City Lax brings lacrosse to inner-city Denver
There's no second-guessing on Jaden Franklin's lacrosse field.
He's on the move from the first face-off, his cleated feet taking him exactly where he needs to be, sometimes before his mind even catches up. Lacrosse IQ, they call it: knowing instinctively how to exploit the ever-changing geometries of the 110-by-60-yard field, the split-second holes in the wall of those ten players opposing you and your teammates. But lacrosse IQ isn't enough; you also need confidence in your instincts. Confidence that as an attackman, you'll be able to take the ball up the field on a fast break — swimming your stick up and over the first opposing player, spinning clear as a second closes in, leaving a third in the dust. Confidence that your trusty, taped-up STX stick — your superpower, as Jaden calls it — will rocket the ball straight to the edge of the crease, the circle around the opposing goal, and that your fellow attacker's stick will be there to catch it and, in one continuous motion, fire the ball through the five-hole, the space between the goalie's legs.
Confidence to disregard all the ways that you're different from the kids you're playing against.
That confidence doesn't end with the final whistle. Right now, fourteen-year-old Jaden is sitting with a handful of his teammates in the stands at Invesco Field at Mile High, watching the University of Denver's sixteenth-ranked Division I lacrosse team take on Loyola's sixth-ranked squad. "D-Roy!" Jaden hollers when Dillon Roy, a Denver boy and DU's team captain, snatches up the ball and blasts past a defender. "He gave him the juice!"
Around Jaden, thousands of boisterous spectators are roaring with every goal, evidence that Colorado can compete with such longtime lax hotbeds as Baltimore and Long Island. The lacrosse world took notice last year when Bill Tierney, Princeton's lacrosse coach, left the school after six national championship wins and a Hall of Fame designation, taking his reputation as the best coach in the game to a new gig at DU. He arrived in a state that already boasted 250 youth teams, as well as more than a hundred boys' and girls' high-school squads, and whose pro indoor and outdoor lacrosse teams, the Denver Outlaws and the Colorado Mammoth, hold attendance records nationwide. No wonder Denver was recently named the number-one lacrosse town by Inside Lacrosse magazine — a title that Tierney's boys in crimson and gold will cement as they steamroll over Loyola to a 12-4 victory, winning an automatic berth in the NCAA lacrosse tournament.
Still, from here the new number-one lacrosse town looks a lot like the old lacrosse towns: lily-white. Does it intimidate Jaden to be sitting in a sea of white faces and cowboy hats, private-school jackets and plaid shorts? Does it bother him that across town in north Park Hill, many of his neighbors and classmates have never heard of lacrosse, much less seen a live game?
Not a chance.
At halftime, Jaden and a teammate leave their seats and file onto the field with about two dozen other middle-schoolers, most of them wearing blue hoodies emblazoned with the words "Denver Elite." These boys are among the state's best youth lacrosse players, hand-selected to play on a highly competitive middle-school team helmed by Tierney and his coaching squad, booms the announcer. "These young players are the future of lacrosse in the Rocky Mountain region."
For Jaden, that future began four years ago, when he and his fellow fifth-graders were told they were now part of City Lax, north Denver's first and only youth lacrosse program. What started as a bunch of kids struggling to hold on to their sticks has grown into an organization with more than a hundred boys and girls from fifteen schools, spread between five teams and twenty coaches. A big program with a big reputation: A spectator sitting next to Jaden at Invesco leans over and asks, "Are you guys from City Lax?"
That reputation now proceeds them, just like the cocky cheer they yell before every game:
"1, 2, 3, City Lax – you know!"
As in, you know Jaden's City Lax team has won every one of its official games over the past two years and netted two state championships. And you know it'll be angling for more at this year's Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Jamboree, a three-day tournament at Dick's Sporting Goods Park starting on June 4, the last City Lax games before these players move on to high school.
Soon folks across the country will know, too. City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story, a documentary following this first team, is making the rounds at film festivals. ESPN is slated to air a version of the film to coincide with the NCAA championships, which begin on May 28.
Jaden may be one of the stars of the show, but he's far from alone. There's his twin sister, Joanne, for example. The lead scorer on City Lax's eighth-grade girls team, Joanne's has also landed on the elite Team 180 squad, which travels across the country. "I've got three speeds," she says. "Jogging speed, running speed and vroom speed. When I feel everything pumping, I don't care what the coaches say, I am just going. I'm running, then speeding, then I score."
