Facebook: Nation United Lacrosse
Back in February at the Detroit Mercy vs Jacksonville game, I happened to be standing next to a young family...father, mother, and young daughter who were there to watch their family member Christian's first college lacrosse game. The dad (Tommy) happened to mention that he had started a travel lacrosse club called "Nation United," a "diversity showcase team." I hadn't heard of Nation United previously, so I did some Googling when I returned home after the game to learn more about the program.
His job in the Navy recently brought Tommy and his family back to his native Michigan from San Diego. His son Christian (D/LSM; here is Christian's high school summer highlight video on YouTube) played his senior year of high school ball at Brother Rice and was a freshman on the lacrosse team at Detroit Mercy for the 2019 season (#15. played in 3 games). Tommy's family has deep roots in public service (a grandmother, his dad, an uncle, and a sister have all held elected office including on Detroit's Board of Education and in the Michigan state legislature), so I guess it is no big surprise that Tommy found a way to turn his family's interest in lacrosse into an opportunity to make a positive impact in a big way.
Nation United's mission is to utilize "...elite-level lacrosse to inspire diversity," and they "...aspire to foster long-lasting relationships that cross ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic boundaries, serving as the catalyst for increased participation in the lacrosse community."
What I'd learned about Nation United and the Stallworth family was certainly very intriguing and interesting, so I couldn't resist contacting Tommy to learn a little bit more...so few days later, I got in touch with Tommy and he agreed to chat with me about Nation United. I'm just now (4 months later) getting around to summarizing that interview (hey, what can I say? spring lax season is a hectic time)...so here it goes (better late than never):
ME: I saw Christians's college commitment tweet where he said that he "...only started playing lacrosse so [he] didn't have to run track..." so I assume that you don't have a strong lacrosse background. I'm interested in how you got into lacrosse and then how you went from there to starting something like Nation United...
TOMMY: I had zero lacrosse background. I grew up here. I played football for Saint Martin de Porres High School and then ended up playing in college down at Florida A&M, so I had zero lacrosse background. Christian got introduced to it through a close friend of mine Brian Dawson whose son is Isaiah Dawson who is at Harvard now and was arguably the number 1 or 2 midfielder out of the 2018 class last year. Brian asked us to come out to a lacrosse clinic. Christian didn't really want to go, but I kind of made him go. He tried it. He said, "Hey, if I do this, do I have run track still?" because he hated track practice. I was like, "No, because the seasons conflict, so you couldn't do track and lacrosse." And he was like, "I'll just do lacrosse." That's where it started and then rapidly went from that to him getting better and falling in love with it. He made better club teams and then as we got more involved in the club circuit I just kind of noticed...and obviously being from a football, basketball, and track background...it was new for me to be on the sideline and be the only guy of color in a two-mile radius. I thought "this is just odd." There were some other guys who played or whose sons played, and they all said similar things. So Brian and I sat down one day...we had done some research on the Morgan State team...and we were in California at the time...and he doesn't have a lacrosse background either...and we wondered what it would look like if we put together a team of primarily high-level minority players. How would that happen? It was really two dads thinking it would be a good idea, and we put it together over the course of a year and a half working with Chazz Woodson who we had met at another event. The first team I believe we took out the summer of 2016, and that team was just insanely good...and it just kind of grew from there. We really had no intention for it to become as big as it seems to be becoming. We were just trying to do something cool for our kids and something we thought would be cool, and this is kind of the end result of that.
— Christian stallworth (@christianSFC101) November 21, 2017
ME: I saw on the web that you run a camp, but how many events per year do you typically play?
TOMMY: We typically do one event per season, so one summer and one winter. We do it that way because; 1) we both have full-time jobs and 2) we really try not to conflict with the other major club schedules. All of our guys play for other...you name it...major club teams. It's one thing to pull them away for one event. It's another thing to pull them away for multiple events. We can't offer the same interaction on a regular basis that a normal club team can offer. We typically go to the Inside Lacrosse Invitational in the summer, and then the winter event had been Dick's Tournament of Champions...and it'd be us, FCA, Grand River, Resolute, and a few other kind of high caliber teams...and we'd just repeat each year.
ME: Typically do guys just hear about you somehow and contact you via the web site or do you looks for guys or how does that usually work?
TOMMY: The first team was a lot of cold-calling and just kind of bumping into dads or seeing players' highlight films and calling their dads and saying "hey, we have something you might want to do." That's kind of how we built the first team. After the first team, word of mouth is probably our strongest promoter. We do a lot on Instagram. Our web page is pretty nice. We spend a lot of time on social media promoting. We have an application pool of approximately 600 players who want to play for us. Of that number, maybe 10-15 % will get rostered. Obviously, when kids leave from playing with us, they go and then tell all of their friends. Then their friends apply, and their friends apply...and it grows from there.
ME: I noticed on the web site that you refer to the players as "ambassadors." Can you describe what that means to you for them to be ambassadors?
