Before Matt Rambo carried the most feared name in college lacrosse, before he ascended to the top of Maryland’s all-time scoring list, he was a laborer for his father’s landscaping company in the Philadelphia suburbs. He broke rocks, pulled trees and slung heavy bags of mulch year-round as a teenager, earning a few extra dollars while adding mounds of muscle to his 5-foot-10, 210-pound frame.
“It’s not easy work. You’re exhausted after the day,” Rambo said.
That salt-of-the-earth background was juxtaposed against the once-in-a-generation lacrosse talent of Rambo, who is considered something of a hero in his local lacrosse community and remains one of the most highly touted recruits in Maryland history.
Now a senior, Rambo has lived up to the billing, and he paid proper homage to that background in a 12-5 win over rival Johns Hopkins late in April, when he tallied six points within the first 18 minutes to surpass Bob Boneillo’s school record of 231 set in 1980.
After it was over, Rambo ran to the sideline to rejoice with his family, who were decked out in T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase: “Matt Rambo is Rambo.” Their son’s face had been photoshopped onto the hulking body of Sylvester Stallone, who played the title character in the 1980s action-adventure film franchise. That only made the record-setting night more special.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Rambo’s mother, Annette, said of the points record. “He just smiled, and he said, ‘I know, Mom, I can’t believe it either.’ ”
Rambo and top-seeded Maryland (13-3) will step onto another bright stage Sunday afternoon in Newark, Del., for an NCAA quarterfinal against No. 8 seed Albany (15-2) and its star attackman, Connor Fields, who leads the NCAA in scoring (52 goals, 61 assists). Fields and Rambo are two of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, which is considered the Heisman Trophy of college lacrosse.
As his storied career winds down, Rambo himself has built his own following at Maryland, the face of a program that is hungry to end its 42-year national championship drought. Kids routinely form long lines to get his autograph after games largely because he keeps exceeding expectations, including in Maryland’s 13-10 victory over Bryant in the first round of the NCAA tournament last weekend, when Rambo recorded a career-high eight points.
Rambo and Fields are considered the front-runners to claim the Tewaaraton; oddly, considering Maryland’s powerhouse status in the men’s game with eight Final Four appearances since the award was first given in 2001, Rambo is only the program’s second finalist. But he is more concerned with leading his team back to the Final Four, which will be held in Foxborough, Mass., next weekend. He has left coaches in awe in the wake of Maryland’s run.
“He’s the most unsung player in the country,” said Dave Pietramala of Johns Hopkins.
“I don’t care what you do or who plays him. He’s going to get his,” Bryant’s Mike Pressler added.
The Terrapins ended each of the past two seasons with a national championship loss in Rambo’s home town of Philadelphia, including in overtime against North Carolina last season, which overshadowed one of the best individual runs in NCAA tournament history by Rambo.
He finished with 23 points on 11 goals and 12 assists, a program record for points in a tournament. With 50 career points in the NCAA tournament, Rambo is nine away from the most recorded by any player in the event since 2000.
That kind of production is a product of Rambo’s evolution as a player since his arrival in College Park in 2013. His rise as the top high school prospect in the country at La Salle College High outside Philadelphia came as online recruiting services were taking off, which amplified the pressure on Rambo as he tried to settle on a school. While a number of coaches offered a timeline and pressured him to commit as quickly as possible, he was struck by the advice of Maryland Coach John Tillman, who told him to take his time with the process. Rambo knew he wanted to commit before his junior year.
“I respected that so much,” Rambo said. “It was just like it was at home. Everyone is a hard worker here. Blue collar, hard workers. The practices were what I imagine: tough. . . . I knew this was the place.”
His transition to Maryland was far from easy, although Rambo had the body and the skill set to start in all 17 games as a freshman. He was charged with second-degree assault for an incident in College Park before his sophomore year. Rambo received probation before judgment on that charge, which was later dropped. While Tillman suspended him for most of the offseason, he started in 18 of 19 games that year and had forged a new perspective.
“I think that one thing that came out of that was realizing how much he is under the microscope,” Tillman said. “He realized that anything he does is going to be highly scrutinized.”
Rambo has welcomed that kind of scrutiny since. By the time he was a junior, he had established himself as not only one of most productive players in the country but also as a rock inside Maryland’s locker room. While Rambo has always been a gifted scorer, he has earned a reputation for brushing off his own statistics and for growing as a facilitator — he recorded 19 assists his sophomore year and 32 his junior year and has 39 as a senior — and younger players will often visit him for advice.
“He kind of matured pretty fast,” said senior Colin Heacock, who is Rambo’s roommate and closest friend on the team. “He lived up to the expectations and beyond.”