Both twins have already scored big: If all goes as planned, next fall the two will start at the exclusive Kent Denver, where they'll play for one of the state's most venerated lacrosse programs — and DU and other Division I schools will be watching. While Tierney can't talk specifically about kids like Jaden or Joanne because of NCAA recruitment rules, it's clear he's keeping a close eye on City Lax. "I am humbled by the program," he says. "The hope for all this isn't just that some of these kids win championships or become All-Americans, but that they will take this opportunity and parlay it into an education that will last the rest of their lives."
Maybe the twins will end up the next Denver lacrosse superstars, like Dillon Roy — or maybe they'll go even further. "I'm thinking he is going to become the Chauncey Billups of lacrosse," Terrance Roberts, a Park Hill community activist, says of Jaden.
As he stands on Invesco's turf, grinning his million-watt smile, Jaden extends the hand that's not clutching a lacrosse stick, his superpower, and gives a poised, swivel-wristed wave to the crowd, the kind of wave a beauty queen gives her adoring fans.
He knows that in a few short years, he and his City Lax teammates won't just belong on these fields. They'll own them.
For Joanne and Jaden Franklin and the rest of the third-graders, 2004 was a disaster at Hallett Elementary School. The teacher spent most of the year on medical leave, leaving the class in the feeble hands of one substitute after another. Chaos reigned, and one kid even got stabbed with a pencil. By the time the next school year rolled around, Rosie, the twins' mother, was fed up. She kept them out of school for a week while she explored other options. Finally, a friend cajoled her into giving the fourth-grade teacher, Erik Myhren, a try. He was supposedly something special.
But Erik had been going through some tough times, too. After watching eleven principals come and go during his seven years at Hallett, he was sick of the system. He was also physically sick: Plagued with serious gastrointestinal problems, years earlier he'd had his large intestine removed, and he'd recently spent six weeks in the hospital. His doctor had approved him for medical leave; all he had to do was submit the paperwork to the school district.
Then Joanne and Jaden walked into his classroom – and changed everything. Joanne had barely taken her seat in the second row when she popped back up. "Mr. Myhren, we didn't learn anything last year," she said, "and we want to learn this year."
That was enough for Erik to put aside any thoughts of leaving this class. If they wanted to learn, they'd have to work for it, he told them – but he'd be there for them every step of the way.
And he was. He wrote his cell number on the blackboard at the beginning of the year and never took it down. His school day was only half over when the final bell rang, since he still had two or three sports teams to coach, trips to bookstores and ice cream shops to arrange and, when it was all over, a bunch of sleepy kids to drive home. And even then, the door of his own home in Washington Park, where he'd grown up with his mother, was always open, a place to get help with homework or just to escape for a while.
He wasn't just there for them that year. Erik wound up moving with the class to fifth grade, too.
He knew that if he didn't provide opportunities for these kids, it was likely that no one else would. That was clear from his first day at Hallett, just west of the old Stapleton airport in a veritable fly-over zone, with most attention and funding going elsewhere. The only community resources in this part of Park Hill were the Pauline Robinson Branch Library and the Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center, and both were located just steps from the dilapidated Holly Square Shopping Center, which would burn to the ground in a 2008 gang-related arson attack. And with the school strapped for money, Erik's students hadn't had a gym class or put on a school play in years.
"Everything that is not academics has been taken out of the schools, particularly for low-income kids," he says. "It's all about academic testing now. So you have kids going to school with no art, no music, no gym, not much computer education. All you have is reading, writing and math. Those aren't the things that had me going to school every day, that motivated me to succeed. How do you expect kids to build confidence if they never get a chance to shine?"
Erik wanted to give them that chance. In 1998, soon after he started at Hallett, he'd founded KNUW Seeds, a nonprofit that connected local kids with youth programs by providing them with transportation and financial assistance. In the fall of Joanne and Jaden's fifth-grade year, he decided to bring a new program to recess, and brought in a bunch of lacrosse sticks he'd had in his garage. While he hadn't been much of a lacrosse player during his own high school years at the exclusive Kent Denver, Erik had seen enough of his brother's lax exploits to know that the game could be a blast.
They had no pads or helmets, only a handful of old sticks and a sideways trash can for a goal, but Joanne, Jaden and a few of their classmates really got into the game. And pretty soon, everybody wanted to play.
