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A Beacon of Hope: Jules Heningburg Was Made for This Movement


This article appears in the November edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, available exclusively to US Lacrosse members. Join or renew today! Thank you for your support.

J

ules Nehemiah Heningburg sat still in the barber’s chair on Oscar Gonzalez’s front porch in La Mesa, California, and listened closely as his father’s words echoed in his AirPods. 

The old lessons and warnings washed over him like the waves crashing on nearby Mission Beach. He had heeded most of them growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey. Others he took for granted at the time. 

Now separated by more than 2,700 miles but connected via technology during a Zoom interview, the 24-year-old Premier Lacrosse League all-star attackman and founding member of the Black Lacrosse Alliance reflected. Over the course of two-plus hours on this afternoon in late September, he described how his family’s history shaped him to become a champion for civil rights, the low point less than a year ago when he contemplated giving up lacrosse and his journey of self-discovery through mindfulness that helped him weather the uncertainty of the past seven months. 

Whenever Gonzalez, the 20-year-old barber and avid San Diego Seals fan who operates Fatboy Cuts, took a step back to examine his work, Heningburg offered knowing nods. He listened as his father, Gus Heningburg Jr., explained how every parent tells his or her black children they’ve got to be twice as good to get half the credit. How he needed to know where his kids were even when his job as the owner of Bodie Entertainment and Transportation took him on tour to Europe with hip-hop legends like Snoop Dogg. How despite Maplewood’s diverse population, he and his wife, Maria Morrison Heningburg, who is white, raised Jules and his five siblings to understand that they live in a time and a space that still did not welcome them fully. 

“You’re going to have to make the choice whether you’re going to let somebody define your place or whether you’re going to by any means necessary make sure no one gets to define who you are,” Gus Heningburg Jr. said. “I truly believe that we hold the pen to our humanity and define who we are as individuals within the confines of this family and as a collective.”

Jules Heningburg demonstrated that belief, literally, when he published “Standing at the Crossroads.” On May 29, 2020, at 9:25 p.m. Eastern, he inked his place in a family legacy of activism.

Heningburg wrote the essay in response to the police killing of George Floyd four days earlier in Minneapolis, an act that reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and inspired protests in cities across the country — as well as a racial awakening in a sport that’s largely characterized by white privilege. It shed light on Heningburg’s upbringing in Maplewood and his unique perspective on the intersection of race and lacrosse. It made it OK for other Black players to do the same. 

“If Jules can do this and is willing to be this vulnerable,” Atlas midfielder Romar Dennis said, “I can push myself to open up too.”

 But “Standing at the Crossroads” was more than a personal narrative. At its core, it was an act of empathy. 

“And to the young Black players out there listening to this: You are not alone,” Heningburg wrote. “I may not be as ‘Black’ as you, but I stand with you, for you. I am your ally more than you may have known before reading this. My words may not heal your pain, but I hope it may provide a spark to keep moving forward and overcoming the obstacles we face. While headlines may suggest otherwise, know this: You are human, you are valued and you are living a life worth living.”

When Gus Jr. watched the Instagram video for about the 10th or 11th time in which Jules read the essay aloud, he considered what his dad, Gus Heningburg Sr. — a noted civil rights activist and mediator — would have thought. 

He was a man of action, but few words. 

“Yeah,” Gus Jr. said, before drawing out a long breath. “I guess he paid attention.”


“I may not be as ‘Black’ as you, but I stand with you, for you. I am your ally more than you may have known before reading this.” — Jules Heningburg, Standing at the Crossroads


SHOES TOO BIG TO FILL

To those who know Jules Heningburg best, his emergence during the summer of activism as a voice for the voiceless was anything but a surprise.  

“It just makes sense to me,” Redwoods coach Nat St. Laurent said. “His experiences that allow him to understand both sides and his family’s history in the civil rights movement add up to why he is becoming the voice.”  

The environment Heningburg came up in made him almost destined for a calling greater than himself. “There’s an unspoken standard that you’re supposed to meet,” he said.

Growing up, though, Heningburg did not give much thought to his grandfather’s influence on the city of Newark and beyond. To Jules, Gus Heningburg Sr. was just Gramps.

