This article appears in the September/October edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Join our momentum and have USA Lacrosse Magazine delivered right to your mailbox.
Kyle Harrison paused after warmups at Homewood Field when he saw a familiar face near the fence bordering the turf. Standing there was Cornell Willis aka @HopkinsLaxPhan, who has attended Johns Hopkins lacrosse games at the historic venue for more than 35 years. Willis held a white sign with black block lettering.
“Thank you to the greatest,” the sign said. “Kyle Harrison.”
“My man,” Harrison said as they hugged. “Appreciate you all these years.”
Leading up to the Redwoods-Chaos game, part of the Premier Lacrosse League’s Week 3 lineup in Baltimore, the lacrosse community voiced its appreciation for Harrison, whose contributions to the game you would be hard pressed to fully quantify. Though the entire summer served as a de facto farewell tour after Harrison announced his 17th season would be his last playing professional lacrosse, most fans circled June 26 on their calendars.
Homewood was where Harrison, a Baltimore native who attended The Friends School a short drive down Charles Street, first unleashed his signature split-dodge-to-jump-shot combination. Where he spent at least a half hour after every game signing autographs. Where he laid the foundation for a pioneering career as a pro lacrosse player. Where, before this summer, he held a 36-0 record.
“This was the place where it all started,” said Dr. Miles Harrison, Kyle’s father and a member of the iconic Morgan State “Ten Bears” team of the 1970s.
Kyle Harrison won a high school championship at Homewood, but one of his most vivid early memories was his first collegiate game there on March 2, 2002.
“I was absolutely terrified,” Harrison said. “My parents were talking to me all week trying to calm me down.”
When Harrison arrived at Hopkins, he had no expectation that he was going to play, let alone secure a spot on the starting midfield and take the opening faceoff against Princeton. Everyone he knew was there. Nerves crescendoed in his chest like the Blue Jays’ pep band playing “To Win.” But when the whistle blew, his anxiety evaporated.
“I remember just feeling like I belonged there immediately,” Harrison said.
Then-Hopkins offensive coordinator Seth Tierney, who first recruited Harrison out of Friends, instilled a confidence in him early on.
“You go to the goal, and if nobody comes you keep going,” Tierney would tell him. “The first option on every play that we run is to get to the bucket.”
Harrison followed the instructions after winning the faceoff. He split from his left to his right like an Allen Iverson crossover and let one rip.
“It was not the best shot,” Harrison said. “It was like a sidearm low bounce shot that went in stick-side low. I’m not really a big celebrator after goals, but I remember that goal specifically jumping up and down screaming. It was such a perfect moment for me and my family. Everybody has a little different rendition of the story, but it was special for us, man.
“I remember it like yesterday.”
MEANING IN EVERY MOMENT
Nineteen years later, you didn’t need to look far to recall Harrison’s collegiate career that culminated in 2005 with the Blue Jays’ first NCAA championship since 1987. Emblems of Harrison’s impact were everywhere on this sweltering Saturday in Baltimore, like the No. 18 Redwoods jersey worn by his mother, Wanda, along with countless others who spanned generations. As Harrison warmed up, the sign listing national championship years loomed over him from the top of the metal bleachers.
“I just want to take a moment to thank Kyle for everything he’s done on this field,” Tierney, now the PLL’s head of competition along with his roles as head coach at Hofstra and an assistant for the U.S. national team, said on the public address system.
After the starting lineups were introduced, the cameras zoomed in on Harrison. The capacity crowd rose to its feet.
“It was almost surreal,” Dr. Harrison said of the reception.
The applause drowned out the traffic on University Parkway after the announcer listed Harrison’s litany of accomplishments. An eight-time pro All-Star. A three-time All-American and two-time national midfielder of the year. The first (and only) Black Tewaaraton Award winner.
“His impact on the sport is immeasurable,” said PLL analyst Ryan Boyle, who competed against Harrison in college and played with him on the U.S. team in 2006. “He’s a living legend, an icon, an ambassador. Everything he has done to give back to the community — words can’t really describe his impact over the past 17 years.”
Maybe pictures can. Although Harrison has tallied nearly 150 goals in his pro career between Major League Lacrosse and the PLL, not to mention his five-year stint with the first of its kind LXM Pro Tour, he’s undoubtedly led all outdoor pro leagues in pictures taken and autographs signed. When the Redwoods Twitter account asked on June 22 for fans’ favorite “Kyle Harrison moment ever,” most described experiences off the field instead of some highlight reel goal. For the player who always seemed to pick the perfect moment to announce his presence on the field or speak up in the locker room, those little interactions spoke louder than any final stat line.