To scrounge up more equipment, Erik made a few calls and ended up on the line with Rod Allison, an attorney active in the local lacrosse community. While Rod had never played lacrosse himself, he'd gotten hooked watching his son, Ben, play on Colorado's nascent youth teams and then at East High. At one point, Ben had developed a blueprint for an inner-city lax program as a school project — and Rod had recently decided to run with it. "We looked around the varsity program at East High, and 32 of the 35 kids were from private-school backgrounds," Rod recalls. "And as long as I had been around, there had always been people talking about opening the game up to new neighborhoods."
All Rod needed was a team, and Erik had one ready and waiting. It seemed like fate — except, perhaps, to the parents of the students who'd be taking the field. When Joanne and Jaden told their mother they were joining a new team, Rosie could only think of one thing to say:
"What the heck is lacrosse?"
Tewaarathon. That's what the Mohawk tribe called the game that gave rise to lacrosse, a massive effort that could involve hundreds of players on fields several miles across, with a name that translated to "Little brother of war."
And what funny little brothers of war were on that first City Lax team. They'd show up to games in Erik's van, a beater so decrepit that a neighbor asked him not to park it in front of her house, and everyone would pile out as though it were a clown car. Black kids, Hispanic kids and three or four white kids, all with secondhand sticks and pads, some with younger siblings along for the ride. There were sisters of war, too: Joanne and her friends were on the team, possibly the only girls in the league.
In places like Parker, Broomfield and Littleton, parents and coaches had never seen anything like it. And even more surprising than the team's makeup was the fact that they could play.
Early on, the City Lax kids realized they already knew this game. With its fast breaks, picks and rolls, and mixture of zone and man-to-man defenses, lacrosse was just like basketball — but with the added bonus of metal poles you could use to whack people. They knew this game, and they were hungry to play it. Hungry for ground balls — like Dobermans to ground meat, one of their coaches said. Hungry for speed, leaving opponents sucking air at their heels. Hungry to show they belonged on this field, so that when players or parents from other teams uttered racial epithets, they'd just work harder and then point to the scoreboard at the end of the game. These kids were so hungry, in fact, that they never realized they had absolutely no right to beat team after team of players who'd been at it for years, and that it was downright crazy for City Lax to come away from its first Jamboree with its division's championship trophy.
The next season the team moved up a division, where they discovered that hunger wasn't enough against accurate passing, precision stick control and real set plays, and they lost most of their games.
So they got good at those skills, too — and became unstoppable.
Along the way, City Lax picked up some impressive fans. Burke McHugh, a prominent businessman, opened his wallet to help get the nonprofit off the ground. Rob Gormley, director of the Denver Lacrosse Club, paints the City Lax fields when he's not helping out in other ways. US Lacrosse, the sport's governing body, is funneling in resources as part of its Bridge Program, a move to diversify the game. The list of supporters includes do-gooders from DU, Colorado State University, the Denver Outlaws, Kent Denver, Go Fast Sports, Reebok, Lax World megastore. More than 200 backers in all, many of whom spent a season or two on a lacrosse field before becoming movers in the business field. And many of them will be at this year's Jamboree, cheering on the inaugural team's final — and likely most challenging — championship tournament. City Lax is moving up to the top division this round, facing off against the best of the best.
In the meantime, the eighth-graders are spending their last weeks with City Lax imparting some of their skills, some of their hunger, to the growing group of younger players. Several players have helped coach City Lax's youngest teams, one for third-grade girls and one for fourth-grade boys.
And right now, on a warm Friday afternoon, the eighth-graders are scrimmaging with the sixth-graders, a sprawling group of boys with lots of potential but a spotty record.
Jaden, playing the game as a midfielder, wins a face-off and takes off for the goal, unfazed by the potholes scarring the field. The wet spring has done a number on Martin Luther King Park, an oasis of green in the far northeast corner of Park Hill. But at least it's better than last year, when the field was so dry the ball would send up plumes of dust when it hit the ground.
Closing in fast is Trevon Hamlet, one of Jaden's best friends. The two are well matched. In the game tomorrow, Tre will land a picture-perfect, behind-the-back shot on goal, a move Jaden's still trying to master. Tre's also uncannily bright, having landed a full academic scholarship to Kent two years ago — although that doesn't stop him from hopping on a cross-town bus right after Kent's lacrosse practice so that he can play with City Lax.