Sure, there were hints. When Jules and his older brother, Dylan, attended New Jersey Nets games with their grandfather at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, it wasn’t unusual for NBA luminaries like Willis Reed to stop by and chat. Jules Googled the Hall of Famer once he got back home. On a trip to Miami, he got to shake Shaquille O’Neal’s (massive) hand. 

“How do these things happen?” Jules wondered.

The image of the genius negotiator and tenacious advocate who author Robert Curvin described as a “one-man movement” crystalized on a frigid afternoon in late January inside Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church. Jules listened to one speaker after another share their fondest stories of his grandfather, who died in October of 2012 at the age of 82 from heart failure. The family requested donations be sent to the The Gustav Heningburg Civic Fellows Program at Rutgers’ Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and Modern Experience — a resource for Newark’s civic leaders deeply involved in the city’s revitalization.

“He lived a life not prescribed by certain expectations,” said Carol Jenkins, who co-anchored the Emmy Award-winning NBC television show “Positively Black” with Heningburg. The slogan for the show was, “Wherever Gus sits is at the head of the table.” 

His legacy is not confined to memory. The Gus Heningburg Collection contains 37 boxes of materials and spans 17.76 linear feet at the Newark Public Library. The articles, memos, photos and legal documents chronicle how the son of a Tuskegee Institute professor planted roots in Newark and laid a foundation for change as the first director of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition. The man who had his own parking spot at Terminal C of Newark International Airport was perhaps best known for his work integrating the construction forces at the airport during its expansion in the 1970s. When Gus Sr. walked the tarmac in protest with 200 minority workers, Gus Jr. and his sister, Anne-Renee, were in tow. Their dad wanted them to participate in the movement. 

Despite the successful public demonstration, most of Gus Sr.’s work was done behind the scenes.  He brokered the agreement that ended the Stella Wright Tenants Strike — the longest rent strike in the history of U.S. public housing — that started in 1970 and lasted four years. The settlement stipulated that the Housing Authority build 1,775 new town home housing units instead of the seven 12-story buildings that made up the low-income housing project in the Central Ward deemed “untenable” by the city’s housing director.

“Some rooms had not a single window, so the children could see the world outside,” Gus Sr. wrote in a letter titled “A Message to My Four Grandchildren” that Jules’ sister, Chiara Quinn, read at his memorial. “There was no other city in America that housed so many people in such unpleasant and dangerous conditions. Now all that has changed.” 

When it came time to push the plunger on Stella Wright, Gus had his grandchildren do the honors. 

To this day, Gus Jr. will not let people call him Mr. Heningburg. “Because that was my father,” he’ll tell you. “And my feet will never grow big enough to fill his shoes.” 

The lineage doesn’t stop there. 

Jules’ grandmother, Jean, was the first Black teacher at Montclair High School and was inducted in the Montclair High Hall of Fame the same year (2001) as renown golf architect Robert Trent Jones. Jr. The high school’s field on Midland Avenue is named after her. Jules’ great, great uncle William J. Trent was a public policy advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first executive director of the United Negro College fund. Anne-Renee Heningburg, Jules’ aunt, is a public health advisor in the CDC’s Global Immunization Division. 

Jules would spend a month every summer at “Camp Holloway”— the home of three-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Brian Holloway. When he needed a keynote speaker for Mission Primed’s four-day digital training experience this past summer, he knew just who to ask: U.S. historian Jonathan Holloway, who became the 21st president of Rutgers on July 1. He is the university’s first Black president. He’s also Heningburg’s cousin. 

“This needs to be said, and I’m in a position to say it,” Heningburg realized when he decided to write “Standing at the Crossroads.” “I have a responsibility for how I grew up, what I learned was right and how I’m able to articulate it.”








NOT BLACK ENOUGH, NOT WHITE ENOUGH

Everywhere Heningburg has gone, it seems, he has defied expectations and sought to change the culture. Wins often followed. 

When he left Columbia High School for Seton Hall Prep his junior year, the Pirates started 2-8 while Heningburg sat out 30 days because of a New Jersey transfer rule. “He was coaching his classmates the entire time and he already knew the pulse of his team,” coach Dave Giarrusso said. “If there is something he doesn’t like, he’s not going to sit back and let it continue.” 