“I am extremely cognizant and want to make sure I speak to everyone that speaks to me,” Harrison said. “Not just throw up a peace sign and keep it moving, but an actual meaningful interaction.”
Harrison knows what it’s like to be on the other side. In high school, his favorite player was AJ Haugen, a three-time first-team All-American and hard-dodging midfielder at Hopkins. The handshake, smile and “hello” he’d get from Haugen after games meant the world to him. At Harrison’s first tryout with the U.S. national team, he roomed with Haugen. Around the same time, Romar Dennis’ desktop background displayed a screenshot of Harrison unleashing his signature jump shot against Duke in the 2005 NCAA championship game. Every time Dennis, a Loyola alum and midfielder for the Atlas, has played against Harrison in the pros, he has made it a point to take a picture with him.
“As I was approaching middle school, I would get to a tournament and there would be hundreds of kids,” Dennis said during a 2019 interview with the PLL. “You look out there, and you wouldn’t really see any brown legs running around. To see him not only being a contributing player on Hopkins, but to be their best player and the best player in the country, was awesome from a role model standpoint. It showed me that minorities do have a place in this sport.”
He’s not alone. Standing on the sidelines during his first pro game against Harrison on June 30, 2016, in Ohio, Myles Jones struggled to contain his excitement. “Yo!” he shouted, grabbing Mark Glicini after Harrison performed his iconic three-step split. When they crossed paths near the substitution box, Harrison stuck out his hand and dapped him up.
“It solidified that I was definitely here in the pro game,” Jones said of the gesture. Afterward, Jones posted a picture of them together on Instagram with the caption, “Work hard until your idols become your rivals.”
Now they’re teammates. Their fellow Redwoods midfielder and PLL All-Star Jules Heningburg still has the picture he took with Harrison at the LXM Tour stop in Philadelphia the summer before Heningburg’s freshman year of high school. He also attended a clinic Harrison coached that weekend and helped him retrieve the pinnies from the back of Harrison’s truck. Harrison offered praise and some pointers after Heningburg showed off his split dodge.
“It was one of the coolest moments of my life,” Heningburg said.
The two have a running joke that Heningburg had yet to pick up a lacrosse stick by the time Harrison was selected first overall by MLL’s New Jersey Pride in 2005. They’ve been teammates since Heningburg was traded from the Whipsnakes in 2019 and set the then-PLL single-game points record in his first game with the Redwoods. It was at Homewood.
Heningburg, the president of the Black Lacrosse Alliance, now considers Harrison a mentor and friend. Who says you should never meet your heroes?
“Watching him growing up, he comes off as larger than life, but he’s really one of the most genuine down-to-earth people,” Heningburg said. “He really breaks down that barrier quickly and tries to make you feel special.”
PAVING THE WAY
Jones, like Heningburg, considers Harrison a mentor in more ways than one. They first met at Towson during an LXM Pro Tour event the summer before Jones’ freshman year at Duke. Harrison was one of the founders of LXM, which operated from 2010-14 and was a precursor for the PLL in its focus on entertainment, the touring model and player experience.
“From that moment,” Jones said of their 2012 encounter, “he’s been an instrumental part in terms of not only the lacrosse side of things, but also the business side.”
Few would be better to turn to for advice in that arena. Harrison was among the first players to turn professional lacrosse into a lucrative and full-time endeavor. Jones calls him the “OG.” He had several iterations of his own equipment and apparel lines with STX, with whom he has partnered since the outset of his career. He has investment stakes and endorsements with Legends Lacrosse, Uninterrupted, Tomahawk Shades, DonJoy Performance and Super Coffee.
Simply say K18 and fans know who you’re talking about.
“I’m not sure there is anybody better in our sport in front of a camera than Kyle,” said Paul Rabil, who in a 2018 interview with USA Lacrosse Magazine credited his former Hopkins teammate for laying the groundwork for his own success as an entrepreneur and influencer. “He’s incredibly empathic and motivating and can speak to so many people.”
Harrison’s equity in the sport, however, extends beyond his business dealings. He oversees PLL Assists, the league’s philanthropic arm, along with being the league’s Director of Players and Inclusion. He serves on the board of directors for Charm City Youth Lacrosse and USA Lacrosse. Harrison also helped Chazz Woodson get the Sankofa Lacrosse Foundation off the ground and provided guidance to Heningburg in starting the Black Lacrosse Alliance.
