Skip Lichtfuss: How it Can Be in Our Sport

Kenny Jerkins never played lacrosse, then became a fixture with one of its most storied teams.

Like many of us, I have been ruminating about the issue of diversity and inclusion relative to the game we all love. The recent circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have been complicated by questions of racial and other social injustices.

There are no easy answers, but one absolute is that without continued, open and honest dialogue, there can be no solutions. I know I certainly don’t have the answers. It’s very difficult, despite one’s own experiences, to put oneself in the shoes of another.

But as I’ve pondered my own personal experiences, specifically within the game of lacrosse, I’ve concluded that it might not always have been so divisive and unjust. While I am aware that the inequities and exclusion do exist, I can’t understand why, because I’ve always believed in merit and giving someone the chance. I choose not to use a broad brush on either side of the discussion.

Consider the story of Kenny Jerkins.

This story starts in the 1980s at the Mount Washington Lacrosse Club (MWC) in Baltimore. For the uninitiated, MWC was an iconic post-collegiate club that was founded in 1904. Up until the 1960s, MWC was arguably the most dominant team in field lacrosse, regularly beating the best in the college ranks. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the club was heavily comprised of the finest post-collegiate All-Americans. Prior to the advent of the inclusion of women’s players, coaches, officials and contributors into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1992, one of every five men’s inductees played or coached at Mount Washington at some point. Thus was the legacy of MWC.

I was fortunate enough to spend 35 years (1975-2009) at MWC, the longest tenure in club history — 10 years as a player, 22 years as head coach and the remaining years as the president. Not only did I experience the game at the highest level with the finest players and coaches of the era, but I also gained some perspective on the sport’s diversity and inclusion issues over that time span.

During my tenure at MWC, clubs such as the Long Island L.C., Maryland L.C., Chesapeake L.C., Philadelphia L.C. (aka, Eagle’s Eye and MAB), North Hempstead L.C., Brine L.C., Toyota L.C., Capital L.C. and NYAC were among those that formed the United States Club Lacrosse Association (USCLA). There were more than 50 clubs in the league at its peak.

In 1984, the American Lacrosse League (ALL) started with 29 teams. Because of the growth of the game in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a need for more teams as more and more post-collegiate players wanted to continue playing. The ALL afforded that opportunity to players other than the All-Americans and top Division I and Division II and III players who comprised the USCLA.

Mount Washington used to practice two nights a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and play home games on Friday nights at historic Norris Field and road games on Sundays at other venues. Tuesdays and Thursdays were something that we all looked forward to. First, it gave us all an excuse to get together and play and allowed us to game plan. Since we had our own facility, it was always a benefit that attracted players to our club. Up until the late 1980s (as a result of a change in NCAA competition dates rules) we’d annually play — and defeat — the top college teams such as Cornell’s great 1976-78 teams, Virginia, Maryland, Navy, Hobart and Princeton as well as the Canadian, Australian and English national teams.

During one such weeknight practice in early in the 1986 season, a muscular black man with a significant Afro sauntered through the Norris Field gate on foot with an equipment bag slung over his shoulder and both a lacrosse and hockey stick in hand. I was in my second season as head coach at the time, and I summoned over Dennis Wey, my longtime assistant and close friend, asking him if he had any idea who this man might be. Dennis shook his head no, and so I met the man behind our team bench.

He identified himself as Kenny Jerkins, with a broad smile and a casual affability. I was struck by his physical presence. He was 6-foot-2 and about 240 pounds. He was NFL linebacker big. His handshake was vice-like and although he was wearing sweatpants, they barely contained his disproportionately large thighs. He had a booming voice and a distinctive chuckle which would become one of his most endearing qualities.

Kenny explained that he had always wanted to play lacrosse. As a young adult, he already participated in a semi-pro baseball league (later to become its commissioner) and a semi-pro football league while also playing pickup ice hockey at the Mount Washington Ice Rink. During his trips to the rink, he had seen us playing and practicing at Norris Field. Ultimately, he decided what the heck and summoned the nerve to walk in, introduce himself and inquire if there was any chance that he could “try out” for the Wolfpack.

As a multi-sport athlete that played basketball and from an early age competed with and against players of color in the Baltimore metro area through college and beyond, I guess I never really paid a lot of attention to issues of diversity and inclusion in sports because it wasn’t apparent to me. However, lacrosse has been and continues to be overwhelmingly white.

Admittedly, I was surprised on several levels. One, this young man had never played the game and here he was walking onto a field with college All-Americans and putting himself out there. That, in itself, was impressive. Two, at the time, we had one other black player on the roster of 35, an All-American from Maryland named Curtis Rountree. As years progressed, we had many other people of color play with us at MWC, but the sport was even less diverse then than it is now.