Heningburg’s emergence coincided with a 10-game winning streak that included a victory over Delbarton, then the No. 1 team in the country. He led the Pirates in points, but he also made everyone on the team better. That offseason, Giarrusso named Heningburg captain. 

After his freshman year at Rutgers when the Scarlet Knights went 5-10, Heningburg, who started every game that spring, vowed not to let history repeat itself. Again, he answered the call. Rutgers went 11-5 in 2016 and topped Johns Hopkins — twice. Heningburg turned into a two-time All-American and finished his career in New Brunswick second all-time in points.   

Although Heningburg was only a sophomore in 2016, senior captain Scott Bieda saw the makings of a humble leader. It was most evident in his post-goal reactions. When Heningburg scored, there was no ferocious fist bump or elaborate celebration. He’d often put his head down, or point to whoever dished him the assist. He did his job. But when his teammates scored, he was their biggest hype man.  

“He wants to see the best from people,” Bieda said. “It’s not about himself. When other people succeed, that’s what truly gives him happiness.” 

That trend continued in the pros. In his first game with the Redwoods after being traded by the Whipsnakes, Heningburg set the league’s points record with five goals and three assists at Johns Hopkins’ historic Homewood Field. 

The setting matters. Heningburg always felt like an outsider in the game he started playing in the second grade. He charted his path from Maplewood to lighting up Homewood by feeding off his bitterness. Lacrosse was never an escape, but rather a means to prove he belonged. He always felt like he was 1,000 yards behind. 

“We knew that we had to put in the work that maybe others hadn’t put in because of the way we looked and saw how the landscape of the sport looked,” Dylan Heningburg said. “It added an extra chip on our shoulder.”

Not always being perceived as a Black player because of his lighter complexion also made Heningburg view the game differently. It’s a perspective St. Laurent, the Redwoods coach, can relate to. 

“We’ve both been told, ‘Hey, we’re Blacker than you,’” St. Laurent said. “That’s just the ultimate insult.” 

“People always felt like they could do or say whatever they wanted around me because they were like, ‘Oh, you’re not Black. This shouldn’t affect you,’” Heningburg said during an IMLCA diversity and inclusion roundtable hosted by St. Laurent in June. 

At a recent Ohio Northern athletics staff meeting, where St. Laurent is the only Black head coach in the department, one of his good friends told him, “I never think of you as Black.”

“Well,” St. Laurent responded, “the cop who pulled me over and followed me home, I’m Black enough for him, right?” 

Heningburg didn’t realize that Maplewood, a suburb known for its liberal ideals, was unlike much of the world until he played club lacrosse the summer before ninth grade with kids from the other side of town. The code switching made Heningburg a better listener and more attuned to spot micro-aggressions. “He’s an observer,” his dad said.

When Heningburg entered a diner in Maryland with mentor and former coach Mike Terry after taking part in a recruiting showcase, he immediately noticed how the patrons looked at Terry. He picked up on their body language the way he spots a teammate cutting to the goal. 

“Let’s go,” Heningburg told Terry. “You’re not safe here.” 

While his lighter skin tone was a privilege, Heningburg learned, it also carried the responsibility to be there so his Black teammates never felt alone. 

The Black Lacrosse Alliance roots itself in that idea. Comprised of the Black players in the Premier Lacrosse League, the alliance seeks to act as a beacon of light and hope for both current players and the next generation. The organization has Heninburg’s fingerprints all over it, from its logo of the raised fist holding a lacrosse stick to its partnership with Players Coalition on overlapping humanitarian and social justice missions.  

“It’s about opening up those opportunities to those people that aren’t on the inside circle of lacrosse, so if you work hard enough and you’re a good enough player, you will get the opportunity to do what you want in the sport,” Heningburg said. “That’s what will make the game a better place.”




PHOTO BY ANNA WHIPPLE


THE ULTIMATE TEST

After the Redwoods lost to the Whipsnakes in overtime of the inaugural PLL championship game, the chip on Heningburg’s shoulder felt more like a boulder. He was not in a good place. 

