In life and lacrosse
At the top of a winding staircase in Dillon tower stands the Princeton University men's lacrosse office — one of the highest peaks on campus and in the world of collegiate lacrosse.
A quick glance around head coach Bill Tierney's office on the fourth floor reveals all the trappings of accomplishment. A poster of a regal tiger hangs on the far wall. Next to his desk, framed newspaper articles hail his team's accomplishments. And on the left side of the wall, five NCAA Championship plaques remind visitors of the Princeton dynasty that Tierney has built singlehandedly.
Mounted on these plaques are photographs of his championship teams. The faces in the photographs tell the story of Princeton men's lacrosse during the past decade — determined eyes, welcoming smiles, heads held high with pride.
And of the hundreds of faces on that wall, only one is black.
That face belongs to Mark Johnson '95, who was a backup midfielder when the Tigers won the NCAA Championship in 1994.
But that may change in the next three years if starting defenseman Damien Davis '03 lives up to the high expectations that currently surround him. If Davis continues to prevent scoring as he did last year, Tierney and the Tigers may be adding more plaques to the wall during the next three years.
Davis is the only person of color on the lacrosse team and just the third black student to play lacrosse in the 89-year history of Princeton's program.
He is also one of fewer than 100 black athletes to ever play Division I lacrosse.
"Of the 52 teams right now and 2,000 kids playing the sport, I'd be shocked if there were 10 minority kids of Afro-American background," Tierney said in an interview.
Davis, who was born in a low-income neighborhood in Baltimore, has managed to thread his way through the worlds of prep school and collegiate lacrosse as an often-solitary black face in an all-white crowd.
But that does not mean that race has always been an important factor in Davis' life.
"The story of Damien Davis is the story of really just a good person and nobody cared whether he was pink, black or Chinese or anything," John Boyce, Davis' Baltimore recreational league coach, said.
Often, race matters. Sometimes, it does not. The story of Damien Davis, as Boyce points out, is a story about race only insofar as it is the tale of a black student in a white world for whom race does not really matter — a black student who has forged a successful path for himself in the world of collegiate lacrosse and has hardly felt out of place at any point along the way.
But at the top of a winding staircase, in the midst of an imposing shrine to an athletic dynasty, there are five photographs that tell the story of Princeton lacrosse. And it would be impossible not to notice that the place of Damien Davis in that story — and at Princeton — is unique indeed.
Davis' lacrosse career began in a predominantly white recreational league in Baltimore, where he grew up — and where he would later play for the Gilman School, an all-male prep school in Baltimore with a student body that is more than 75 percent white.
"When I first started playing, I was the only black kid on the team," Davis said. "Over time, being the only black kid out there, I knew I was on my own. I became more accustomed to it."
Davis' father was a young neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and Damien and his two brothers grew up in an area known as "the compound." Surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and protected by guards, "the compound" served as housing for the hospital's staff and medical students.
When Davis was in nursery school, his family moved out of hospital housing into a small house on the other side of the hospital — a low-income area that was predominantly black.
Though he grew up in a mostly black community, Davis attended a predominantly white nursery school at the Church of the Redeemer. The school was where most people who worked at the hospital sent their kids.
"You have to understand it was a routine thing," Damien's mother Marilyn Davis said. "We were following the patterns of the other families in the area."
Then, as Damien was entering first grade, his parents decided to send him to Gilman with his older brother.
"Gilman has a lack of everyone but . . . white people," Davis said.
For Davis' parents, however, the racial makeup of Gilman was never a primary concern.
"We wanted him in a good school system," Marilyn Davis said. "So we chose education over living in a better area."
Marilyn Davis was in all respects devoted to her children — and Damien's cheerleader in every pursuit.
"When someone would tackle her son, she would stand up and say, 'Don't you hurt my boy,' " said Boyce, who coached Damien and his brothers in recreational football and lacrosse. "She was very tough. You didn't mess with her boys."
At Gilman, Davis made both white and black friends. One of those friends, Chisom Opara '03, attended Gilman from first through 12th grade with Davis. For 12 years, the pair — one a future standout for Princeton's football team, the other a future star for the Tigers' lacrosse squad — played football side by side.
"From day one, it hasn't been separated between two groups," Opara, who is black, said of the atmosphere at Gilman. "People were just equal. I think that was an idea the people who led the school wanted to promote."
Marylin Davis had similar sentiments about Gilman. "One of the reasons we chose Gilman is that they allowed us to bring who we are to the school," she said. "Students are not molded into what the school is used to producing — upper class white people. They embraced who we are."
