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More Than Meets the Buckeye

Originally appeared in March 2017 issue of US Lacrosse magazine

Eric Fannell’s reputation — intimidating, aloof, with the lore of an unseen Canadian talent — preceded him. And in some ways, people were right about him. The kid dressed in all black and wore his hat low, covering a buzz cut. He kept answers about himself to one word, avoided eye contact.

Fannell, as Ohio State men’s lacrosse captain Tyler Pfister put it, was “rough around the edges.” That was Pfister’s first impression, at least, when he met his new teammate and helped him move into a one-bedroom apartment in August of 2015.

Coach Nick Myers tabbed Pfister, an Ohio native, to help with Fannell’s transition from St. Catharines, Ontario — by way of tiny Division III Adrian College in Michigan — to Columbus. Gradually, over the course of lunches three to four times a week, usually at Asian restaurants like Mark Pi’s on High Street, Fannell’s tough outer layers peeled away like flaky crust falling off an egg roll.

Fannell’s father, Steve, a former Team Canada member and National Lacrosse League pro, as many people in the tight-knit, blue-collar St. Catharines lacrosse community already knew, was and is a drug addict, and no longer in Eric’s life. They haven’t spoken in seven years. And, yes, while some teammates probably still don’t know, the younger Fannell battled addiction problems himself. He drank, he says, two to three times a week at age 14. It was enough that his grandfather, Lincoln, took him to Alcoholics Anonymous when Eric was in high school.

“I was masking the pain of what I was going through,” Fannell said. “I was in a dark place.”

And, funny enough, the guy who, in his first drill of his first practice at Ohio State last January, scored a lefty between-the-legs goal and followed it with an over-the-shoulder try, started playing lacrosse as a box goalie. He also was a defenseman, just like his dad, in field lacrosse.

But now, as the 23-year-old senior’s offensive streak and determination to make something better of himself off the field imply, he’s intent on writing his own story, even though what it is may not be obvious to everyone else.

“Some guys may think I’m a little different, edgy or scary,” Fannell said, “but I love them just as much as I love anyone else on the team. If anyone ever needed anything, I would be there 100 percent. I love my teammates, coaches, anyone who has helped me here. I hope this season I can give back to the program, as much as it’s given to me.”

***

By no means is Fannell’s route to Ohio State, or any Division I lacrosse program, typical. Nor is he the usual late-bloomer in talent only.

In fact, a 2012 LaxAllStars.com post asked if Fannell was “the next Mark Matthews,” in reference to the former Denver and current Saskatchewan Rush star. The article included YouTube highlight-reel goals while mentioning the then-18-year-old’s lacrosse resume. He had played for Team Ontario’s under-16 squad, which won the Canadian championship in 2011, was an all-star and led multiple leagues in scoring.

College recruiters largely passed on Fannell, anyway, for sensible reasons — his history also included low grades and warning signs like allegedly getting in multiple fights in and out of school, to go with his unsettled home life.

Fannell’s parents divorced when he was 4. He and his younger brother, Brad, lived with their mother, who also fought addiction, until his grandparents took Eric in when he was 16. Brad still lives with their mom.

Only then did Fannell begin to find his way. Living with his grandparents, he was a five-minute walk from St. Frances High School. Fannell’s path is proof that there is more than one way to reach the high-end college lacrosse world. Not everyone commits in eighth or ninth grade. Some need more time to develop.

“He’s one of those people, not just in sport, but in life. He’s had some tough times,” said Lincoln Fannell, who worked for more than 30 years as a toolmaker at a General Motors factory in St. Catharines — a city of about 130,000 located a 15-minute drive west of Niagara Falls on the southwestern edge of Lake Ontario. He also is the longtime volunteer president of St. Catharines Minor Lacrosse. “Never give up. Even if you’re in some tough situations, like a lot of people are, there’s always a hope. But you have to be willing to work for it.”