Joanne, taking a break from the eighth-grade girls' team practice the next field over, cheers on the duo when she's not making fun of Steven O'Malley, one of the top sixth-grade players, for nicknaming his stick "Fluffy." It was hard in seventh grade when Joanne and the other girls learned that they'd no longer be playing on the boys' team, no longer be able to flatten guys on the field and then see the looks on their faces when everyone removed their helmets after the game and their targets discovered they'd been knocked on their butts by a bunch of girls. But then they realized that girls' lacrosse, which doesn't allow much checking, would make them more nimble and skilled than the boys. When Jaden or one of his buddies tries to take a shot on goal with a girl's stick, which hardly has a pocket, the ball usually sails five feet shy of the net.
On the field, Kei'zuan Rudd gets the ball and does something funky to get around a defender. The kid's bursting with creativity, from the blisteringly raw verses he pens in his journals to the stuff he tries on the field. José Martinez, the eighth-grade team's unstoppable wall of a goalie and its quiet leader, isn't at practice today, so the coaches have grabbed a replacement from the girls' team: Jada Bonner, who's so passionate about the game that she cries when they lose — but also packs one of the meanest body checks out there to make sure they don't.
Everyone out here is hungry. José Pereyra, who surprised his coaches last year when he wanted to switch from attackman to defender, and now rarely lets anyone get past him. Patrick O'Malley, who has the friendly smile of his mom, Denver Clerk and Recorder Stephanie O'Malley, and the size and power of his grandfather, former Denver mayor Wellington Webb. Marjoya Ellidridge, the giggling free spirit on the girls' team who can catch a pass from out of nowhere. Speedsters like Isaiah Hogeland, Kris Jackson and Tarik Murphy; power players like Kristoffer Taylor, Miles Holland and Mann Preston; guys brimming with potential like Drake Wheeless, Luis Cotto, Edgar Llaguno and Micah Norwood.
But the hunger is different than it used to be; now it's calibrated and polished. That's thanks to their coaches, who stepped in when Rod and Erik pulled back after coaching City Lax's inaugural season. Both are still very involved, though. Erik now coaches the third-grade girls team on a different field, but he often stops by these practices to report on what he's heard, like how so-and-so's grades have been dropping because he's been skipping school. And Rod, now the commissioner for the Colorado High School Lacrosse Coaches Association, is always here, making sure everybody has a ride to the coming games, figuring out which players are late for practice because they missed the Route 38 bus that rolls by the field, collecting the $25 City Lax registration fee from new kids showing up for the first time (a fee he has a habit of overlooking when players show up empty-handed).
Rod and Erik's successors on the sidelines aren't the type of coaches attached to many youth lacrosse teams, those well-meaning dads who want to help out. No, City Lax's coaching team features a level of talent most college programs only dream of.
"You're giving up!" booms George Moore, one of the eighth-grade coaches, screaming like this Friday scrimmage is the biggest game of the season. At times he's got the temper and bearing of a drill sergeant at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was the first African-American to play on the lacrosse team. George's fellow coach, Karl Wimer, is more down to earth but no less accomplished: He was the first Colorado lacrosse player to make All-American at a Division I university.
Down the field, Mac Freeman towers over the sixth-graders he coaches, imparting some of the wisdom he's learned as senior vice president of business development for the Denver Broncos and founder of the Denver Outlaws. Since Mac's schedule is so busy, he's got some more-than-capable help: Brad Johnson, a former Hall of Famer at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, and Ryan Zordani, a young guy who's played for both the Outlaws and the Mammoth and captained DU's team.
On the other field, Gregory Crichlow is running sprints with his eighth-grade girls' team. A longtime youth lacrosse coach who's trained some of the top Colorado players, he's been chosen to coach one of the state's best girls' teams this summer. Still, he's the humblest of the City Lax coaches, and refuses to make his players do a drill he won't do himself right alongside them.
These men all volunteer to spend their afternoons and weekends with these kids because they like what City Lax is doing. But at the risk of sounding corny, they all say that they've been the real beneficiaries. "For a while, I thought I was giving back to the game as well as supporting some kids who could use some support," says Mac. "But we've gotten a whole lot out of it ourselves."
Last Saturday, Ryan learned he didn't make the cut for the Outlaws this year because of a minor leg injury. Still, moving up and down the field with the kids, he can't stop grinning. "This is the best part of my week," he says — and he means it.
Jaden and Joanne hone their skills every day for hours, on a front yard barely large enough for their two regulation goalie nets and their bounce-back practice target, on grass worn thin by their shoes.