TOMMY: We approach lacrosse from a wholistic type of whole-kid point of view. Obviously, wins and losses are important. Truth be told, a diversity showcase team is awesome, but if we aren't winning games then nobody is really talking about us. That's an unfortunate fact, but it is a fact. Our competitive level is paramount. As important as that is building whole young men, so we take GPA and community service into account. At every event they do a community service project. Typically at our summer events we host a camp for an under-privileged program or just youth in the area in general who want to see what we're all about...and our players and typically our graduates come down and help coach those kids and take them through a clinic. The ambassador piece is...we didn't really know this going in...but from doing it these last couple years we have relationships now with some of the top African American and minority players in the game, and none of them knew each other in college. That's kind of sad from the standpoint of...imagine if you're a kid that shows up in the locker room and you're the only black kid there. You really don't have anyone to advocate for you. I'm not saying you necessarily have to have that, but depending on the locker room you may. These kids are so focused on just trying to be a part of the group that they kind of lose sense of themselves and things that could potentially be detrimental to their development. Our ambassadors are a group of young men that really try to go out and support not only themselves but potentially everybody that could be in need of....whether it is someone to talk to, someone to coach, someone to say to "this happened, what do you think about it?" The other key to that is that we are not an all-black team. Our number is roughly 70% minority among the applicants that we accept. We intentionally do that because we want the team to be diverse. A huge key to that is that for every young white kid who comes to play for us...depending on his exposure his perspective of the world gets changed overnight. He now sees maybe what his buddy was talking about that he never saw before or never experienced before. He also develops new friends and new relationships, and that guy becomes an advocate just as a good human being. If you're in the locker room and something is going on that shouldn't be going on...maybe someone is making a racial joke or some off-color comment, that kid is now comfortable to stand up and say "hey, that's not cool...we don't do that...I don't appreciate that, etc." We've seen that happen in locker rooms from our players.
ME: Describe a little bit about why you think that diversity is such an important ideal to be promoting by an approach like this.
TOMMY: Overall I think that diversity is important...diversity of thought, diversity of dollars, diversity of experience. If you lined up two organizations together and one was diverse and one was not, I would argue that the diverse organization will be more successful...because you have different perspectives, and with different perspectives comes different ways of doing things. That benefits everybody. From a sports perspective, I think in order for lacrosse to grow, it has to be diverse. It has to be inclusive. Players have to feel comfortable playing the sport. If you're a 6'2'' black kid in inner city Detroit who can play lacrosse or football and you've never seen a lacrosse player that looks like you or moves like you or plays like you, there's no real motivation for you to try that sport. Even if you do try the sport, what's the likelihood that you stick with it if you're around a bunch of guys who can't relate to you and don't really know what you've been through and what you're going through? Obviously, I'm not saying that white kids can't support black kids, but it helps to have everyone having different exposure and different experiences to have a wide lens when they see the world versus a kind of singular point of view.
ME: Based on your experience, do you have any advice for other coaches or players or organizers in Michigan who are interested in making a difference in a way like this...do you have any advice about practical things that they could do?
TOMMY: Honestly, I think touch points are the most important. Get involved. Go volunteer with Detroit Youth Lacrosse. Come support Nation United. Host a camp. Host a clinic. I think the interesting thing is that there is a lot of grassroots approaches which I think are really good. The other reason we designed Nation United the way we did as more of a top-down approach, is that we felt it was really important for players to have somebody to aspire to be or something to aspire to as opposed to this kind of nebulous idea of what it could be. We literally have little kids wearing the jersey numbers of our high school players. That's kind of how impactful it is for these young athletes. So, aside from the grassroots stuff, you've got to hit it from both angles. You've got to show both sides and give them something to look forward to and something to grow towards. From a coaching perspective, don't be intimidated by the thought of "I've never coached black kids before, I don't know about this"...honestly the effort is worth more than anything. You never know what is going to happen if you never try. You've just got to be willing to step out there and see what happens. People would be surprised at what the results are and what they get from that. I would say that in Michigan it is probably pretty challenging. Growing up in Michigan and then moving to California and the west coast...Detroit is changing, but growing up here it's a pretty polarized state racially and economically, right? If you grew up in Detroit, you didn't have to see a white guy if you didn't want to. You literally could just stay in your neighborhood. If you grew up in Hamtramck or Downriver or Midland, right? You probably never had to see a black guy if you didn't want to...so I think there's a challenge in Midwestern states in terms of exposure, but I really do think that organizations are doing the right thing and trying to get out there and see what happens.
ME: Yep, my wife was from Sterling Heights, and I remember when I came to visit and we went downtown and she said "We never go downtown unless someone comes to visit." So that was interesting.
ME: Anything else that you want to mention that I should have asked?
TOMMY: I think you got it all, man. Like I said, I appreciate the call. I appreciate the exposure. Anyone who is interested in working with us, please let me know...whether that's something here in Michigan...we'd love to get more players from the Midwest involved...promoting it to other players in the area. That's a big point. Obviously, as I said, of all those kids that apply there's only a certain number that are really good enough to make that top-level team, but we are looking at some other ways to kind of expose guys...which is kind of why we're doing this camp..for skills and development but also to be able to touch more players in an impactful way than just our top guys.
ME: What brought your family back to Michigan? What kind of work do you do?
TOMMY: My current job...I'm a naval officer and pilot by trade and now I'm the commanding officer of the naval operation support center in Detroit which is at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. That's how I ended up moving back to Michigan, and it happened to be a coincidence that my son committed to play lacrosse here at the same time.
ME: How did you resist running for office? It seems like you have pretty strong heritage in that area.
TOMMY: Well, you know, that's not necessarily out of the question...but I have a number of years left in the navy before I can collect my pension.
ME: So politics might be a second career.
TOMMY: Possibly. Possibly.
ME: OK, thanks very much. I was glad to talk to you. It was pretty cool to meet you and hear about what you're doing. Just let me know if there's any way I can help promote or support anything.
TOMMY: I'll put you in touch with our director of outreach, Jeremy Ardrey. He kind of works more in the "grow the game" space. I'm more in the team building and event space...but we all work together hand in hand.
ME: Thanks for your time!
TOMMY: Thanks a lot, man. Enjoy your day!