When Kyle Harrison walked onto the field for the kickoff weekend of the Charm City Youth Lacrosse League in Baltimore this past spring, he was amazed to see hundreds of parents and their children who had turned out for the event to learn how to play lacrosse.
Harrison, 35, is a decorated lacrosse player with 14 years of professional experience. He's won a Major League Lacrosse title, played for the United States men's lacrosse team and won an NCAA championship at Johns Hopkins University. He could have started coaching the kids right away, passing along his boundless knowledge of the game.
Instead, he stood back and marveled at the enthusiasm of hundreds of elementary and middle school children from across Baltimore City as they were fitted for their helmets and pads and started picking up the basic elements of the game Harrison has played since he was 3 years old.
"For me, that opening weekend really made me feel good about being a part of Charm City and excited about the future," Harrison said. "I get there … and there are 700 people running around and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, this was not what I expected to walk into.'"
Just weeks prior, Harrison had been named the CEO and president of the Charm City Youth Lacrosse League, a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by former Maryland attorney general Doug Gansler to expose Baltimore City children to the sport, which is played predominantly by white players.
According to the NCAA's student-athlete data for the 2016-17 school year, 84.1 percent of the 6,700 male and female Division I NCAA lacrosse players were white. Black players made up 3 percent of men and 2.7 percent of women. Factors like the high cost of equipment and a lack of adequate playing fields in urban areas have contributed to this discrepancy.
"If you look at Baltimore, it's played at all the private schools that surround Baltimore City, but there was never access to lacrosse for inner-city Baltimore … particularly African-American students and kids that live in the city," Gansler said.
Being able to give back to the community where he was raised and help minority athletes succeed was a no-brainer, Harrison said. He has served as a board member of the league since 2016.
"This sport has provided every opportunity for me," he said. "And obviously being a black kid from Baltimore, an organization that is charged with getting more minority players involved in the sport is something I am going to be drawn to."
Harrison was born in Baltimore and played high school lacrosse at Friends School (Md.) before playing at Hopkins and winning the Tewaaraton Award as a senior in 2005. Growing up, he never considered that lacrosse was a mostly white-dominated sport because his father had played, he said.
"In my head, black people played lacrosse because the guy that I looked at every day ... played and he was black," he said. "It took a little while for me to wrap my head around that that wasn't the case."
Harrison's father, Dr. Miles Harrison, was a part of the "Ten Bears" lacrosse team at Morgan State in the 1970s, the first all-black lacrosse team in the country.
Miles Harrison previously served as CCYLL's board president and is still a board member today.
Kyle Harrison was often the only black player on his youth and high school teams, but he knew he was starting to impact other young minority lacrosse players when some showed up at his games or wrote him letters telling him they were inspired by his play.
"As I became a pro … being one of the lead voices in the conversation for inclusion and diversity in the sport is something I'm proud of and something I don't take lightly," he said.
In addition to exposure to lacrosse, Harrison said he wants to provide CCYLL athletes with education and mentoring opportunities.
In past years, prominent local figures like U.S. congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and former Baltimore Ravens tight end Ed Dickson have come to speak at CCYLL clinics -- and more speakers will be coming this year, Gansler said.
In 2018, 700 children ages 5 to 14 participated in the league, CCYLL executive director Artie West said. Fewer than 100 boys signed up for weekend clinics during CCYLL's first year. A girls' program was soon created, and fall clinics and travel teams have also been added as the league has grown.
CCYLL launched a program in October for athletes to attend college practices at Goucher College, UMBC and Towson University. The league has successfully placed several players at prominent private schools with renowned lacrosse programs, including Boys' Latin School of Maryland, Gilman School and Concordia Prep. The league is also working to place girls in high school programs, West said.
Harrison shares the same vision.
"We're looking to do really big things to [help kids] make elite club teams because now we've got high-level players," Harrison said. "I hope when I'm 50 and we're having these conversations, that's not really a conversation anymore about getting black kids involved in the sport, it's just that they play."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Charm City Youth Lacrosse League
Issue 248: October 2018
Originally published Oct. 15, 2018