Representation matters. Colleges across the country will be starting their season this month and the PLL announced its 2023 schedule at the start of the year. Both events are met with excitement from players and young fans alike.
Young boys and girls will be watching the games in person, on their phones, and on their televisions this spring. They will marvel at the talent on the field and dream of being like their favorite players one day. Do the players they hope to emulate look like them? For players of color, this at times can be a challenge.
Jules Heningburg is looking to change that with Boost Camp. He teamed up with the Nations Lacrosse Club to provide minority lacrosse players a chance to come together to train, learn, and be mentored by professional lacrosse players of color.
Growing up in Maplewood, N.J., Jules had difficulty finding college players who looked and played like him.
“There weren’t a ton of attackmen who were players of color. That speaks to sort of the issue at hand. Which is your attackmen are your smartest players and players who have the most skill. Your attackmen are your quarterbacks, they’re the guys that are your decision-makers. You didn’t see a lot of black players who are playing attack.
I had Johnny Christmas and Chazz Woodson for me when I was growing up, but Johnny Christmas played before I was watching college lacrosse, and Chazz Woodson was at Brown and wasn’t on TV a ton. I wasn’t a midfielder. So, I wasn’t looking at Kyle (Harrison). That wasn’t my style of play and who I wanted to be. But I did have people locally that were mentors for me that were players of color. So I had a kind of an unique experience.“
Heningburg would go on to play high school lacrosse at Seton Hall Preparatory and played college lacrosse at Rutgers. In college, he was a dynamic attackman and was a 2x First Team All-Big Ten selection and a 2x All-American. He was drafted by the Florida Launch in the 2018 MLL draft seventh overall and has played with the Redwood LC since 2019.
Origin of Boost Camp Lacrosse
Informed by his experience growing up and the events surrounding George Floyd’s murder and protests in 2020, Jules wanted to do something more for young players of color.
“Three years ago, when everything was happening with George Floyd across the country there was a national movement towards what can we do to improve the situation of diversity that’s happening across the country in so many different environments and industries.
Lacrosse is one of the few spaces that still lacks diversity. Why is that? Was it a lack of opportunity? Is it because players don’t want to play? What’s the real reason behind that? And the more that I started to look at it, the more that I kept asking questions about it.”
Heningburg partnered with Thomas Stallworth, Executive Director of Operations with Nation’s United Lacrosse Club to start Boost Camp. According to their website, Nation United is a minority-owned and operated organization dedicated to increasing diversity in sports through elite-level competition, team building, and community service. Heningburg shared with me his pitch to Stallworth on how Boost Camp could benefit its players.
“I was like, look, a lot of what you guys are doing is great, but a lot of these players are going to the next level, in terms of college, and I don’t think that they’re fulfilling their potential. And it’s something that we can try to solve.
I came up with the concept of Boot Camp with (Tommy). The first year’s focus was on college players. Giving them an opportunity where they can be mentored by pros, in a space where they can learn from us. We can take some things that we knew were helpful for us. Knowing that again, at the end of the day, getting some of these guys to the PLL or NLL to play professionally. It’s important, that’s going to create more representation at the highest level, and more visibility, especially as lacrosse continues to take off in terms of media.“
Playing the Game the Right Way
One of the focuses of Boost Camp is to help players increase their “lacrosse IQ.” The game is growing beyond the traditional hotbeds of Baltimore and Long Island, where many players are known for having strong “lacrosse IQs.” Boost Camps work to fill in some of those gaps as those players transition to the college game.
“It’s not only players of color and minority players, it’s everyone. Lacrosse is growing. The people who know the game at the highest level, their ability to coach and teach the game is continuing to spread through social media, TV, and different mediums. Prior to that being the case, it’s almost as if the way to play the ‘right way’ was safeguarded by specific prep schools and colleges, and a lot of those coaches were located in and around Long Island or Baltimore. Not for any reason in particular, but the game just is not widespread with enough high level coaches.
There are lot of these players that come from different backgrounds, different areas, who are not getting the same level of coaching. Oftentimes, what they do possess is athleticism. Guys can “play” lacrosse, find enough success to make plays and get recruited, but when you get to college, it’s a huge jump. If you don’t understand how to play the game, it doesn’t matter how athletic you are. It’s not one of those sports where your athleticism can take you above and beyond anyone else. There’s too much nuance to the game.
There are a lot of these players playing high school who are getting a lot of notoriety and who are playing at a high level. They would go to college and they would come back and say like, you know, I’m not getting time or being put at d-middie. Whatever the case might be, the reality is they’re not learning the game.“
In the PLL tweet at the start of this story, it mentioned how some players will play lacrosse in college and leave with regretful experiences and unrealized potential. I asked Heningburg to dig deeper into what that means and how Boost Camp could address those feelings.
“We want to focus on the development piece, but we also want to work on their experiences. It’s not every player, but it has been a theme, with a lot of the guys we’ve spoken to. A lot of guys have great experiences. At the end of the day, it’s not a cookie-cutter issue. But we’ve seen guys who do go to school when they have to wrestle with their experiences. It’s a combination of not becoming the player that they know they could have been and not enjoying their time as a teammate in the locker room.
Those are all things that we’re passionate about with these guys. We want them to have great experiences, and then some of them to continue to get better and get to the highest level. We could have another Kyle Harrison coming up. Think about how many guys Kyle inspired across the country in lacrosse. And imagine if we had five of those at the same time. That could change the game.“
The PLL Difference
I have no doubt that Jules Heningburg is inspiring young fans at home today. There are a number of players of color in the PLL today that young fans can look up to. Lyle Thompson, Myles Jones, Trevor Baptiste, Ty Warner, and JT Giles-Harris are a few. I asked Heningburg about how the PLL helps to foster and promote diversity.
“It’s definitely a priority for the PLL. Having diversity, specifically with Native Americans, and highlighting the game in a way that can really alter the perception of lacrosse as a quote, unquote, white prep school culture sport. Which, again, I don’t consider that to be like, quote, unquote, bad.
I was fortunate enough to attend a prep school my last two years of high school and had a tremendous experience. But that isn’t the only space and way the game can be played and enjoyed.
I just think that it’s limiting for inclusivity and expanding the base of players and access to the game and the fan base.
For the PLL, it starts with getting people to understand that this is a Native American sport, and that its roots are based in Native American culture is really important. From there, what they’ve done is they’ve definitely supported: 1) Black Lacrosse Alliance from it’s inception and 2) They support diversity initiatives in the PLL specifically with PLL Assists partners. Finally, they do a great job of trying to highlight and promote those programs, which, back to my point earlier, if no one knows about it, if it isn’t being spread on social media, it’s not happening.“
One of the biggest areas that the PLL has also supported is by giving their players the space and the opportunity to go out and champion issues that they are close to.
“I think that at the end of the day, the PLL can only do so much, right, they do a lot of different things. Which is why someone like myself can have the space to be like, okay, like, how can I help? I know the PLL views the number of black coaches in the league and the number of black players as a number that they want to continue to grow if they really want to make lacrosse a mainstream sport. That’s what we’re aiming to do is create more avenues for young black players and players of color, minority players, to get to the pro league and continue to highlight the game in a way that isn’t normally shown. I appreciate the PLL getting behind that and prioritizing it.“