In his first year with the Buckeyes last spring, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Fannell heated up in the season’s second half. In 15 games, he finished with 24 points, third on the team, creating higher expectations this season. (This fall, he scored five goals with an assist in a scrimmage against North Carolina.) He posted a GPA north of 3.0, too.

“He’s the best player nobody knows about,” one rival coach said this offseason.

***

Fannell spent his first two years of college at Adrian, a school of 1,200 undergrads in south-central Michigan, one of the few that showed an interest in him out of high school. He had a good first year, scoring 53 goals with 22 assists on a team that went 13-4 and made the NCAA tournament.

But the next season, the coach that recruited him, Don LaSala, left, the roster size shrunk to 20, the team lost in the conference final and Fannell played through a knee injury, albeit still notching 43 points. With decent grades, he decided to look elsewhere after the season, prepared to take on a bigger challenge and a change of scenery.

Fannell credits his grandfather and grandmother, Christina, who works at a local butcher shop, with setting him on the right path.

“Even with the amount of money that I will make in my lifetime, I will never be able to repay them for saving me,” Fannell said.

Fannell looked to play at Canisius for 2014 Team Canada coach Randy Mearns, who grew up playing with Fannell’s father. That was until Myers, who has recruited many Canadians before, showed interest. Fannell gave the Ohio State coach a call after the general manager of his junior box lacrosse team suggested it.

“How much money do you have and when do I start?” Fannell asked.

“Wait a second,” Myers said with a laugh. “Let’s start over.”

Myers, a child of divorce with his own unconventional upbringing in Maine, identified with Fannell’s story and reported talent, but he also knew the risks, through testimonials from guys like former Denver coach and current 3d Lacrosse CEO Jamie Munro. His son, Colin, played on box teams with Fannell’s younger brother, Brad, for five years in St. Catharines.

“He was like John Grant Jr.,” Munro said of a 17-year-old Eric Fannell. “But he was also really immature. He was a nice kid and physically mature, but he was not even that interested in going to college at the time. ‘I don’t like school. I just like to party.’”

The little film Myers was able to gather of Fannell playing at Adrian did not impress him. In short, it looked like Fannell still didn’t want to be in college. Myers gave this project every chance to fail, while providing Fannell a preview of the type of structure and responsibilities he should expect at Ohio State.

“There’s no way this kid is going to follow through. And if he doesn’t, then I move on,” Myers said. “But he kept doing the things I was asking him to do.”

Myers kept testing Fannell.

“Send me your transcripts.”

He did.

“Call me at 2 p.m. on Thursday.”

He did.

“Start the application process, just in case.”

He did.

“As a young man, he probably did make a few errors and probably turned some people off. But the young man I was talking to was like, ‘Coach, give me a shot. I won’t let you down,’” Myers said. “That’s part of his lore. He’s really combatted a lot of that.”

In July of 2015, one month before Ohio State students were to return to campus, Myers flew to St. Catharines to watch Fannell play for the St. Catharines Athletics in a Junior A box game against the Toronto Beaches.

“He hadn’t told me he had a knee injury,” Myers said. “I get to the arena. I’m one of the first people there and I’m watching him warm up. He’s limping around, almost dragging his leg. I’m thinking, ‘That’s the guy I flew up here for?’ But he set like 50 picks on one leg, and was obviously a selfless player.”

***

If he had always showed his emotions when he was a kid, Fannell said he would have cried most of the time.In fact, on one Father’s Day week in elementary school, the teacher asked kids to make something for their dad, but she didn’t even hand him supplies.

“They knew I didn’t have a dad to make stuff for,” he said.

Word was long out, especially in lacrosse circles. Steve Fannell was in and out of rehab, doing street drugs. Young Eric sat in the back of the room. Tears slid down his cheeks. Classmates poked fun.

“It’s one of my toughest memories,” he said.

A knee injury. That’s how Fannell explains what exacerbated his father’s addiction issues. Before they stopped speaking, and with Eric wanting to confront his own problems and avoid similar pitfalls, he asked his father—a Minto Cup champion with St. Catharines in 1990 and an NLL champion with the Buffalo Bandits in 1996, who started him off in lacrosse — about his past. He had already gotten into the party scene when he tore his ACL, but adding prescription morphine to the recovery was a recipe for disaster.

