The electronic sign outside Wilson High School flashed the time: 5:54 a.m. Damien Begley shuffled across the lawn before settling, for a moment, beneath a dim streetlight.
“Where are these kids?” Begley sighed, pacing along the damp grass. “Man, where are these kids?”
Before starting as Wilson’s head coach last season, Begley had made stops at Bullis, Walter Johnson and a few other suburban schools. Afternoon practices were the norm. But when he tried the same at Wilson last season, attendance was scarce. His players were busy with after-school jobs, caring for younger siblings, other obligations. It was another reminder for Begley that Wilson wasn’t the average high school lacrosse team.
So this season, the morning schedule holds all of his players accountable with a simple question: What else are you doing before the sun rises?
Wilson is one of two D.C. Public Schools with a lacrosse program. The Tigers’ 41-player roster, split into varsity and junior varsity teams, is made up of 24 black players, 10 white, five Hispanic, one Filipino and one Indian. They have Aman Efrem, a first-generation Ethiopian who used lacrosse to fill the void left by a lost parent. They have Chris Martin, who manages beehives in his mother’s Columbia Heights home. They have a handful of players who didn’t pick up a stick until high school, who come from Southeast D.C., Northwest neighborhoods and a range of socio-economic situations.
They gather this early, after traveling from all over, for an open field and the chance to practice together. But maybe, in a spring full of firsts, this would be the day none of them showed.
“I don’t see any of ’em,” Begley muttered, still pacing at 5:57 in late March. “Where are they?”
Then his players started filtering into view, one after another, out of cars, off the public bus and from the Metro station around the corner, their white lacrosse sticks appearing like torches before dawn.
Kenny Brewer squinted off Whole Foods’ second-floor balcony and smirked, racking his brain for how to best describe Wilson’s boys’ lacrosse team.
“We’re trailblazers,” said Brewer, a senior captain and one of the program’s 24 black players. “Lacrosse is thought to be a sport played by upper-class white kids. Our field doesn’t look like that.”
In 2012, 88.2 percent of men’s and women’s college lacrosse players were white across the Division I, II and III levels. That number dropped to 85.9 in 2016. As the sport continues to grow geographically, its diversity remains stagnated by financial barriers, cultural perception and, as a byproduct of the two, a lack of access to lacrosse in urban public schools.
There are 20 traditional public high schools with scholastic athletics in Washington, D.C., and Wilson and School Without Walls are the only two that offer lacrosse. In Philadelphia, 10 of 42 public high schools have boys and girls teams. Boston has 29 public high schools with athletics and no city-sanctioned lacrosse. New York City has the most public school teams with 24 programs for boys and 26 for girls, but that still leaves more than 250 of its public high schools without the sport.
In February, D.C. Public Schools announced the 2018 addition of middle school lacrosse as part of a $6.2 million investment into six new extracurricular programs. The long-term plan is to build a citywide public high school lacrosse league. Until then, Wilson and the few teams like it provide a blueprint for what urban public school lacrosse can look like.
And what it can mean.
“All of these cities are close to areas where lacrosse is very prominent, and they are where diversity tends to be concentrated,” said Eboni Preston-Laurent, U.S. Lacrosse’s senior manager of diversity and inclusion. “It takes a while to break stigmas, but I definitely think the sport is moving in that direction. That’s a very big thing.”
Aman Efrem’s alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. The senior defenseman, who is a Wilson captain and the son of Ethiopian immigrants, turned Drake’s new album on at low volume and stuffed clothes into his bag. By 5:20, he was striding through his sleeping Northwest neighborhood to take the Metro to practice.
“I saw a lot of basketball here, football, and I played soccer growing up because of my culture,” Efrem said as the sky leaked raindrops onto his gray sweatshirt. “I didn’t know what a lacrosse stick looked like, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have played.”
The perception that minority athletes are not interested in lacrosse has been combated at multiple levels.
Last spring, Hampton became the first historically black college since 1981 to have a Division I lacrosse program. Prince George’s County, which is 65 percent black, started scholastic public school lacrosse in 2016. Its public schools had seven boys and eight girls teams last spring, and that grew to 20 and 16, respectively, this year.
This is a long-standing trend in youth and middle school lacrosse programs. Organizations such as CityLax and Harlem Lacrosse in New York City, Blax Lax in Baltimore, and many others, have successfully promoted the sport in urban areas. Winners Lacrosse, which provides free lacrosse to public and charter middle schoolers in D.C., has eight teams this spring and grows year after year.
“It’s not true that kids don’t want to play lacrosse in inner cities,” said Matt Breslin, who founded Winners in 2000. “If you look out at any of my fields there are kids of all different races, socio-economic backgrounds — it’s beautiful. The next step is making sure they all have somewhere to play once they get to high school.”
When Efrem was 12 years old, his mother died from scleroderma, a chronic systemic disease that greatly restricted her breathing. When he was younger, she would cough for minutes at a time and occasionally threw up blood. It happened often enough that he thought it was normal. After she died, he was despondent most days, only interested in going through the motions.
