‘For the love of the game’: As the sport grows, Duke men’s lacrosse alums are helping pave the way

Duke players dogpile after beating Notre Dame 6-5 to claim the program's first NCAA title on May 31, 2010.
Duke players dogpile after beating Notre Dame 6-5 to claim the program's first NCAA title on May 31, 2010.

One precarious thunderstorm later, the blinding floodlights blanketing Zions Bank Stadium just outside Salt Lake City shot to life. 

It was well past bedtime for the hundreds of children in attendance at the August 2022 event, but that didn’t stop them from shoving their way behind the benches, Sharpies in pockets, hats off and hands stretched high. Players on the winning and losing sides wrapped up their postgame huddles and meandered over, inked those hats with those Sharpies and tossed used towels, game balls and broken sticks to those extended hands.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the fastest-growing NCAA sport. Even five years ago, an event like Salt Lake City’s — or the 10 other weekend summer series the Premier Lacrosse League hosted across the country in 2022 — was but a pipe dream.

The NCAA men’s lacrosse Final Four has drawn tens of thousands of live spectators for decades. But could the same appetite for the sport, concentrated primarily in the Northeast with select pockets near prominent college teams, translate to a wider audience, let alone support a professional league?

“That’s the pinnacle of it all,” former Duke long-stick midfielder CJ Costabile told The Chronicle. “[Final Four] weekend was like going to Mecca.”

The Blue Devils have cemented their place as one of college lacrosse’s powerhouse programs since Costabile’s goal five seconds into sudden-victory — a faceoff win followed by a beeline to the goal — earned them their first national championship in 2010. 

Before then, however, despite on-field successes and a national championship appearance the year before, Duke lacrosse was known more for the controversy surrounding the 2006 lacrosse case, in which three Duke players were falsely accused of rape. The case marred the program’s future in uncertainty. 

Then Duke found stability in its new and current head coach, John Danowski. Since his appointment, the Blue Devils have won three total national championships, ushered All-Americans aplenty through Koskinen Stadium and Danowski has become the winningest head coach in Division I history.

"You had the scandal in 2006. To think about all the heartache that's gone through the program, coming close [to national championships], multiple Final Fours prior to that, losing championship games ... To finally be a part of the process of getting the monkey off the program's back, so to speak, was an awesome experience," Costabile, who played under Danowski, said. 

When talking about the actors who have shaped the national narrative about lacrosse, Duke has to make the cast list. And, as the sport undergoes its most revolutionary changes in recent memory, it’s fitting that former Blue Devils are helping to pave the way. 

‘Now, it’s competitive’

Before the PLL’s 2018 inception, professional lacrosse was relegated to high school stadiums, inadequate contracts and the darkest corners of the public conscience. Games were infrequent and sparsely attended. Practically every player had a 9-to-5 on top of their commitment to their Major Lacrosse League team, creating a strange dynamic where players at the most elite echelon of their sport hardly felt like, or were paid like, professionals at all.

“You're sort of, really, this weekend warrior,” Costabile said.

“We used to play a couple seasons up in Hamilton, Canada,” he added. “The running joke was, ‘over/under, is there 60 people in the crowd for this game?’ Where I'd say for these games, you're getting thousands of fans.”

“These games” Costabile speaks of are the PLL’s summer showcase weekends, where all eight teams participate in games at a neutral stadium site in a different city. Sometimes that comes in Baltimore or New York or Boston — the kind of places lacrosse lives and breathes — but other times that comes in Minneapolis, Denver or Tacoma, Wash. 

And, even though Minnesota, Colorado or Washington state can hardly be considered lacrosse havens in the same way Maryland or New York historically have been, those events fill up all the same.

“Some of the best crowds are in the cities where you would have no idea that the populations knew about lacrosse,” former Duke and current Whipsnakes midfielder Brad Smith said.

A large part of this change can be attributed to the league’s intelligent use of social media and a concentrated effort to build a lacrosse fanbase for the future. In addition to its showcase weekends, Paul Rabil, widely considered the best lacrosse player of all time and one of the PLL’s founders, has made a point to establish lacrosse nets in all 50 states and host summer camps for young kids to get involved. Evidenced by the hundreds of clamoring child fans behind the benches after each game, the strategy is working.

But, at its core, forming the PLL was a financial move. The MLL was barely viable from an economic standpoint and the paychecks to its players were laughably small. For many, playing professionally was better than not playing at all, but the amount of work players put in was not being rewarded in attendance — nor in their pocketbooks. This made competition relatively weak since the pull was not there for players nor fans, and led to lacrosse being relegated to an American sporting afterthought despite its rich tradition in Native American culture and its fervent support in parts of the U.S. and Canada.