For four months he did not feel like himself. He lost the motivation to work out and when he did, the weights felt one thousand times heavier. He went through a phase over three days where he said he lost his personality. He was still grappling with the lingering effects of a concussion — the fourth of his career — that he suffered from an illegal hit by Chrome goalie Brett Queener during Week 10 of the regular season.  

He thought one day he’d wake up and feel better, but that reprieve remained elusive. Something wasn’t right. The kid who honed his toughness battling Dylan one-on-one on the dirt basketball court where maple tree roots jutted out like little hurdles and the rules were “no blood, no foul,” learned there was strength in being vulnerable. In letting others know everything wasn’t OK. In asking for help. 

While Heningburg starts many sentences with, “At the end of the day,” when he discusses the BLA’s initiatives, it’s how he begins his days that helps him cope with stress. Before he checks his phone or does anything else, the player who always seems on the move finds a quiet space and meditates for 15 to 20 minutes. He starts by focusing on his breath, then transitions to the feelings he wants to manifest. 

Patience. Understanding. Gratitude. Love.  

He taps into his breath throughout the day.  

“Jules has really committed himself to the formal practice of meditation, but also the practice of living a more mindful life,” said Emily Perrin, an integrative wellness and performance coach who helped develop the return-to-play protocols for the Championship Series with PLL medical director Mike Giunta. 

From their first FaceTime call, Perrin was impressed by Heningburg’s insight and awareness. His focus wasn’t limited to the type of player he was, but the impact he wanted to make on the world. While people mistakenly think of mindfulness as a quick fix, Heningburg adopted a different mindset. He was a sponge and relentless in his desire to improve. He sunk his teeth into the mindfulness practices the way he developed his left hand after he broke his wrist playing basketball in eighth grade. Back then, he played wall ball at the Walgreens next to his family’s house at all hours until the owners would tell him to stop.  

Heningburg faced the ultimate test after undergoing several evaluations once he arrived in Utah for the PLL Championship Series. He had tested positive COVID-19 in June, but had rebounded and believed he was prepared to play. An electrocardiogram (EKG) test, however, revealed that his decreased oxygen levels put him at a higher risk for cardiac arrest after intense physical activity. He had to return to San Diego.  

“Is this incredibly painful?” Perrin asked him. 

“Yes.”

“But is this going to be something that you can handle? 

“Yes.”

Heningburg reframed the disappointment as an opportunity. He could find other ways to be there for his teammates, find his voice off the field and learn more about himself. He concentrated his efforts on launching the BLA, which gained national exposure during the Championship Series. 

“I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it all if I didn’t have those tools in place,” he said. 

When Perrin considered the way Heningburg responded to events of this summer, she was reminded of a quote often attributed to Jon Kabat Zinn — the meditation teacher, scientist and writer: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”  

So many of us want to see change but sit idly by on the sand. Others learn how to navigate the waves.

Heningburg knows there’s more work to be done. Progress is rarely linear. The BLA has sought to keep the conversation going through a number of initiatives, including advising US Lacrosse’s development of an anti-harassment and discrimination policy and organizing meetings with college lacrosse players of color. During an interview last month, St. Laurent received a text. It was from Heningburg, outlining  the need to offer coaches best practices to create a more inclusive culture. 

While they text almost daily, St. Laurent doesn’t get to talk with Heningburg as often as he’d like to. There’s the time difference, but also all their responsibilities. In a four-month span, St. Laurent conducted Zoom calls with 42 college teams. Imagine how full Heningburg’s plate is. 

“It’s what I signed up for,” Heningburg said. “If I didn’t think I could do it, or if I didn’t think I had a good enough head on my shoulders or a good enough understanding of what needs to change and the wherewithal to put it all together, I wouldn’t do it.”

St. Laurent remains encouraged by the conversations he’s had with the team at Ohio Northern and so many others. “There are so many good people in this sport,” he said. “That part isn’t discussed enough.”

He holds a firm belief that you can’t get where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.  His star player who still has a phone number starting with 973 — Maplewood’s area code — does.  

“I’m excited to see Jules grab the keys, so to speak, and move us forward into this new era of lacrosse,” St. Laurent said. “It gives me hope.”