This year marks the 25th anniversary of USA Lacrosse. To celebrate, we’re revisiting some of our favorite magazine stories of the USA Lacrosse era on the 25th of each month. This story ran in the September 2014 issue of the magazine.
YES, CANADA DEFEATED THE U.S. on American soil.
But the enduring legacy of the 2014 world lacrosse championship — USA Lacrosse hosted 38 nations, a record at the time — was that for the first time ever a team from Africa competed on the international stage.
Proud athletes who left behind the Nakawa slums and brought with them stories of overcoming disease and war in their homeland, the Ugandans were the darlings of Denver. It turned out, we needed Uganda more than Uganda needed us.
Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda also now have lacrosse governing bodies, part of a ballooning World Lacrosse membership now nearing 80 nations on six continents and fully recognized by the International Olympic Committee.
This story won a Folio: Eddie Award honorable mention for Best Single Article in the association/non-profit category.
THE UGANDANS ARE LATE FOR LUNCH. It’s 11:45 a.m. as they saunter downstairs to the cafeteria at the University of Denver’s Centennial Hall for an 11 a.m. meal.
“That’s African time,” Aimee Dixon says.
Dixon, an associate director for Fields of Growth International, spent the last year raising money, lobbying governments and crashing on friends’ couches to get these 18 men here for this day — their debut as the first African nation in the world lacrosse championship.
What they lack in punctuality, they make up for in affection and gratitude. Despite numerous hurdles in Uganda’s “Dream 2014” campaign, it’s been nothing but love since they landed in Denver.
Stephanie Weber, a local woman who never heard of lacrosse but saw Uganda on the news, delivers 25 bagged lunches she made for the team — a spread of sandwiches, watermelons, trail mix, apples, bananas, chips, water and Gatorade.
Captain Patrick “Pato” Oriana stands up from the table to accept the meal on the team’s behalf. His teammates follow in unison. “Asante sana,” they chant.
It’s Swahili for, “Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome,” she replies. “Play well. Be strong.”
After Ryan Mugisa says grace, Kevin Dugan reminds the players that certain foods must be refrigerated if they want to save them for later. “It’s not Uganda drinking yogurt,” he says.
Dugan did not have a national team in mind when he first brought lacrosse to Uganda in 2009. He played at Notre Dame, graduating in 2001, and was an up-and-coming college coach at another Jesuit institution, Scranton. He helped build libraries and worked in schools on service trips to third-world countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Ecuador.
But it wasn’t until Dugan visited Uganda, the East African country Winston Churchill once called “the pearl of Africa,” that he decided to make this his life’s work. He remembers Nikibira Fort, an 8-year-old whose father had AIDS and whose mother was HIV-positive, nearly falling over in laughter the first time she played with a lacrosse stick in Uganda’s rural Kkindu village.
Dugan founded Fields of Growth in May 2009 and built a lacrosse compound in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. He established a volunteer corps that brought American stars like Rob Pannell, Tom Schreiber, Chad Wiedmaier, Ryan Flanagan and John Christmas overseas not only to teach lacrosse, but also to help construct a school in Kkindu. Nearly 100 volunteers have completed Fields of Growth missions — which include farming, landscaping, brick making, digging and village outreach.
After lunch, Dugan addresses the team. He recently had returned from an FIL general assembly meeting.
“I want you guys to know how excited they are to have 38 countries here representing six continents in the world. Only one country was able to take it from five to six continents. That is you, Uganda, representing the continent of Africa,” Dugan says.
Dugan’s speech turns toward Uganda’s first opponent, Ireland, a team with many U.S.-born players.
“It is going to test your brotherhood. It is going to test your spirit and mental toughness,” he says. “And it’s also going to test your pride. You are talented athletes. You are proud men. You are proud Ugandans. As friends of yours, as brothers and sisters of yours, we want to see effort and a team spirit that won’t break.”
UGANDA HAS BECOME THE DARLING of Denver, the envy of every selfie-seeking fan and player. The team will receive a raucous ovation just walking in the stands at the U.S.-Iroquois game.
Getting here was not easy.
Dixon had to raise enough money (about $150,000) to show the Ugandan and U.S. governments Fields of Growth could cover the cost to bring the players home. Defection is a real concern, especially after the 2012 Olympics in London. More than a dozen African athletes went missing there.
“We’ve been sleeping in the hallways, taking our mattresses out and putting them in front of all the doors,” Dugan says. “They let us know, “We want to go back and be ambassadors for lacrosse.’”
