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PHOTO BY JAMAL COOLEY/MLL

Blaxers Blog: How Mark Ellis Became an Unlikely Lacrosse Icon


US Lacrosse Magazine has partnered with Blaxers Blog to produce a series of stories that illuminate the minority lacrosse experience and promote the accomplishments of those individuals who have defied stereotypes to succeed in the sport.

Read more about Blaxers Blog and the content partnership here.

Showing humility and compassion speaks volumes in our walks of life. Many of us were ingrained in these principles at an early age. You can’t go throughout life functioning on your own, and it’s important to give thanks to those who paved the way. Lacrosse must uphold its moral standards so that the game can be inviting for all of our family members. We must be the change that we want to see in the world and in our communities.

Let me introduce a phenomenal figure who embodies the core attributes of what lacrosse should look like, Mr. Mark Ellis.

A midfielder for the New York Lizards of Major League Lacrosse, Ellis grew up on Long Island where Hempstead, a diverse community in which 20 percent of the population lives in poverty, meets Garden City, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Nassau County. In Hempstead, Mark could be free to hang with his friends after dark without problems. In Garden City, Ellis said, he had to be conscious of his actions and return home before dark to avoid possible profiling. Hempstead scarcely consists of college graduates, while most Garden City residents possess bachelor’s degrees. Ellis played several sports, but football was his favorite. He wanted to play in the NFL one day.

Ellis’ middle school friends introduced him to lacrosse. Culturally, it was different. He learned how to code switch between environments. Ellis obeyed his mother’s wishes not to be engulfed in the streets that swallow so many locals. Lacrosse became an outlet to escape the violence of Hempstead. He was awestruck on the sport’s similarities to football (the physicality) and basketball (the fluidity).

Ellis’ mother, Tammie Alexander, worked long hours as a nurse. His stepfather worked for the Hempstead sanitation department. They scraped together just enough money to take care of Ellis and his seven siblings. Ellis wanted to prevent a possible financial burden on her while embracing lacrosse for the first time. Financial accessibility is a prime reason lacrosse participation growth has stalled, especially in communities of color.


Ellis obeyed his mother’s wishes not to be engulfed in the streets that swallow so many locals. Lacrosse became an outlet to escape the violence of Hempstead.


Ellis admired the talents of Jovan Miller, Kyle Harrison and the Bratton brothers, who were All-American midfielders at Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Virginia, respectively. After Ellis tagged Miller in a Twitter post offering encouragement before the 2011 Big City Classic — “I love your game,” he wrote. “Good luck out there.” — Miller inked Ellis’ initials and jersey number (ME 23) on the strap of his helmet and led Syracuse to victory over Duke on national TV.

Asked to define representation, Ellis said it’s “setting the standard for others to follow and giving back to the community like to those who came before me.” After his youth wrestling season ended, for example, Ellis was able join the local middle school lacrosse team only after receiving financial help from some of his friends’ mothers.

As a 5-foot-4 youth, Ellis’ coaches trained him to be a defenseman. At his first varsity lacrosse practice, he exerted so much energy doing ground ball drills that he ripped the mesh in his stick. The coaches advised Ellis to practice ground ball techniques and play wall ball when he got home.

Ellis usually walked home from school, but decided to drive on the first day of lacrosse practice. A police officer pulled him over and asked where he got the lacrosse stick.

For generations, parents of color have had to have the life-altering talk with their children about police relations and what to do when approached. These experiences often cause trauma at all ages because of prejudice and generations of brutality forced on minorities during compliance. Black children are robbed of their innocence and treated as adults by law enforcement. Many people don’t understand the self-policing layers people of color must exhibit daily in hopes that our exchanges with police end with retaining our dignity and lives.

Ellis walked the rest of the way home while the police officer followed him. When they got to his house, his mother explained that yes, her son played lacrosse and yes, the stick was his. Only then did the police officer return to his patrol.

“I have no idea what he thought I was doing. He was just behind me and didn't say anything,” Ellis said. “It made me realize the game of lacrosse, not a lot of people that looked like me played. I was in an all-white community and there were five black individuals in high school. It was that moment of, ‘You’re in a white neighborhood playing a white sport.’”

Ellis matriculated to Garden City High School, a national lacrosse powerhouse. He played football in the fall, earning all-state honors as a cornerback. Some of the top FBS and FCS programs began recruiting him. In the spring, Ellis was a starter on Garden City’s junior varsity teams as a freshman and sophomore. As a senior, he helped lead Garden City’s varsity team to a historic 22-0 record and the 2012 New York Class B championship.