Jaden focuses on quick-stick drills off the bounce-back target — pass-bounce-catch, pass-bounce-catch — making at least fifty with his right hand and fifty with his left before moving on to the goalie net. Joanne's got a similar routine, though her quick sticks involve switching hands on her stick while the ball is in mid-flight.
And every pass, every shot, has to be faultless. Jaden is only willing to accept perfectly placed lasers to the top and bottom corners of the goal. "If it's not perfect for me, it's not perfect at all," he explains, trying one move after another. Snipe shot, top right. That's the way he is, a 100 percent athlete. Make that 110 percent, since there's always a bit extra spilling out and making his teammates better, too. Behind the back, bottom left. He's been this way since he was three years old and slept with a football. Now he carries his lacrosse stick everywhere he goes: to school, to Walmart, to a recent "Keep Denver Beautiful" ceremony where he won a prize for penning the best anti-graffiti essay in his grade. His stick's nearly as much a part of him as his smile, that big, wide grin with no calculation lurking behind it, no qualms or suspicions or doubts. With Jaden Franklin, what you see is what you get.
While Jaden keeps throwing his ball into the net, Joanne's inside, trying to cram as much information about Pennsylvania as possible into her big end-of-the-year project. She's usually as committed to school as she is to lacrosse, vrooming across the field in her bright-pink safety goggles and her blazing yellow shoes. Joanne has her brother's killer smile, too, but she's a little more particular about when she displays it. Someone's offering to buy her a new stick at Lax World? Thanks, but please make sure to get the one with the lightweight orange staff and the head that's curved a very specific way. Jaden's inviting every one of his buddies over to spend the night? Fine, as long as they don't invade her personal space.
Not that there's much personal space in the Franklin household. The place seems to have a gravity all its own, drawing friends and relatives to the cozy home filled with trophies, piles of glossy sports magazines and, tonight, the smell of an enchilada casserole. It's already sucked in Joanne's teammate Marjoya, who's helping her color in the picture of the Liberty Bell. Trevon swings by to pick up a couple of lacrosse stick heads that need to be restrung. He's become the crew's stick doctor, weaving killer pockets out of laces and mesh for the low, low price of $20 — though Jaden gets a steep discount. Soon Erik Myhren will be pulled in, too. He often stops by on evenings like this, sometimes to check on the kids, sometimes to drop off some old sports equipment, sometimes because he just doesn't want to go back to the quiet of his house.
Rosie is the sun in this particular solar system. To make sure Jaden and Joanne stay in their proper orbits, she works nights at Walmart so she can spend the day volunteering in the twins' classroom, usually arriving when the school day starts and not leaving until the final bell. When she can't be at every after-school activity at once, her 27-year-old son Dazen, who lives in the basement with his girlfriend, Andrea, plays backup to Rosie, taking his two-year-old daughter, Aniah, along for the ride.
When Bob Longmore, who would become her second husband, met Rosie in 1999, he figured something must be wrong with her. How could someone who regularly confused passing out from exhaustion with sleeping also be so sweet and kind? (Clearly he had not made the acquaintance of the Rosie who comes out at the beginning of City Lax practices, the one who's hollering at the girls because Coach Gregory is too kindhearted to do it himself: "Hurry up, Nisee! Joy, are you out there?")
"We're just a family who cares about each other," Rosie insists. "Who try to do the best as we can for the kids." But that doesn't explain the gravitational pull here, the pull that's kept Jaden and Joanne away from all the bad stuff on the streets and pushed them toward things like City Lax, the pull that seems to grow stronger with every bit of turmoil and tragedy. First Rosie's bright young nephew was hit by a car and suffered permanent brain damage. Then Bob's son from his first marriage committed suicide. After that, two relatives were killed in separate car accidents and Rosie's older sister passed away. LaCount, Rosie's oldest son, fell out of orbit completely; he's now behind bars.
And in March, another heartbreak: Oscar, Rosie's first husband and the father of Joanne and Jaden, passed away a few days after the twins' fourteenth birthday. That loss hurt Joanne and Jaden worst of all, Rosie's sure of it. But so far, the two haven't talked much about it.
Around here, often all it takes is one more bump in the road for even kids like Joanne and Jaden to go off course. "I did think they were both at risk of gang recruitment," says Terrance Roberts, founder of the Prodigal Son Initiative and a former gang member himself. "They were the popular kids, and a lot of times they target the ones who stand out the most. If they don't keep something positive in their lives, any youth may make a mistake."