It took some political maneuvering by U.S. Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, a former player at Maryland, and an 11th-hour visit to the U.S. embassy in Kampala by coach Andrew Boston to convince the government to issue visas. Boston, the former Delaware player who worked in northern Uganda for two years with the Peace Corps, traveled 12 hours overnight on a hot 15-passenger taxi to plead the team’s case.
Strained relations between the U.S. and Uganda over an anti-gay law signed by the president of Uganda in February added complexity to the proceedings. (A Ugandan court later declared the legislation unconstitutional.)
Some players were pressured by friends and family to get paid.
“Some don’t have money to pay for their own meals,” Dixon says. “Why would they pay money to get to a practice? Sometimes you question their commitment, but, lacrosse, is not for survival.”
Castro David Onen and Keneth Keith “Lubes” Lubangakene know about survival. They are among the eight players from the northern region of Uganda, where the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped, brainwashed and enlisted children as soldiers in the 1990s and 2000s.
Onen, one of four children, fled the Kitgum District when he was 15, after his father died fighting the LRA. The family found refuge with an uncle in Kampala. He became a baker.
Lubes grew up in Gulu and also left the North with his family to escape the terror of the LRA. Fleeing in the night, they were discovered by LRA soldiers and scattered in the jungle to hide. Only in recent years did he reunite with his mother.
Before the team boards a chartered bus for its first game, Lubes, the dreadlocked DJ with an infectious smile, turns to Onen with a bold prediction.
“You are going to be the first to score the goal,” Lubes says, “because I trust you.”
THE 16-MILE BUS RIDE to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park feels longer with traffic. The players marvel at the infrastructure, compared to the dusty, pot-holed roads neglected for decades in Uganda.
Dixon talks about new experiences for the players, like boarding a plane for the first time, drinking from a fountain (typhoid is prevalent in Uganda) and shopping at Old Navy to buy khakis for opening ceremonies.
The bus driver plays country music on the speakers overhead.
It’s “Free,” by Zac Brown Band.
Just as free
Free as we’ll ever be...
No we don’t have a lot of money
All we need is love
The lyrics are lost on the guys. They’re on sensory overload.
Each player is outfitted completely with equipment and apparel by Warrior Sports. They’re in awe. Just three years ago, when the first shipment of lacrosse equipment arrived in Kampala at the Fields of Growth compound, some players did not know what went where. They grabbed girls’ sticks and put elbow pads on their knees.
Dixon says Team Uganda has enjoyed “a different cultural experience of humanity” in the U.S.
“These guys don’t have national pride. They have village and tribal pride. For the first time, they’re proud to be Ugandan. They are the ambassadors,” she says.
The players stir as the stadium comes within sight.
“Wakey wakey!” one shouts.
For the next nine days, what started as a simple wakeup call for the Cranes (a nickname adopted from Uganda’s soccer team) during training camp becomes a universally beloved phrase. Other countries repeat it when they walk by Uganda. Stephanie Weber, the woman who never saw lacrosse before, puts it on a poster and uses it to cheer on the team with her son, Bryton.
Uganda suits up in a makeshift locker room under a tent. Gravel crunches beneath their feet. Faisal Nsubuga loses a ball trying to cradle it across his body. An announcement breaks his concentration.
Boston calls it “Ugandlish,” the simple English phrases made elegant by the Ugandans. “Short call,” means a quick trip to the bathroom for relief. (You can guess what “long call” means.)
Boston sees the fans outside. He orders the players to line up in single file and slaps hands with each of them as they pass. “Today is for Africa,” he says each time.
After short call, Pato muses about spreading the game in Uganda. He’s close to completing his degree at MUBS (Makerere University Business School), where he studies business and nutrition.
“There is a little rugby in lacrosse, the physicality,” he says. “The most exciting thing about lacrosse is the friends, the family. At the dorms, you see kids coming to practice with their parents. That rarely happens in Uganda, that parents give their full support.”
Pato is 26. He is from eastern Uganda. Asked if he has any family — a loaded question considering Uganda’s violent past and current struggle with poverty and disease — he glances toward the ground.
“No,” he says. “No I don’t.”
And he leaves it at that.
“Sports has the ability to unite people,” Pato says, the conversation swinging back to lacrosse. “Most of us come from different tribes and speak different languages. Lacrosse gives us a chance to bond.”
The team regroups in the tent. Boston stands in the middle.
“We’ve conducted ourselves as ambassadors for Uganda, as ambassadors for Africa. And today, we take the next step. We play our first game,” he says. “Think about the days we were out there at MUBS. Some of you sacrificed jobs, time with your families, Saturday nights out with friends. Everyone has given up something. Show them you come from the toughest place, and that it makes the toughest men.”