Three years after enrolling at Gilman, Damien picked up lacrosse, following in the footsteps of his brother, who played for the high school team. Like his brother, Davis wanted to be a starter for Gilman. And because lacrosse was extremely competitive there, he had to begin as early as possible.
The Gilman School is nestled in the heart of Baltimore, the unofficial capital of American lacrosse. Not surprisingly, more than one-quarter of Princeton's men's lacrosse team last year hailed from the Baltimore area.
Davis was the only black student on the Gilman team and one of only a few in the league. But for black student athletes at Gilman, this was the norm rather than the exception.
Like the lacrosse team, the football team on which Opara played was predominantly white, with just four black students playing on the squad.
"There was no thought to black-white," Boyce said. "He was just one of the guys. He was a good guy, and like good guys, he was just part of the group."
Opara said that for the most part, race was not an issue with his own or other teams.
There were, however, a few memorable exceptions. "During my freshman and sophomore year, people saw that I was black and thought I was terrible," Davis said of first two years on the lacrosse squad. "They wouldn't give me respect because they'd just think I was bad."
Opara recalled two incidents when predominantly white rival high schools used race to instigate the rivalry.
"Because Damien and I were higher-profile athletes, people looked at us as targets for jokes and any kind of racial action incidents," he said.
Gilman lacrosse coach Dave Allan recalled that twice predominantly white rival schools sent catcalls in Davis' and Opara's directions at football and lacrosse games. At one football game, players on an opposing team threw out racial slurs, and at a lacrosse game during Davis' senior year, fans from a rival school surrounded the field, also making racial remarks.
"To his credit, he never responded," Allan said. "He kept his calmness throughout the situation."
But these isolated incidents were rare in Davis' early athletic career. And when they did happen they involved rival schools, not the teammates with whom he had grown up.
Davis graduated as a leader in his class socially and athletically. He twice won all-state honors as a tailback in football. He was two-time state champion and national prep runner-up in wrestling.
And by the time he began weighing where to attend college, Damien Davis was one of the most dominant lacrosse players in the nation.
Recruited by nearly every top lacrosse program in the country, Davis took his five NCAA-sanctioned visits to Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Duke University and Princeton.
Some believe, however, that Princeton was the only choice in Davis' mind.
"At Gilman, if you're good at lacrosse and a good student, you're expected to go to Princeton," Opara said, referring to what Tierney has termed the "great pipeline from Gilman to Princeton."
Gilman, in fact, is demographically similar to Princeton. The two lacrosse powerhouses remain predominantly white despite efforts during the past quarter-century to diversify their student bodies. "Gilman was percentage-wise the same as Princeton," Davis said, referring to the schools' racial makeups.
He recalled that on his recruiting trip to Princeton, he had limited contact with people of color except for the students he met through his short stint on the Princeton football team.
"When I went to the 'Street' with lacrosse players, I didn't see or meet many black people," he said. "If I didn't play football, I wouldn't have come into contact with any black person. This was not the case at other schools."
Indeed, schools with far more diverse lacrosse programs were interested in Davis.
There was Loyola College in Maryland, which had four minorities on its lacrosse team in 1999 — singlehandedly accounting for more than one-third of all black athletes playing lacrosse at Division I schools.
There was also Dartmouth College, whose head lacrosse coach Rick Sowell had begun recruiting Davis during his junior year at Gilman, when Sowell was an assistant coach for Georgetown University.
An anomaly in the white world of college lacrosse, Sowell is the first black head coach for a Division I lacrosse team. Sowell said that because he shares similar experiences with other minority lacrosse players, he is often able to establish a comfort level with people of color he recruits. "It gives some validity to me dealing with kids of color," he said in an interview.
Though Davis said he did not consider going to Dartmouth, he felt very comfortable with Sowell. "In the initial phone conversations, it made me more comfortable," he said of Sowell's race, "but I wouldn't pick a school based on that."
So why did Davis choose Princeton? Solid lacrosse. Solid academics. And solidarity within the team.
"On my recruiting trip, I felt I fit in with the team," Davis said. Two years later, he still does.
Davis stands at six feet, one inch tall. He is a muscular 210 pounds. Wearing a T-shirt with cut-off sleeves and sneakers with no socks, he appears to have just come off the playing field.
Chomping on a piece of gum with a shoelace necklace tied to his prox card and some keys, he seems so casual and laid-back that it would be easy to forget that he is one of the best athletes ever to wear a Princeton uniform. A headband wraps tightly around his cleanly shaven head like a crown of athletic prowess.