Despite all the best efforts of City Lax coaches and volunteers, some players have made mistakes. A few of them with as much potential as Joanne and Jaden were real all-stars in the making — until they stopped coming to practice.
But with the extended family that's grown up around City Lax, it's getting easier to keep the teammates on track. After Kei'zuan's father was shot and killed in a drug deal four years ago, the ten-year-old wrote a poem about how his grandfather had been killed when Kei'zuan's father was ten. In the poem, he promised to break the curse: He wasn't going to die when he had a ten-year-old son. When his lacrosse teammates heard the piece, they were so blown away that they demanded Kei'zuan stand up every day in class and read them a new poem.
While that fifth-grade class spread out to various middle schools the following year, City Lax kept them close — and that spring, the team held a car wash to raise money for a new headstone for Khalil, Kei'zuan's nineteen-month-old brother, who'd died from pneumonia while the five-year-old Kei'zuan looked on.
These days, there seem to be new support systems cropping up all over Park Hill, extended families linked through lacrosse. Local youth football coaches, having heard about City Lax, are sending their players over to Martin Luther King Park each spring. Neighbors driving by Rosie's house are a lot less likely to roll down their windows and ask what the kids are doing with those funny-looking metal sticks. More and more front yards are sprouting lacrosse goals, and more and more neighbors are pulling up lawn chairs on the sidelines of the Saturday-morning games.
"I never thought it would take like this," says Rosie's grandmother Joanne. "I think it's changing the neighborhood."
At 10 a.m., the first practice of the summer season is just beginning for the junior Denver Elite teams. The green turf is brilliant in the morning sun at DU's Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium, one of only two Division I lacrosse fields west of the Mississippi River. On one side of the field, working with the fifteen-and-under team, is DU assistant coach Trevor Tierney, defensive coordinator for the Outlaws, two-time All-American at Princeton, the only goalie in history to have won a trifecta of championships in the NCAA, the Federation of International Lacrosse and Major League Lacrosse. While Trevor's dad, DU coach and Denver Elite head honcho Bill Tierney, isn't around, his aura hovers over the proceedings.
Lax rats from all over Colorado, from all over the country, would do anything to be on a field like this. A few months ago, about 150 middle-school players tried out to do so, and 46 made the cut. Two were from City Lax: Steven O'Malley for the thirteen-and-under team, and Jaden for the older squad.
Stephen's on the field, warmed up and ready to go — but Jaden is nowhere to be found.
Minutes tick by. Trevor and his colleagues work their cadets through lengthy, grueling drills: catching, passing, ground balls. While it's their first time playing together, the kids seem effortlessly in sync, with none of the banter or horseplay that marks a typical City Lax practice.
Finally, 55 minutes into the two-hour practice, Jaden rushes into the stadium, his perpetual grin slightly dampened. "I thought it started at eleven!" he complains as he hurriedly pulls on his pads.
It's not that Jaden doesn't take this opportunity seriously; he and Joanne recognize all the places that programs like this have taken them, all the places these programs will take them in the future. Jaden traveled to a Texas tournament when he made the fall junior Elite team last year, and before that went to Ohio with another competitive team called Colorado Select. And Joanne, playing for 180, has dominated the field in places like Vail and Palm Springs. Their lacrosse schedules this summer will take them even further: Maryland, New Jersey, the fifteen-and-under national championships in Florida. For the twins, these trips aren't about seeing the sights; they're about letting recruiters and coaches see them. There are just sixty Division I men's lacrosse teams, far fewer than in Division I football, basketball or soccer, and just over ninety teams for Division I female players. If Joanne and Jaden hope to hold their own against other players, they have to start hustling now.
"The frightening thing is how quickly the process is going, but unfortunately, we have to keep up with the bandwagon," says Sam Bartron, head of Team 180. "These college coaches are really paying attention to who is out there when they are much younger. And the disadvantage we have in Colorado is that we have to travel everywhere to be seen by coaches. We have to get these kids up to speed with their East Coast rivals, who have tournaments every weekend, coaches buzzing around everywhere. We just don't have that here."
Lacrosse has already introduced Joanne and Jaden to Kent Denver, with its rolling green campus, its hallways decorated with flags from top liberal-arts colleges, its locker rooms where you can leave your stuff lying around and not worry about it getting stolen. If not for lacrosse, they would never have thought of applying here: Many of their City Lax coaches are Kent alums, and several teammates on their competitive teams are enrolled there.