Outside the tent, a familiar refrain: “Wakey wakey.”
Uganda’s procession to Field 8 includes crossing paths with Israel, a fellow first-time participant that just defeated Sweden. Like Ireland, Israel has many American-born players, but 12 of the team’s 23 players now live in the country in the middle of a bloody conflict with Palestinian militants in Gaza. The two teams have struck something of a kinship.
“Behatslacha,” one Israeli player says. It’s Hebrew for, “Good luck.”
IT’S 17-0 IN THE THIRD QUARTER, and yet the fans remain — perhaps a few hundred in the grandstands.
Three years ago, Onen scored the first goal in the first game on African soil, playing for the Panthers in the 2011 King’s Cup. To hear the Ugandan team general manager Tyler Steinhardt describe it, some 3,000 fans at MUBS stormed the field.
At the 4:43 mark, Onen makes history again. He sprints from behind the cage, splits to his right, beats his defender, dives in front of the goalie and scores before landing — the first goal by an African lacrosse player in the world championship.
“I scored the first goal in Africa. I’m very glad to come to America, another continent, in the world games of lacrosse, and to score again the first goal,” Onen says later. “It’s a moment I will remember for a long time.”
Everyone on the field celebrates like they just won the World Cup. Onen runs to the stands and throws both arms in the air while acknowledging the crowd. His teammates join him in the jubilee.
Dugan calls it the most beautiful goal he has ever seen in his life.
OMINOUS CLOUDS HANG OVERHEAD. It’s a familiar sight this week, with six straight days of weather delays. Rain and then hail pelts the ground as spectators scramble for cover.
A handheld radio crackles.
Psht. Clear the field. We’re in red. Psht.
The players retreat in laughter. Fans follow them into a men’s room on the west concourse.
Inside, Onen does not seem at all concerened that he quit his job to play for Uganda.
“In case of anything, I can pick up and finish my school,” he says. “If nothing, I hope to spread the word of lacrosse in Africa.”
Lubes can’t help but think about his best friend and roommate back home, “Bobo.” He would be amazed by all of this — the game, the crazy weather, the adulation.
Fred “Bokech” Okello was kidnapped as a child from his garden in Gulu and forced to become a soldier in the LRA at age 14. He killed government soldiers and seized their weapons, both of which increased your rank in the LRA, out of self-protection.
“The rebels can kill you at any time,” Bokech says in “Kandote,” a documentary on the team that premiered July 16 in Denver.
Bokech managed to flee once, but was recaptured. At age 19, Bokech escaped for good during a firefight with the Ugandan army in the jungle. He eventually found his extended family in Kampala.
Lubes and Bokech live together in a Kampala slum. Sometimes Lubes wakes up to hear Bokech screaming from nightmares.
Lubes recruited Bokech to play lacrosse. “He told me, ‘If you play lacrosse well, it might take you somewhere,’” Bokech says.
But Bokech in recent months would disappear for days at a time. He was cut from the team.
“I miss him. It’s something like 10 years I’ve been with him. I want him to be here. But this is for the game, until I get back, and then I will see him,” Lubes says in a voice that’s hard to hear above the drone of thunder and hail. “Right now he has some problems with his mind.”
Defenseman Ronald Otim spent the night with Bokech when he was cut. Otim, who was born in Kitgum, has no immediate family. His father was killed in an LRA raid. His sister, who had malaria, fainted and drowned while washing clothes by a stream. His mother died of HIV.
Otim sympathizes with Bokech.
“He confided in me,” Otim says in the film. “I was with him the whole night. He cried. I told him, ‘Yes, cry. Relieve that pain. Then we start again.’”
AFTER MORE THAN AN HOUR huddled in the bathroom, word arrives from FIL officials that the game has been called off due to the weather. Officially, it’s in the books as a 17-1 loss for Uganda.
But a sense of triumph pervades the group.
“We are working hard for Uganda and for Africa,” Onen says. “We have a lot of support here.”
Three days later, Uganda erases a five-goal deficit, scoring the final six goals of a game against the Republic of Korea to earn its first-ever world championship win in dramatic fashion. Pato, the captain, scores the game-winning goal off a faceoff with 36 seconds left to lift Uganda to a 10-9 victory.
“When he pulled back I knew it was going in. It’s a thing of fate,” Boston says. “I’m not the most religious man, but sometimes you have to believe. It was meant to be for these guys. “
It was meant to be for Uganda. It was meant to be for Africa.
We made history together. Let’s ignite our future. Together.