“I'd say the biggest difference is that the PLL has made professional lacrosse relevant, in all honesty,” Costabile said.

The PLL is not a finished product, nor are its players to the point of complete financial independence just yet. However, an exclusive TV deal with ESPN and its assumption of NBC’s Summer Olympics slot during the pandemic in 2020 have led to sponsorships and loads of new eyes, both of which bring money with them.

The result? In the fifth year since its foundation, the PLL has allowed professional lacrosse to rapidly gain steam and credibility.

“It's starting to shift where you can be full-time in the sport,” Costabile said. “Now, is it at the point where you're making a full-time living on your salary? No, not yet. But you're starting to see the signs where it's going that way.”

“I just feel lucky to still be able to play, to be honest,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what the future of lacrosse would be after Duke, and it has exceeded my expectations. 100%.”

‘You can definitely feel the love’

The PLL originally featured six teams — Chrome, Atlas, Redwoods, Archers, Whipsnakes and Chaos — with a further two, the Waterdogs in 2020 and the Cannons in 2021, added in the last few years. To construct the inaugural rosters, the league compiled players from all over, some from the MLL and some straight from college. Many of these teams initially comprised players from select college powerhouses, allowing existing lacrosse fans to find a team to root for from the gun.

For instance, Redwoods was mostly Notre Dame. Whipsnakes was mostly Maryland. Chrome had a sizable Blue Devil contingent. That has changed somewhat with trades and annual college drafts, but powerhouse Division I teams still dominate the league. With three national championships and a perennial place near the top of the rankings, Duke’s influence is, predictably, noticeable.

Smith was selected ninth overall by the Whipsnakes in the inaugural PLL college draft after an incredible four-year tenure in Durham.

He credits assistant coach Matt Danowski and former Duke standout Ned Crotty for his plunge into the pros when the water seemed murkiest. Since then, he has won the PLL championship twice and was the Whipsnakes’ top scorer in February’s six-on-six Championship Series.

“I just knew I wanted it to be where all the best players were,” Smith said on his decision. “And that was the PLL. It was pretty exciting to have that to look forward to once the Duke career was over.”

Costabile was not selected in the draft but joined Chaos shortly after. In fact, he was in Maldives with his girlfriend when he got the call from former coach Andy Towers that the club wanted to pick him up. Costabile, too, is now a PLL champion.

The chance to win trophies in front of packed houses across the country is not lost on either player.

After winning the 2020 playoff title, Smith recounts the celebrations in the locker room as “one of the best moments of my life in sports, for sure.”

For Costabile, it was reminiscent of the feeling after winning Duke’s first national title in 2010.

“I remember being on the bottom of the pile, and you're just sitting there, just getting absolutely crushed,” Costabile said. “You have 40-plus grown men over 200 pounds jumping on you, seeing guys doing backflips and somersaults onto the pile. And you know what? You can't breathe and you just don't care. You're just so excited. You're just so happy.”

“To have this motley crue, ragtag bunch of guys [in the PLL] where you're able to put in work, put it all together and be victorious, there's no greater feeling,” Costabile added. “Especially when you get to do this in front of 15, 20,000 people.”

Only three teams have tasted PLL glory — the Whipsnakes, Chaos and Waterdogs, which former Blue Devil Michael Sowers is part of — but the opportunity to play high-level lacrosse after Duke has inspired a slew of other Blue Devils to join the ranks. Moreover, their experiences playing with and against the best in Durham has prepared them incredibly well for the next level.

“Wanting to come to Duke, I think just helps all of us who take that next step, because it's so competitive every day,” JT Giles-Harris, the PLL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, said. “Just being prepared to play the best of the best, I think, on a consistent basis, that helped.”

“We truly are standing on the shoulders of giants,” former Duke All-American and current Redwoods midfielder Nakeie Montgomery said. “... The product that pro lacrosse is, that we're putting on ESPN, the product is fire. Let me tell you.”

‘The gap is getting smaller’

The growth of professional lacrosse, both domestically and abroad, is a direct byproduct of the sport’s rapid growth and its budding interest across age brackets and socioeconomic classes. 

Within the U.S., however, one of the more noticeable changes is lacrosse’s recent expansion beyond the predominantly white, affluent suburbs of the Northeast despite the sport’s origin in Native American culture. Duke’s 2006 lacrosse case triggered nationwide conversation about the sport’s relationship with race and privilege, further complicating lacrosse’s reputation. 

“‘Duke lacrosse’ is a shorthand for some set of circumstances,” Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s former vice president for public affairs and government relations, told The Chronicle in 2016, 10 years after the case. “To some people, ‘Duke lacrosse’ is a story about race, class and gender issues in America. To others, ‘Duke lacrosse’ is a shorthand for political correctness. For others, ‘Duke lacrosse’ is a shorthand for rushing to judgment.”