As head coach for 22 years, I had a no-cut policy. If you were willing to attend practices on a regular basis and put in the time to improve your skills, you would get a uniform and suit up for all games. There was never a playing time guarantee for any of our players, since our goal every year — aside from the great experiences we had and friendships we formed — was to win the USCLA championship. We had prospects who upon seeing the caliber of play decided to remove themselves from the roster. We had others who just loved the experience so much that it didn’t matter if they ever stepped on the field in a game situation. However, there was never a season in which even those less-talented players didn’t get some game time, notably in lopsided games. It was awesome to see their teammates root them on and support them.

Back to Kenny. I explained the competitive nature of our club and was very candid about his chances of ever seeing the field. However, his countenance indicated to me that he just might be one of those exceptions. I invited him to suit up and jump into the warmups. I vividly recall that he didn’t have a lacrosse helmet, and though a hockey helmet would have sufficed, we had a couple of extras in our equipment room, so I grabbed one and handed it to him. Back then, the bucket helmets had laces up the back (old school), and despite loosening them to their maximum without taking them out altogether, the helmet perched precariously high on his head and the facemask left his chin exposed.

Kenny was very introverted and observant. His father was a professor at Morgan State University. Kenny was well-informed, more polite than most, a little gullible at times, but honest and hard-working. He had a good amount of trouble with the stick skills required for even the basic drills, but he exhibited a powerful athleticism and fierce intensity. In the years to come, very few players fared well in a physical confrontation on the field with Kenny Jerkins.

After practice, Dennis and I, along with a few of the players, discussed the possibility of having Kenny continue practicing with us. We were unanimous in our decision to have him continue. I can count on one hand the number of practices or games Kenny missed over the next 20 years.

Kenny’s skills progressed to the point where he got some meaningful playing time in competitive games. His spirit and intensity in practice and as a teammate on the sidelines were unmatched. He became a friend with whom we shared many competitions, social events and laughs. His opinion was respected, and very few players walked away unscathed after a Kenny Jerkins stick or body check. He was fierce.

During one scrimmage with Johns Hopkins at Homewood Field in the late 1980s, at the faceoff we lined up Kenny on the wing as the long-stick midfielder. On the other side of the field, Hopkins lined up its 6-foot-4, 220-pound All-American middie. The whistle blew and the ball popped out to open space. Kenny and the Blue Jay raced headlong toward the ball, neither looking to back down from the impending collision.

And collide they did. It was like a cartoon scene. For what seemed like an eternity, which in reality was a matter of a couple of seconds, both players stood firm. Then gradually, the legs beneath the Blue Jay wobbled and he fell to the turf in a heap. Play stopped as the Hopkins training staff attended to the fallen Blue Jay and Kenny sidled over to the sideline with his usual understated body language to the amazement of his teammates. He was a specimen.

Little did we know on that initial day that Kenny arrived at Norris Field he not only was carless, he didn’t even have a driver’s license. To get to Mount Washington from his home near Morgan State, it required a bus trip including two transfers and 40 minutes. He did this for several years.

Kenny lived with his dad, who left a car to him after passing away. Kenny eventually got his license and started driving to and from practices and games, but not until after several years of boarding three buses each way three times a week to play lacrosse with us.

This account began as an example of inclusion in our sport. At the time, we thought nothing of welcoming Kenny Jerkins to the Mount Washington Lacrosse Club. We embraced him. I realize now what an isolated example it is.

As I struggle in many ways with the racial issues as they are presented today in our country and community, I understand them, but don’t believe it has to be this way. I’m compelled to share this story in hopes that it will shine a light on the positive effects of diversity and inclusion, not only for our sport but as an accepted societal direction.

I’m confident that there are more such stories and hopeful that we can all come to terms with a stigma that needs to be addressed more universally.

Skip Lichtfuss, a National Lacrosse Hall of Famer, is the director of national teams and high performance at US Lacrosse.

Most Recent

A Young Goalie's Promise Fueled By Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse

How BYL positioned Dalond Bidonne for success on and off the field.

My Lacrosse Life: Matt Palumb is a Star in Stripes

Palumb, an official with an impressive resume, talks about his love of the game.

Dialed In: Your Lacrosse Fix For Friday, June 11

Major World Lacrosse news, Day 2 of national team tryouts and Gary Gait's presser.

Dialed In: Your Lacrosse Fix For Thursday, June 10

The U.S. women's national team is back. Go "Behind the Dream" tonight on LSN.

Twitter Posts