Garden City lost just three games in Ellis’ two seasons, both of which included county and Long Island championships. He also played a season of club lacrosse with Team 91. Ellis had a positive experience, but cautioned that club lacrosse is a huge moneymaker and stressed that young players should analyze their coaches’ dedication to their future versus a paycheck. The expensive costs of club lacrosse, he said, are another deterrent for lacrosse participation.








After graduation, Ellis used a post-graduate year at Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn. He experienced a culture shock being away from home for the first time and losing a lot of football games. Ellis said Westminster humbled him and taught him how to mesh with different people. He channeled the losses by focusing on personal improvement and working with teammates on the next game’s scouting report.

Experiencing failure, Ellis said, made him a stronger person. He took the SAT four times before attending college. He was never the smartest kid in his classes, but he learned academic discipline from his grandmother and his best friend’s family. Ellis wanted to make his mother proud so that she could brag, he said, “My baby is smart, not just an athlete.”

After his post-graduate year at Westminster School, Ellis decided to return to Long Island and enroll at Stony Brook. It was close to home, a state school with reasonable tuition, room and board costs. The Seawolves also offered Ellis a scholarship to play lacrosse. A short-stick defensive midfielder, he played in 12 games as a freshman In 2014 and in all 18 games as a sophomore in 2015.

Ellis’ college career was derailed the next year. Stony Brook got off to a 5-1 start in 2016. But Ellis badly bruised his leg in the sixth game, a 13-5 win over nationally ranked Hofstra. According to Ellis, he told the coaches and staff something wasn’t right with his knee, but they cleared him to play anyway. Albany was up next, and Stony Brook needed its full suite of defenders against its conference rival.

Ellis found the task of preparing for Albany’s unconventional, high-scoring offense equal parts daunting and annoying. Miles and Lyle Thompson graduated, but the Great Danes still had Connor Fields and a plethora of complementary weapons.

“You have to do your role,” Ellis said. “Offense always beats defense. If you don’t communicate on defense, your core will struggle.”

Ellis said he pushed himself too hard in practice. He tore his ACL, his junior season over after appearing in just four games. According to Ellis, Stony Brook’s coaches apologized for not listening to his concerns. Still, the following fall, he asked for a transfer release. Ellis said Stony Brook blocked several schools in which he expressed interest, causing him to miss the 2017 season, before it eventually released him without restrictions.

Ellis landed at Hofstra, which had recruited him out of high school. He received a scholarship to join the Pride despite not playing for nearly two years. Ellis played in all 14 games as Hofstra’s top defensive midfielder in 2018 and scored his only goal against Stony Brook in an emphatic 14-2 win. Ellis also scooped four of his career-high 25 ground balls in the blowout victory over his former team.

As a sixth-year senior in 2019, Ellis was named Hofstra’s co-captain. He started all 14 games for the Pride, amassing 18 ground balls and six caused turnovers while also scoring two goals. Again, it seemed, Ellis saved his best for Stony Brook, notching an assist to go with a season-high six ground balls, albeit this time in an 11-10 defeat.

Minutes before Hofstra’s game with Fairfield on the Stags’ Senior Day, Ellis learned that he was selected by his hometown Lizards in the MLL Rookie Selection Draft. At first, he was focused on beating Fairfield, but a teammate interrupted his pregame routine by telling him to check Twitter. Ellis didn’t have a Twitter account at the time, so he signed up to see the Lizards post. Pride coach Seth Tierney later walked into the locker room to congratulate Ellis.

“Let’s win this game,” Tierney concluded.

Hofstra did just that, finishing a disappointing 5-9 season on a high note with an 11-9 victory.  Ellis went on to earn his master’s degree in sports science, his journey coming full circle in August when Stony Brook athletics hired him to be their new assistant athletic performance coach.

Meanwhile, Ellis has emerged as a steady presence for the Lizards, who expected their rookies to contribute in games from the jump. To succeed in professional lacrosse, he said, “One must play with a chip on your shoulder, not let things hold you back, put in hard work when no one is looking and surround yourself by people who push you to be better.”

