This is more than even Michael Crawford imagined.
Sure, he wanted something like it to unfold. A coach distributes equipment to 23 players. A two-hour practice. Players like him at historically-black Hampton University have the chance to learn and love the game the way he first did at St. Thomas More, an all-boys’ boarding school in Oakdale, Conn.
But Crawford could not have expected the president of Hampton, Dr. William Harvey, a business mogul whose office is decorated with framed pictures of him with U.S. presidents and other dignitaries, to send a letter last fall to the student body saying the university would add a varsity lacrosse program — or for it to actually happen just one year later. He never fathomed Under Armour gear, practice under the lights on Hampton’s new turf field or 6:45 a.m. workouts.
Or for him not to be there.
No, this wasn’t supposed to be the story. But as Hampton’s team motto says, “It’s real.”
“Are you a parent? May I ask?” Verina Crawford asks over the phone. “I only ask that because the loss of a child is something that you really never, never get over.”
Crawford, who retired after 30 years in sales and marketing at IBM and now is a college professor, is the Mother of Hampton Lacrosse. Michael was her son.
One semester short of graduating from Hampton with a degree in sports management, Michael Crawford died Dec. 28, 2010 in the family’s home in Brooklyn, N.Y. He had an undiagnosed enlarged heart and went into cardiac arrest. Verina Crawford found her son unresponsive in his bedroom after he didn’t come downstairs for dinner. He was 21.
In her grief, she took it day-by-day. She went back to work at Baruch College. She also scrolled through old emails, Verina Crawford reread a proposal her son had sent detailing the plan to introduce club lacrosse at Hampton, a shooting-for-the-stars project he took up fall of his senior year. He wanted input.
“It was one of the last things Mike and I were engaged in,” Verina Crawford says. “It was something he wanted.”
A month after Michael’s death, she called Lloyd Carter after finding him listed under his title as the Baltimore City Fire Department’s chief of emergency medical services. He also turned up in a Google search for “black lacrosse.”
Carter played lacrosse at Morgan State, the last historically black college to play NCAA Division I men’s teams before the school dropped the sport in 1981. He founded the BlaxLax club and has focused on increasing exposure and opportunities for black lacrosse players. Carter is part of a lineage of Edmonson High players from west Baltimore, many of whom played for nearby Morgan State and were featured in the book “Ten Bears,” written by Miles Harrison (Kyle’s dad) and the team’s coach, Chip Silverman. Carter got his first coaching job from a Morgan State teammate and led Baltimore’s Northwestern High from 1999 to 2013.
“God had you call the right person,” Carter said.
Verina Crawford and her husband, Errol, an architect, rented an apartment near Hampton to finish what their son started. Before he died, Michael Crawford compiled a list of 20 students interested in a club team and enlisted support from Hampton’s intramural sports department. It was a start.
Carter, who is 57 and also helped co-found Morgan State’s club program in 2004, agreed to speak at a general interest meeting at Hampton’s southeastern Virginia campus. Fifty students showed, and Carter began to commute four hours each way from Baltimore on the weekends to lead practices and games.
By 2012, Hampton found a league, the NCLL, and organized a tournament on campus, Hampton Lacrosse Day, for teams from HBCUs. When Harvey walked in the stadium and saw teams and players from Howard, Morgan State and Morehouse, he thanked Verina Crawford. There were sponsors, a Buick LaCrosse from a local car dealership and alumni from St. Thomas More, where her son played.
Still, just three years later, the warp-speed transition from club to varsity — the recommendation from Harvey to add lacrosse and soccer came in the fall of 2014 and plans were finalized last May — seems to be a kind of mystery to those involved with the team. One of the team’s three captains, J.D. Kidd, calls Harvey a mythical, highly respected figure. There are rumors of generous donors. In addition to leading the university, Harvey is the sole owner of Pepsi Cola Bottling Company of Houghton, Mich. The school’s most recent fundraising campaign netted $264 million. Carter had not met Harvey as of earlier this fall. Julian Edwards, an attackman from First Academy in Orlando, said of Harvey, “He wants to be the first in everything. He didn’t want Howard or another HBCU doing this first.”
Eugene Marshall was hired as Hampton’s athletic director in July 2014 and said one of his first orders was to identify a men’s and women’s sport to add that fit the goal of marketing Hampton as a national and international university.
“We’re looking to attract students. It doesn’t matter if they are African-American or not,” Marshall said. “For lacrosse, we want to recruit outside of the Hampton Roads community and also up in Canada.”
The players from the club team fit the type of student profile Hampton wants to attract.
Two of the team’s three captains, Alex Sales and Jeremy Triplett, never played lacrosse before college. Sales, from Winston-Salem, N.C., is in Hampton’s five-year MBA program. He picked up a long pole after seeing equipment in his dorm freshman year. Triplett, a marketing major and psychology minor, attended De La Salle Institute in Chicago, an all-boys Catholic school. The third captain, Kidd, a journalism major, started playing his junior year at Peekskill (N.Y.) High.
Junior Jourdan Ellis, the son of a Seton Hall basketball player out of all-boys’ Rockhurst Jesuit (Mo.), had full-ride offers to run track. He took an academic scholarship at Hampton instead, and started playing lacrosse just last year to have fun and stay in shape.
Some have more lacrosse experience, like sophomore attackman Brock Robinson, the stepson of former Penn State player Kevin Adams. He’s played for 11 years. Kenny James, who played at Half Hallow Hills East (N.Y.) on Long Island, is at Hampton on a full academic scholarship.
Carter, as varsity plans were being made, had already relocated to the Hampton area after retiring from the fire department and finding a job at nearby Thomas Nelson Community College. He was asked if he’d coach if the team joined the NCAA ranks, and said yes. Recently married, he works during the day and leads practice at night, handling logistics of the program from his portable Microsoft Surface. He expected to hire two part-time assistants for the spring. But as of mid-fall, James Hall — a five-floor dorm right across from where the club team used to play its games — still served as the team’s temporary home, and Carter didn’t have an office.
Recruits have started to reach out and Hampton plans eventually to offer athletic scholarships, Marshall said, but none are dedicated to lacrosse as of now. Most people on campus understand that the Pirates’ inaugural season will be difficult.
“The majority are overwhelmed by it,” Carter said, “but we’ll have fun.”
Hampton planned to play at least a dozen games, but the 2016 schedule includes five. It scrimmaged Richmond on Jan. 30 and will open the season against Division II Roberts Wesleyan on Saturday, and ESPN’s “SportsCenter” will broadcast remotely for two hours live from campus prior to the game. After that, the Pirates will play Division III Theil on the road Feb. 27, face Wagner March 10 in Charlottesville, Va., play Division II Ohio Valley at home on March 19 and close with a road game at VMI on April 2.
“I played against West Islip (N.Y.) when they were the No. 1 [high school] team in the country,” James said. “We need to get right like that.”
But there’s a bigger picture in play. Verina Crawford and her husband Errol now have a 16-month old daughter, Mariel, born via surrogacy. And Hampton has a lacrosse team. Thirty-four years after the Ten Bears, they’re the Twenty-Three Pirates.
“There’s not much diversity within the lacrosse community,” Sales said. “This gives an opportunity to those that come after us. We’re blazing a path for them to play this game.”