- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Myles Jones was a typical sixth-grade athlete on Long Island who played football and basketball year-round. When a friend’s father suggested that Jones should try lacrosse, the young lad was like: “What’s that?”

Ten years later, Jones is one of the sport’s biggest stars. He owns the Duke  record for career points as a midfielder and has a year left to bolster it. He was a first-team All-American last season and won the MacLaughlin Award, which is given to the top midfielder. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 240 pounds, making him a strong, fast and athletic specimen more commonly found on football fields and basketball courts.

But it’s not enough that Jones discovered lacrosse and the sport opened doors for him.

He wants to ensure that other African-American kids are at least introduced to the game and perhaps give it a try.

To that end, Jones has become an ambassador of sorts. He was the star attraction at a youth lacrosse clinic in Brooklyn last month and at another one in Baltimore last week.

“I love telling kids my story about not even knowing what lacrosse is,” Jones said Tuesday by phone from campus, where he had just finished helping freshmen teammates move in. “Fast forward 11 years later, and lacrosse could be my job and I could make a really comfortable living doing it. I feel like it would be selfish to keep the secret to myself.

“I want to speak about it to other kids, especially kids who look like me.”

The Baltimore clinic was sponsored by Charm City Lacrosse, a non-profit organization that serves about 400 boys and girls between 5 and 14 years old. Executive director Artie Spruill said Jones rotated among five stations, interacting and working one-on-one with some of the 75 kids in attendance on a Wednesday morning.

“Just having Myles come out was momentous for our organization,” Spruill said by telephone. “Introducing a sport like lacrosse to inner-city youth has many challenges. Being able to highlight a player who’s tangible and highly recognizable — an African-American who’s not only playing lacrosse but making some headway — was great.”

Spruill, a Baltimore County native who played at Towson, met Jones in May when she and others from Charm City Lacrosse attended the Tewaaraton Award ceremony in Washington. Jones was a finalist for the award, college lacrosse’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. Spruill was with a couple of players from CCL, and they stood out like raisins in sugar.

Myles was doing autographs and taking pictures when he noticed us,” Spruill said. “We had an opportunity to speak with him and his dad and they were intrigued with the organization. A month or two later, Myles‘ dad reached out and said they wanted to get involved and put on a clinic.”

Jones has played with several teammates from Baltimore who fit the prototypical profile for lacrosse players, coming from privileged backgrounds and private schools. Last week marked Jones‘ first visit to the other side — the inner city. He enjoyed connecting with kids from that demographic and was overwhelmed by the number of parents who thanked him over and over for showing up.

The instruction those kids received in a few hours was no more important than the inspiration he gave them. His tips on passing and shooting might help improve their game, but they definitely gained a vision of unforeseen possibilities beyond dunks and touchdowns.

And lacrosse is positioning itself to punch an increasing number of tickets.

According to a survey by governing body US Lacrosse, 99 colleges added varsity programs between 2013 and 2014. Participants in lacrosse nationally have tripled to more than 770,000 over the past 14 years, and 55 percent of players are under age 15. The sport also is expanding beyond its traditional base on the East Coast; last season, Denver became the first school west of the Appalachians to win the Division I men’s title.

“A lot of kids coming from rough areas think football and basketball are the way out,” Jones said. “But lacrosse can be a very good ticket to college. If you’re athletic and pick up things quickly, coaches will look at you.

“I didn’t have the best stick skills growing up, but I was athletic, tall and strong — things you can’t teach. A lot of athletes in the inner city have that and lacrosse could be that opportunity for them.”

It has worked out great for Jones. He spent the summer in Oregon as a sports marketing intern with Nike. Next season, he and the Blue Devils will shoot for their third title in four years, and he’ll be a top contender for additional national honors, including the Tewaaraton. After graduation, he’ll have a Duke degree and plenty of options to remain connected to the sport, which is his plan.

“When I leave college, if I can make lacrosse bigger than it is, then my job is done,” Jones said.

Then he can sit back and perhaps watch a kid from Charm City eventually pick up the torch.

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