During his rookie season, Ellis appeared in four games. In the condensed 2020 MLL season, he had five ground balls, four caused turnovers and two points in five games. Ellis left an even greater mark as one of the “MLL Four,” the league’s four Black players who stood apart from their teams at midfield during the national anthem at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in a show of solidarity in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ellis drew inspiration from his grandfather, Eddie Alexander. For an assignment at Westminster, he had constructed a family tree and produced a report on his greatest influences. Ellis’ grandfather was a Vietnam War veteran from West Virginia who was denied the rights and accolades most service members were bestowed. Many Black veterans, like the ones in my family, were subjected to discrimination and acts of prejudice by their superiors and fellow service members.

Imagine fighting for a country that doesn’t accept you as an equal.

Imagine playing a sport that doesn’t accept you as one of its own.

Ellis’ great-grandparents were coal miners, among the few jobs Black people could have in West Virginia at the time. Ellis defined true diversity and inclusion as “the community being open and understanding even when you don’t agree. The community must make progress and converse with those who feel outcast. Currently, there are many people who hide from this and it worsens relations.”

As a gesture of unity, Ellis often gave the youth lacrosse players he coached foods he learned to cook from his Jamaican ancestors. Hempstead is the epicenter of Long Island’s Black lacrosse history. Chuck Sherwood, an All-American goalie at Duke in the 1970s and the first Black player in ACC lacrosse history, came from Hempstead. So did Aaron Jones, an All-American defenseman at Cornell in the 1980s who was the CEO of Metro Lacrosse in Boston until 2019.

Ellis said he has an obligation to give back because he lacked the type of financial support his peers had growing up. He works with local organizations and wants to help kids avoid community violence.

“It is truly a blessing to be a Black lacrosse player,” Ellis said. “I’ve been through it all, and it means the world to give back to the sport that helped me. I must help the next generation of kids. It’s an obligation to fill the gaps and make the legends happy.”

Ellis also aspires to be a lacrosse retail store owner so he can help lower the cost for kids playing the sport. Asked what words of wisdom he’d give young players of color, Ellis replied, “Be consistent. Stay strong. Play hard. People can question your play, but heart, determination and grit can’t be [questioned]. Talent is overrated compared to work ethic and teamwork. You must be twice as good to be on par with others. Black people are built to withstand adversities. Be comfortable in your own skin. Never quit. Never doubt yourself.”




PHOTO BY LEE WEISSMAN


BLAXER BIO

Name: Mark Ellis
Age: 26
Hometown: Hempstead, N.Y.
Pro Team: New York Lizards (MLL)
College: Hofstra ’19
High School: Garden City ’12

On Black history and culture: “The underlying root is that we don’t teach black history in schools. It’s one month and then it’s over. Growing up, I was taught black culture from my parents and my grandmother. You have to be motivated to learn and teach. It got annoying at times because I’d ask, ‘Why do I have to explain everything that I do which is different? It’s different to you, it’s not different to me.”

On mentorship: “No matter if you want to be a mentor or if it’s convenient to be a mentor, you are because you are a professional athlete. You can’t pick and choose who you affect. What you can do is be a good person and have good character.”

LET’S TALK ABOUT IT

Using the voices of New York Lizards player Mark Ellis, Virginia Tech goalie Angie Benson and Brooklyn Crescents co-founder Wes Jackson, Blaxers Blog hosts “Let’s Talk About It,” a series of live discussions with some of the game’s biggest names about what this community can do to curb racism and continue growing in the Black community.

Last week, Ellis and Benson went one-on-one to discuss the intersection of race, sports and culture, specifically as it pertained to players boycotting the NBA playoffs after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc.

“You were mad at Colin Kaepernick four years ago. And now you’re mad at the same players for kneeling four years later, and you’re mad at those players for not playing for you,” Benson said. “When are you going to understand the message that people are putting out there? Now, you’re mad because what? Because you don’t get your entertainment?”

“It was the first time that Black people took back their bodies,” Ellis said. “Black bodies have been used as entertainment in sports, and they took that away by not playing. It showed the control of what a Black body can do, especially on a united front.”

“Athletes finally realized how powerful they are,” Benson added. “Now people care because LeBron James isn’t playing. Why didn’t you care 24 hours before he wasn’t playing?”

ANGIE’S LIST

Benson discussed five solutions for the lacrosse community to effect change.

1. Open Dialogue
2. Volunteering
3. Sensitivity Training
4. Virtual Lessons
5. Mentorship

Join the conversation on Instagram (@blaxersblog).

Brian Simpkins is a contributing writer for Blaxers Blog. He played lacrosse at the University of the District of Columbia.