But years have passed, the Blue Devils’ recent successes have reshaped their reputation and place in the national hierarchy, and lacrosse is becoming more mainstream. Efforts to increase diversity in the sport have also come to the forefront, as players work to expose kids to lacrosse who may not have been otherwise.

Montgomery, a Dallas native, has seen the changing landscape of lacrosse with his own eyes and sought to make a difference.

“I obviously do my part,” Montgomery said. “I try to put sticks in Black kids’ hands. I want all my little cousins to play and stuff like that.”

As he shared on Instagram in February, Montgomery got introduced to lacrosse at an “all-Black elementary school,” something that has stuck with him as his name grew in prominence and he transitioned from high school to Duke and eventually to the Redwoods.

Additionally, Montgomery is one of the assistant coaches at the recently founded SPIRE Academy in Ohio, which strives to provide exceptional student-athletes with the opportunity to translate their talents to the next level, whatever that may be. SPIRE’s newly minted lacrosse team, with Montgomery’s counsel, is slated to begin competition during the 2023-24 academic year.

Giles-Harris, a New York native, is an assistant coach for Hampton University’s lacrosse team and has also seen the changes in lacrosse at ground level.

“I was the only Black kid on my summer team for I think the whole time I was on that team,” Giles-Harris said. “It used to be a joke, me and my friend would have literally tried to find the other Black kids on the field playing lacrosse.”

“Especially for Black kids and minority kids,” Giles-Harris said, “getting the sticks in the hand early to really develop the skills to go along with whatever athleticism and IQ they already have would just help so much more tremendously growing the sport at these higher levels.”

Both Montgomery and Giles-Harris recognize that there is more work to be done to shake lacrosse’s mostly white, privileged reputation, but their respective journeys serve as a model for the type of success players from all walks of life and all hometowns can achieve.

“I encourage all Black people to play lacrosse,” Montgomery said. “There’s plight in everything you're going to do, ever. Something like racism in lacrosse is not a reason to shy away from lacrosse. Because whatever you do, there's going to be people chasing you down, there's gonna be people you're chasing that are dropping rocks on your head.”

Internationally, a lack of exposure for its native roots hampered the sport’s growth. But recently, deliberate attempts to increase international interest, like a slew of high-profile international lacrosse competitions including Israel’s 2018 World Lacrosse Championships and a push to bring the sport into the Olympic fold, have begun to change that. 

In mid-March, the PLL sent a men’s and women’s contingent to participate in a showcase in Japan. Montgomery and Costabile both represented the PLL at the event alongside Sowers and recount the immense appetite for the game and its sky-high international potential.

The Japanese players, according to Costabile, were technically brilliant and incredibly eager to learn and improve.

“We’re sitting there hanging out eating ramen, all just kind of talking, interacting with one another. And then one of the guys who I'm closer with basically asked the question, he wants to know what he and the [Japanese] team needs to work on to get to the next level. [The player says] ‘I don't want you to praise us. What do we need to do to get better?’”

“Just like a sponge,” Costabile said, “[he] just absorbed everything, just staring, listening very intently.”

All the games were well-attended and Japanese fans gifted the PLL players handmade origami and asked for photos, he said. They chased the bus as it left, shouting and cheering.

Costabile remembers it fondly. “You're leaving like you're the Beatles,” he said.

Lacrosse’s global potential is apparent, as is its potential to transcend socioeconomic barriers, expand beyond the Northeast and become a viable career path as it continues to grow.

“The gap is getting smaller, man,” Montgomery said.

The Creator’s game

For a game with rich roots in Native American history, rabid fandom at the college level and an abundance of world-class talent, it is perhaps a bit surprising that it has taken as long as it has for lacrosse to really ramp up.

The foundation and growth of the PLL has helped, and Duke products are serving an integral role in helping their teams achieve success and advertise the league to new markets.

Yet, in spite of the increased payday, full stadiums, TV deal with ESPN and trip to Japan the new professional landscape offers, one motivation undercuts all others.

“No one, I feel like, is really playing the game for the money. We’re playing it for the love of the game,” Smith said. “That's the motivation and the money is just a nice kind of bow on top.”

That’s the crux. Lacrosse is growing and thriving because people are learning to love watching and playing it as much as the pioneers who have worked their whole lives in service of the sport do. If the swarms of child fans, seas of PLL hats or origami gifts are any indication, the world is clearly catching on.

“It’s the Creator's game,” Montgomery said. “It's a freaking awesome sport.”

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Sports Editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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