Though he attempted to play football at Princeton, Davis quit after two weeks to dedicate himself to lacrosse. And throughout that pursuit, as in the recreational leagues of his youth and at Gilman, race was never an issue.
For Davis, like many college athletes, the lines of color, creed and background have blurred behind the common bond of sport.
"In athletics as a whole, people accept people for who they are as individuals," said Dave Cottle, the head coach at Loyola. "When you get a group of people working toward a common goal, they realize he's going to help them achieve the goals that the team wants to accomplish."
Princeton's program, like lacrosse teams around the nation, is predominantly white. Of 500 Division I schools, only 52 have varsity lacrosse programs. The pool from which coaches are forced to recruit is almost completely limited to Baltimore prep schools, Long Island private schools and New England public schools — institutions that are predominantly white.
It is perhaps ironic that a game that began as a Native-American military training technique should come to be dominated so exclusively by whites.
In 1876, the English observed the game when Native-American players were invited to play before Queen Victoria. Lacrosse caught on with whites in the United States around the same time. Teams were organized in metropolitan New York, and New York University and Manhattan College played the first collegiate lacrosse game in 1877.
Other universities in the Northeast — including Princeton — soon followed suit.
Two decades after the matchup between NYU and Manhattan, a group of students from Baltimore observed a lacrosse game on Long Island. Upon returning home, they introduced the game to their native city — where the sport would thrive, and where Davis would first pick up a lacrosse stick nearly a century later.
Sowell said the backgrounds of lacrosse players have not changed much since he began playing in 1978. He estimated that the percentage of blacks who played the sport then is the same as it is now.
Executive Director for U.S. Lacrosse Steve Stenerson attributes the sport's lack of diversity to its poor visibility among minority athletes. Unlike basketball, baseball and football, lacrosse receives limited press and television coverage.
Another factor contributing to the situation is the game's close link to predominantly white colleges and prep schools.
"Sport has evolved directly as part of the education process," Stenerson said. "The first institutions that began playing the modern version of lacrosse were also the most prestigious prep schools and universities."
These prep schools and universities at the time were made up nearly completely of white students.
According to Stenerson, lacrosse is just now reaching out to other communities — spreading westward and out of upper class suburbia and into inner cities.
Less than a decade ago, the Lacrosse Foundation — a group Stenerson headed before a merger created U.S. Lacrosse — launched a national initiative to introduce lacrosse into inner-city middle schools. The pilot program began in Baltimore, but since then, has spread across the country. Fifty chapters now exist in cities from Newark to San Francisco.
Davis said he hopes to be part of the effort to bring lacrosse to blacks and other minorities. "When people say 'I saw you on TV,' that's pretty cool," he said. "I want kids to say, 'If he can do it so can I,' and I'll hopefully be a role model."
And according to Trevor Tierney '01, a Princeton lacrosse captain, Davis stands to influence other minorities.
"Lacrosse is really growing in inner-city schools," Tierney said. "Maybe for some of the players in those schools, Damien is a good role model at one of the top schools and top lacrosse schools."
Throughout his life, Davis has been a leader and commanded respect from his peers. Each Friday during elementary school, Damien's gym class would race a mile.
Damien would always win.
"People would want to be like him even early on," Opara said. "They'd say, 'Guess what Damien did,' 'Damien played a great game' or 'Damien did this.' They looked to him to be a leader on sports teams and socially."
Competing on a recreational wrestling team in eighth grade, Davis was poised to wrestle a ninth grade student for the Maryland state championship. The match was a battle throughout. It went into three overtimes, but Davis — surrounded in the Gilman gymnasium by cheering classmates, faculty and staff — never gave up.
Near the end of the third overtime, Davis finally won.
"This is my most favorite moment for Damien," said his mother, full of emotion. "That was the moment I saw I truly had a gifted and talented son in sports. When he wants something, no matter how hard it is, he just never gives up."
There were, as it turned out, many more moments of athletic triumph on the horizon for the wrestler who refused to give up. But the biggest triumph of all — an NCAA lacrosse championship and a coveted place on Coach Tierney's wall of champions — still looms uncertainly in the future.
When — and if — it comes, Damien Davis will join Mark Johnson as one of two black Princetonians on a wall of mostly white athletes. It will be an obvious reminder of what has made Davis an anomaly in the world of Princeton lacrosse. But it will only be a small part of the story.
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