FRI JUL 2 2021 | NELSON RICE | PRO
BALTIMORE — Kyle Harrison paused after warmups last Saturday 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 men’s 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,” it read. “Kyle Harrison.”
“My man,” Harrison said when he approached Willis. “Appreciate you all these years,” he added as they hugged.
Throughout the entire week 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. Though this summer will serve as a de facto farewell tour after he announced it his 17th season would be his last playing professional lacrosse, most fans likely circled June 26 on their calendars.
Homewood Field was where Harrison, a Baltimore native who attended The Friends School a short drive down Charles Street, scored his first collegiate goal March 2, 2002. Where his signature split-dodge-to jump-shot combination on AstroTurf became burned into opposing goalies’ and fans’ memories alike. Where before this past weekend he held a 36-0 record.
“This was the place where it all started,” said Dr. Miles Harrison, his father and a member of the iconic Morgan State “Ten Bears” team of the 1970s.
“I'm not a person who in the moment understands the gravity of things, but ... this is special.”
As a senior in 2005, Kyle Harrison helped lift the Blue Jays to their first NCAA championship since 1987. As he warmed up this past Saturday — how strange it felt to wear green in the place where everyone bleeds blue — the blue, white and black sign listing national championship years peered over him from the top of the metal bleachers.
After the starting lineups were introduced, the cameras zoomed in on Harrison. The fans gave a standing ovation. It was one of the loudest reactions of the entire evening. “It was almost surreal,” Dr. Harrison said of the reception.
The applause echoed throughout Homewood and 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 NCAA All-American and two-time midfielder of the year. The first Black Tewaaraton Award winner.
“His impact on the sport is immeasurable,” PLL analyst Ryan Boyle, who competed against Harrison in college and played with him on the U.S. national team in 2006, said on the broadcast before the game. “He’s a living legend, an icon, an ambassador. Everything he has done to give back to the community, locally and then nationally — words can’t really describe his impact over the past 17 years.”
Maybe pictures can. Although Harrison has tallied 139 goals and 74 assists in his pro career between the MLL and PLL, he’s undoubtedly led both leagues in pictures taken with and autographs signed for fans. When the Redwoods Twitter account asked June 22, “What is your favorite Kyle Harrison moment EVER?” most recalled experiences off the field rather some highlight-reel goal. Those little interactions spoke louder than any final stat line.
Romar Dennis’ family computer desktop background was a screenshot of Harrison unleashing his signature jump shot against Duke in the 2005 NCAA championship game. Dennis is a midfielder for the Atlas. He scored twice Sunday in a win over the Cannons with what looked like carbon copies of Harrison’s trademark moves. Every time he has played against Harrison in the pros, he has made it a point to take a picture with him afterward.
“As I was approaching middle school, I would get to a tournament and there would be hundreds of kids. You look out there and you wouldn't really see any brown legs running around,” Dennis said during a 2019 interview with the PLL. “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 and if you do work as hard as someone like that, there is nothing holding you back.”
Redwoods midfielder Jules Heningburg still has the picture he took with Harrison at the LXM Pro Tour stop in Philadelphia the summer before Heningburg's freshman year of high school. He said he remembers the experience like it was yesterday. He also attended a clinic Harrison coached that weekend and help him retrieve the pinnies from the back of his truck.
At the camp, Harrison offered praised 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 the MLL’s New Jersey Pride in 2005. They’ve been teammates on the Redwoods since Heningburg was traded to the Redwoods in 2019 and played his first game with the team at Homewood. Heningburg now considers Harrison a mentor and friend. Their interactions debunk the idea that 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 in terms of your interactions.”