That was until he started playing lacrosse at 16, which he called a “new reason to get up every morning.” He knew nothing about the sport, but it gave him something to chase. Six months ago that led him to search through drawers for his mother’s death certificate.
He had been told it was pneumonia. Now he read the dusty sheet and repeated the tangled word over and over: SCLER-O-DER-MA. He decided, right then, that he wants to be a heart or lung doctor to keep other kids from feeling his pain.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago I’d be playing lacrosse I would have said, ‘What? What’s lacrosse?’ ” Efrem said. “But now it’s my happiness. It gives me drive. It helped me make goals in life. I think everyone should be able to experience that.”
Kenny Brewer stashed away each paycheck — saving nearly every penny except for the $10 Ubers from his job at Sweetgreen salad shop to his home in Southeast D.C. — and waited for the lacrosse goal to go on sale.
Brewer started playing lacrosse as a sophomore at Wilson and immediately learned how expensive it is. It takes, at a minimum, $300 to outfit a player in a regulation helmet, pads, gloves and cleats. Now his father was sick of him bouncing a ball off the side of their house, and Brewer wanted to buy himself a backyard goal.
Because there is no District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association lacrosse league, Wilson operates as a club team with no city funding in its sixth season. The athletic department does what it can to help, but most of Wilson’s equipment, and any additional expenses, comes through fundraising efforts.
“A handful of our kids don’t have their own equipment, it’s a lot to afford,” Begley said. “We are always collecting old helmets, old sticks, old pads, anything to give out to guys who need it.”
Start-up lacrosse programs, particularly in urban areas, often struggle with the cost of equipment and the availability of field space. It is not uncommon for teams to be outfitted in old football jerseys and different colored helmets. Wilson is campaigning to have a net built around their field so they can stop losing balls, already endangered at their practices, to the Nebraska Avenue traffic.
Brewer was set on being a high school basketball player until he didn’t make the team as a freshman, sophomore or junior. He started lacrosse to prove to his family that he could. Then he fell in love with the sport.
He bought that goal at the end of this past summer, discounted to $135 by Dick’s Sporting Goods points. He shoots on it so much the crossbar is dented in a few spots. He wishes it weren’t the only lacrosse net in his neighborhood.
“The importance of the exposure for more minority communities to lacrosse is to allow there to be opportunity to compete on the same level,” Brewer said. “To access college the same way that other upper-class, middle-class and even lower-class white families in America have access to.
“It’s important that, in 2017, we are on the same playing field in every way that we can be.”
Most days, all Chris Martin has to do is peek into the space atop his garage and make sure the bees are flowing in and out of the hives.
That’s daily duty of the “chief bee keeper,” which Martin named himself after his mother started buying beehives six years ago. She was still working as a lawyer then and the bees became his responsibility. He didn’t know anything about making honey — except that it takes pollen and, well, bees — and almost jumped off the roof of their house when he got stung in the backside.
Martin is Wilson’s senior faceoff specialist, but tending to the bees made it hard for him to attend practice last season. Their six hives died during the winter, so as they develop new ones, Martin is working at Burger King so he can switch the tags on his new used car and buy a prom ticket.
“We have a black beekeeping kid doing the faceoffs,” Martin, who also has green hair, said through laughter. “I think that shows that Wilson lacrosse has a little bit of everything.”
There is senior midfielder Noah Santos, who is half white, half black and jokes that everyone assumes he is Hispanic because of his last name. There is sophomore defenseman Anthony Geron, who is Filipino and feels opponents stare at him as if they have never seen an Asian play lacrosse.
There is senior attack Will Sheldon, who lives in the Palisades, was adopted from Russia when he was a year old and openly discusses his conservative viewpoints with more liberal teammates. Sheldon smiles while saying he has been a bit quieter since Donald Trump was elected president.
“It’s not good when a sport, or anything, is all white,” Sheldon, who is white, said. “We bring so many different backgrounds and experiences onto the field, and that’s something we all benefit from.”
The lacrosse can be frustrating at times, when passing drills look more like fire drills or inexperienced players wander out of place. Wilson straddles the line between growing and grown, with convincing wins over start-up public charter schools and lopsided losses to private schools over the last couple of seasons. But they learn from each other every day.
“One of the biggest hurdles is how diversity is perceived,” said Anish Shroff, who is Indian and calls lacrosse games for ESPN. “Enough people have come to me and will look at one person of color on a team and say, ‘Look, there’s diversity.’”
“And as a minority, I can tell you when you’re the only person of color in a room, that’s not diversity,” Shroff said. “So why is there such a low benchmark? Why is there such low criteria for what qualifies as diversity in lacrosse?”
The players show up each morning to heighten that bar. Brewer sits through a 40-minute car ride that crosscuts the entire city. Martin takes the bus. Efrem rides one stop on the subway. Sheldon drives his pickup truck. Then they snake through the empty school, their voices echoing through the hollow hallways, their cleats clacking on the cement floor, before stepping through double doors and under the lights together.