“He’s probably in a halfway house, possibly prison, possibly rehab,” Eric Fannell said. “The only thing I know about him is that he lives in my city.”

Lincoln Fannell said he speaks with his son regularly and that Steve is in St. Catharines, not working. “Having a tough time,” he said. “But life is what you make of it.”

Darris Kilgour was Steve Fannell’s teammate with the NLL’s Buffalo Bandits and Albany Attack.

“He was a guy you could always count on. He’d always say the right things in the locker room,” Kilgour said. “He knows he can reach out to me. I wish him the best. He’s had a long, hard struggle.”

Eric Fannell also is careful with his own vices, especially drinking. “I’ve come to realize, it will never be corrected,” he said. “It’s something that I will always struggle with.”

***

We haven’t yet explored the fact that Fannell was a box goalie growing up, and a defenseman in field leagues.

“Going from a midfielder to an attackman, or a defenseman to a midfielder, that’s not that big of change. But going from a box goalie to an offensive player? That’s like, ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’” said Kilgour, who coached Fannell for two years with the Junior Athletics.

When Fannell first began playing at a young age, he didn’t want to run; a trait that he’s still working on to this day, to get in shape. Plus, in the house box leagues in St. Catharines, everyone saw value in a kid who wanted to play goalie on their team, because most wanted to play the floor. “I liked that whole, ‘They want me, they want me,’” Fannell said. Lastly, playing defense outdoors made sense to him, because he was on the defensive end indoors.

Not until he was 16 did Fannell start to play attack in field, ditch the goalie gear and switch to offense in box. With the Junior Athletics, the switch only happened because he asked, and only because the team was so short-handed that it needed help. Fannell rode the bench behind Eric Penney, now the Vancouver Stealth’s starting goalie.

Fannell led the Athletics in scoring his final two years in Junior A, showcasing what teammates and coaches describe as uncanny field vision and unselfishness to go with incredible hands, pick-and-roll ability and scoring and shooting touch. He just calls it fun.

“It’s like a kid in a candy shop,” Fannell said. “Whenever I get on the floor, the field, wherever lacrosse is, I love it. … Lacrosse is my one true love. That’s how it is. That’s how it always will be. I love lacrosse more than myself, really.”

***

In July 2015, after multiple phone interviews and an in-person evaluation, Myers invited Fannell to Ohio State for an official visit. Doctors can examine recruits on such trips, and this one showed significant wear to the meniscus in Fannell’s knee. He needed surgery, but even that wouldn’t guarantee he’d play.

It would have been easy to cut bait.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about him,” Myers said. “Knowing that coming to Ohio State would literally change his life. It would change his whole outlook, to get him here and get him a degree. If we got him healthy, who knows what could happen? He could be a game-changer. It’s all come together. He’s done it, but he’s still got plenty of work to do, and he’s hungry to prove himself.”

This fall, every member of the Ohio State team had the chance to speak during a team meeting, and say if and why they wanted to be a team captain. Not everyone did, but Fannell, usually more of a sarcastic jokester, took the shot seriously.

“He really just poured his heart out about how much this opportunity means to him,” Pfister said. “There’s a different side to folks you don’t always see.”

Moving ahead, the 2017 lacrosse season notwithstanding — and that is very important to him, no doubt — Fannell is on track to graduate next December with a criminology degree. He wants to pursue a career in law enforcement, perhaps as a homicide detective or FBI agent.

The Oakville Rock of Senior A Major Series Lacrosse in Canada drafted him already. He wants to play in the NLL and hopefully for Team Canada, or perhaps England, where his dad was born.

Wherever the journey takes him, Fannell is happy with his present stop, no matter how long, or how many trying times in between, it took him to get there.

“I’ve never been in a better situation in my whole life,” he said.

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