The U.S. Naval Academy has played men's lacrosse since 1908 and won 17 national championships — including eight in a row at one point. When the Midshipmen open their 104th season on Saturday, they'll be led by Rick Sowell, who in June became the program's eighth coach.
If Sowell gets double takes, it's something that's both understandable and not uncommon. He's an African American in a sport that's overwhelmingly made up of white players and coaches. But he's exceptional at his job and has been so for a long time; he wouldn't be Navy's head coach otherwise.
A few days after he accepted Navy's offer, the enormity hit Sowell as visited the program's Hall of Fame in the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "It is a big deal," Sowell told the Washington Times. "I probably underestimated that a little bit coming into it, though I knew what I was getting myself into, no doubt.
"But I didn't realize until I got here quite the magnitude," he said. "Honestly, it was one of the lures of why I wanted to be here, because for the first time, I'm taking over a program that has a lot of tradition. There was something intriguing about that."
Sports can open many doors, and that's what lacrosse has done for Sowell since he began playing as a high school freshman in upstate New York. He went on to Washington College, where he was named the 1985 Division III Midfielder of the Year and a two-time All-America. "Watching Ricky Sowell play was so very exciting," administrator Judie Barroll told the Washington College News. "He was like the LeBron James of lacrosse!"
He graduated in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in history and spent five years with the Baltimore Thunder of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, earning all-pro honors three times. His highly successful career as a head coach included stops at Dartmouth, St. John's and Stony Brook before he landed at Navy.
Even though NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown was arguably a better lacrosse player at Syracuse University in the 1950s — and Morgan State fielded the first and only black college lacrosse team in the 1970s — the sport continues to fly under the radar for most African Americans.
In 2009-10, less than 10 percent of the student-athletes playing NCAA lacrosse were black, according to the most recent NCAA Student-Athlete Race/Ethnicity Report. That statistic carries over to both men's and women's lacrosse in Divisions I, II and III. Former NCAA Player of the Year and Johns Hopkins alum Kyle Harrison, along with University of Virginia graduates John Christmas and Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, are among the most prominent black stars lacrosse has produced. They're working to introduce and promote their sport within black communities.
"[Lacrosse] isn't your ticket to making millions from signing a contract," former Brown University star Chazz Woodson told the college newspaper. "Lacrosse isn't the same thing (as the NBA and NFL). Lacrosse can be a ticket to college and a ticket to making money, but the avenues are different."
The sport worked well for Woodson and Sowell and other African Americans. But it can work for many, many more, as well.