnbrink, a coach at Baltimore schools Mervo and Dubois, who had worked with several of the students as a volunteer with Blax Lax, to step in. “It was chaos on the sideline,” says Waters. “In a couple days, Coach Krehnbrink did what we couldn’t do in three years.”
But conflicts with the school’s administration continue to impede the team’s progress. The players finally convinced the athletic department to let them practice on campus, but they still can’t play games there. As a result, the team plays all games on the road, making it difficult to develop a fan base on campus.
During the 2009 season, after countless meetings, the administration allowed the team to play a game in the stadium, but insisted they pay to use the space. The players eventually raised the funds, but the episode generated hard feelings. “I didn’t understand what they had against lacrosse,” Waters says.
A. Recardo Perry, Morgan’s vice president of student affairs, says the concern is compliance with Title IX, the 1972 statute enacted to limit discrimination in athletics by providing women equal opportunities to compete. “Our athletics program is already unbalanced,” Perry says, adding that support for any other men’s teams could draw sanction. “I understand the rich heritage of the program, but we really can’t accommodate them right now.”
Ironically, the administration’s lack of support—which became a controversy on campus—increased student support for the team and put the administration on the defensive.
William Clemm, assistant director for Morgan’s student center, admits the school has been cautious with the team—which, after all, is a club, not subject to NCAA rules. “We just don’t want to take chances,” he says.
Clemm says the lacrosse team has unrealistic goals. “They want the same recognition as the football team, unlimited use of the field,” he says. “The band can’t even get that.”
Lacrosse has long had a reputation as a sport for whites, but a 2006 incident, in which members of Duke University’s lacrosse team were accused of raping an African-American woman hired as a stripper, seemed to widen the sport’s racial divide. The rape allegations proved to be completely false, but the students’ conduct—including the possible use of racial slurs—lingered in the minds of many.
The reputation obscures a more heartening reality, that African-Americans have a long history of excellence in lacrosse that continues today. All-American Rick Sowell was one of the most dominant players of the 1980s, leading Washington College to two Division III national championship games. He’s now the head coach for Division I SUNY Stony Brook, and, in 2010, he led the team to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.
Kyle Harrison, son of Morgan State lacrosse founder Miles Harrison, was a three-time All-American midfielder for Hopkins. In 2005, he won the Tewaaraton Trophy—lacrosse’s equivalent to football’s Heisman.
In 2010, twins Shamel and Rhamel Bratton dominated the game, leading the number-one ranked University of Virginia Cavaliers into the title game against Duke.
Lloyd Carter says it’s essential for HBCUs to create varsity teams so more African-Americans can play college lacrosse.
“When I played, the best players in the city went to Morgan,” he says. “Now these kids have nowhere to go.”
When the Duke story broke in 2006, Carter was coaching Morgan State, and he told Lacrosse Magazine that programs like his were the answer to the sport’s problems. “Everybody in an uproar about the Duke situation, if they really want to take action toward diversity, the product is here,” he said.
Four years later, he’s discouraged by the lack of progress. Every spring, Blax Lax holds an all-star game for top African-American players in the area. Harrison goes every year, watching dozens of talented kids with a love of the game and feels both pride and sadness.
“I watch those games and think, ‘There’s no way your career ends today,’” he says. “But that’s what happens.”