By Andrew Hongo, NBC News
HARTFORD, Conn. -- On the bright green lacrosse fields of Trinity College, dozens of middle-school players ran back and forth clutching shiny, new lacrosse sticks. Their parents cheered for goals from the sidelines, and groaned at near-misses. Against a backdrop of blue skies and falling leaves, it made for an idyllic New England scene.
But this was no prep school lacrosse league; it was the inaugural scrimmage for Inner City Lacrosse (ICL), a non-profit that brings volunteer coaches from Yale and Trinity’s lacrosse teams together with more than 50 boys and girls from New Haven and Hartford, almost all from public schools that don’t offer the sport.
“Scoring a goal in lacrosse is exciting,” said ICL program founder Michael Gary, who grew up in New Haven’s projects. “But scoring well on an exam is most important and equally exciting. I hope they can understand the importance of doing well academically in the classroom.”
During their seven weekly practices, kids learn more than just lacrosse basics; Gary hopes bonds with student athletes from elite colleges will encourage the young players to pursue academic excellence of their own.
When asked to describe her coach, 18-year-old Yale varsity midfielder Nicole Daniggelis, Kobi struggled to find the right words.
“All I can say is, ‘Wow!’” said Kobi. “Not only is she an amazing lacrosse player, she’s also a really good friend.”
Kobi added Daniggelis is “also very good at academics. I can tell because her vocabulary is extraordinary.”
From Daniggelis’ side, the admiration was mutual.
“Kobi is such a great kid,” said Daniggelis. She continued, “She just has such a great attitude, 100 percent focus all the time, and her enthusiasm is amazing. She brings the program up so much by her enthusiasm, getting all the other kids involved and wanting to play just as hard as her, like she does every play.”
An ‘elite’ sport becomes more diverse
Though lacrosse has a reputation as an elite sport, the National Federation of State High School Associations says it’s been the fastest growing team sport in the nation over the past five years.
Gary said one of the goals of ICL (which is free of charge) is to bring more diversity to a cost-prohibitive sport. (Basic gear—pads, sticks, pennies, gloves, and helmets for the boys—can cost hundreds of dollars; Gary arranged for the equipment to be donated to the program.)
“You don’t find it as readily in the inner city,” Gary said. “So giving these kids an opportunity to play the sport, hopefully, you will see more kids of color playing the sport of lacrosse.”
Gary himself was once a kid without much opportunity. He grew up the youngest of six to a single mom in the Ashman Street Projects -- just steps away from Yale University, in a neighborhood he described as “the section where they told the Yale students not to go.”
But Gary’s world changed when at age 13, he began participating in the U.S. Grant Foundation, which gave him a chance to be mentored by Yale students. He learned about math, he learned about literature, and for the first time he learned about boarding schools.
“I was saying to myself, ‘Wow. If I can leave New Haven and be a part of that environment that will be absolutely remarkable,’” said Gary.
He ended up attending boarding school at Pomfret and then college at Trinity. Gary ultimately chose academia as a career and has been an admissions officer for 23 years -- 10 of them at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, where he now serves as Director of Admissions.
More than a coach
As Kobi chatted with her friends during their pre-game warm-ups, they displayed all the signs of hero worship. They talked about how tall coach Daniggelis is, how good at lacrosse she is, and at one point they even tried to imitate a trick Daniggelis does, where she bounces her lacrosse stick off the ground then catches it.Daniggelis was ever-patient, and always positive throughout the game: reminding the girls of the proper scooping technique, demonstrating how to cradle the ball and shoot, and at one point tying Kobi’s shoelaces when her gloves proved an impediment.
“To be a part of this program is really something special because it’s taught me how to give back to a community that I’m new to,” said Daniggelis. “And I find that really rewarding.”
When the game-ending whistle blew -- no one seemed to care much about the final score. The girls huddled for one final cheer, then lined up in rows for a team picture with their coaches. Proud moms counted to three, capturing memories that would last them until next season.
The large group disbanded, and Kobi and Nicole posed for a picture, just the two of them, arms around each other, Kobi in her black and white striped leggings holding a pink lacrosse stick, Daniggelis in a white knit sweater with a big, blue “Y” on the front.
Gary stressed that the program, ultimately, isn’t only about athletics, or even academics. It’s about something more—something he experienced all those years ago as a little boy being tutored by Yale students.
“The attention I was getting and working with college students…it just made me feel really valued,” he said.
His wife, Trina Gary, who has been his ICL partner since day one, echoed the same sentiment when reflecting on the past season.
“I think everybody learns in these situations when they give of themselves and put themselves into situations to help others,” she said. “To realize that we all need help, we all need someone there. We all need someone to say, ‘I see you. You matter.’”