“He’s always buttoned up and very professional in the way he goes about his business,” Heningburg said. “That has really allowed him to transcend the game and carry it to new heights.”
ONE MORE SHOT
Harrison got another standing ovation heading into the locker room at halftime, during which a tribute played on the Homewood Field video board. Nat St. Laurent needed several takes to film his portion. “It was hard,” he said.
The Redwoods coach refrained from posting tributes on social media while the season was still ongoing. He wanted to take more time to reflect on his past seven years coaching Harrison. They won a championship together when St. Laurent was an assistant with the Ohio Machine in 2017.
In late July, St. Laurent texted Harrison a photo of his son, Jamarcus, sitting in the grass outside their home in Ohio and wearing a green K18 Redwoods jersey.
“Somewhere right now there’s a young kid dreaming of being the next Kyle Harrison,” St. Laurent wrote.
For a player who has been in the public eye for so long, Harrison has never sought out individual attention. He seems to have an uneasy relationship with it. Whenever the media department at Hopkins received an interview request for a player, they’d stick a little yellow sticker on his locker. Harrison said he’d get one every couple weeks his freshman year. By the following spring, there was one after practice almost every day.
“I just love being part of a team,” Harrison said of the mindset that he cultivated at Friends, where lacrosse teams couldn’t rely on talent alone. “I almost crave it.”
That mentality has made every goal Harrison scored or every time he’s addressed the Redwoods the past three years carry that much more meaning.
“When Kyle speaks in these moments, the guys know that it’s coming from experience,” said St. Laurent, who called Harrison the best leader he’s ever coached. “They know the hourglass is turned over and time is running out. They know how much he loves the game and being in the locker room. It’s just so genuine and sincere, it hits them differently.”
Harrison originally planned to retire in 2020, but after the season was converted to a three-week fully quarantined PLL Championship Series without fans, he decided to give it one more year. His gut told him not to not make any announcements about his plans until this season was over. Several conversations with St. Laurent, former Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala and Tierney convinced him otherwise. The fans deserve one more shot to see you play live, they told him.
“He doesn’t want it to be about him,” St. Laurent said. “He’d probably rather walk off the field quietly with nobody looking to a hug from his mom and dad and be with his family.”
‘THIS IS SPECIAL’
In the first quarter at Homewood, the capacity crowd buzzed every time Harrison touched the ball. When he released a shot on the run, they seemed ready to explode. Blaze Riorden denied the attempt and a storybook moment. The Redwoods led 9-7 entering the fourth quarter, but were held scoreless the final 17 minutes. Chaos rookie Mac O’Keefe scored a 2-pointer and broke a 9-9 tie with 2:41 remaining for the game winner.
When St. Laurent saw former Hopkins assistant Bill Dwan at a recruiting tournament this summer, he told Dwan he didn’t sleep that night knowing the last time Harrison played at Homewood ended in his only loss there.
Harrison lingered on the field longer than any of his teammates afterward. He hugged his wife, Meredith, then descended into the Cordish Lacrosse Center, where a life-sized picture of Harrison mid-jumper adorns the wall outside the Blue Jays’ locker room. He soon returned to the turf with their children, Brooke, 6, and Smith, 4, in tow. Harrison ran in a circle on the field he had trod so many times, this time holding his daughter’s hand with his left and carrying his son in the other. Cameras stayed on them the entire time.
“I wouldn’t think to do it,” Harrison said of the way the PLL documented the experience. “But if it didn’t happen, it’s probably something I would regret later in life.”
Brooke, who Harrison noted is just starting to realize “this is what daddy does and has been doing for quite some time” — meaning pro lacrosse — sat in his lap as he addressed reporters in the virtual postgame press conference.
“This lacrosse community has supported me for 34-ish years now,” Harrison said. “I’ve been playing from Lutherville to Friends to Hopkins and professionally. Obviously, I would have loved to win. That’s priority number one, but this is special.”
Harrison emerged on the sideline a couple minutes later and talked with Tampa Bay Buccaneers nose tackle Steve McLendon, who attended the game with his family.
“Can I take a picture?” asked a young fan on the other side of the fence, almost out of breath from sprinting along the concourse.
“Of course,” Harrison said as the sun dipped lower behind the stands.
There was one request Harrison wasn’t willing to indulge just yet.
“I’m gonna keep my gloves for now,” he told another fan, with a smile, before he walked off Homewood Field as a player for the last time. His family was there to greet him again.
“He wants to concentrate on the task at hand and make sure that his teammates know that’s his main focus,” Heningburg said earlier this summer. “But at the end of the day, his legacy will live on forever.”