"City Lax is a big piece of it," Tom Graesser, Kent's assistant head of middle school and the boys' varsity lacrosse coach, says of Joanne and Jaden's applications. "Seeing the real tangible evidence of the things they've accomplished, it's very impressive. The joie de vivre they've shown despite having a tough road is pretty cool."
The fact that both Erik and Rod worked their Kent connections when the twins applied here didn't hurt, either. "In my time here," Tom adds, "I've never had so many people come up to me and say, 'These are kids you've got to have.'"
Combined, it was enough for Joanne to score a full academic scholarship starting next fall, when she'll enter ninth grade — but not necessarily enough for Jaden. His future at Kent is still up in the air; he won't hear until late May whether he's been accepted, and if he is, he'll have to repeat eighth grade and figure out how to cover the school's $20,000-a-year tuition without an academic scholarship.
Erik, Rod and others are confident enough that they're already working to scrape up the tuition money, as well as cover travel expenses associated with the twins' many summer tournaments. But even if both Joanne and Jaden attend Kent next year, they know it won't be easy going to a school that's very different from the classrooms they're used to, the ones with Mr. Myhren at the blackboard and their mom sitting quietly in the corner. They've already glimpsed this new world at Team 180 practices, where mansions being marketed by Sotheby's line the suburban field and parents sit in designer fold-out lawn chairs and discuss mountain homes. They've seen it at Denver Elite practices, where a team mom hands out official team socks from an Abercrombie & Fitch bag. Want a few pairs in each color? That will be $54.
And they've heard stories from Trevon, who's already spent two years at Kent. He's told them how the kids drive BMWs and Ferraris, how they ask dumb questions, how one of his lacrosse teammates practices by aiming a ball at the family's brand-new Cadillac Escalade.
"I don't know if they are going to accept me for the way I am," says Joanne. "I am not really preppy. Some people would call me ghetto, but I don't care. It is what it is. I am not changing." Going to Kent will be worth it: "A hundred percent of those students go to college," she notes. "If I go to East, I could have gone to college, but it probably would have been a junior college or a community college, and I don't want that. I want to go to a real college and have a real college experience."
But to do that, she's going to have to do the one thing she struggles with: letting herself shine. Joanne's always been a great student, but something seems to hold her back. Two years ago, when big-time filmmakers who knew Erik — the son of Trygve Myhren, the former CEO of the American Television and Communications Corporation — started coming to practice to film what would eventually become City Lax, Joanne was the toughest nut to crack. When they pointed the camera at her in the classroom, she'd make mistakes on purpose. Eventually, she told them to stop filming her altogether. "I get a lot of the attention already," Joanne explains. "I'd just like for Jaden to shine." To her, it doesn't seem right to shine brighter than her friends and relatives.
But as Erik told her last summer, she can't just vroom on the lacrosse field, she has to vroom in the classroom, too — no matter who gets left in her dust. So slowly, she's letting herself go. This summer she'll be traveling around the country to City Lax premieres with Jaden, Trevon and other players, acting like a real-life movie star.
Jaden's already ready for his close-up. He'll aim that big grin anywhere: film cameras, Kent students, top college coaches. Still, these days there's something lurking behind that smile, something troubling. "Lacrosse, it's the only time I feel good," he says.
He's feeling bad because of his dad. While he and Joanne knew he was ill, suffering from diabetes, they weren't expecting him to go when he did. One day he was stopping by the house, hanging out with the kids, and the next he was gone. He didn't tell anyone when he checked himself into a hospice center in March, didn't ever say goodbye.
Looking back, Jaden thinks he should have known what was coming. A few weeks before the end, his dad had told him he didn't want Jaden playing football anymore, so he could spend more time on lacrosse. This from a man who'd played semi-pro football here and in Canada, a guy who spent his weekends coaching youth football, a father who was so stringent in demanding that his children put 110 percent into everything that it was sometimes hard to tell if it was because he believed in them or because he was just plain mean.
Maybe he told Jaden to quit football because he didn't want him getting hurt on the gridiron. Maybe it was because he knew just how hard it is to go all the way to the top in football — and figured that with lacrosse, Jaden might have a better shot. Either way, Jaden's seriously considering dropping football next year, even though he loves it almost as much as lacrosse. And now, while he may have arrived at the Denver Elite practice an hour late, he's going to do what his dad said and give it 100 percent. And then some.
On the field, it's time for shooting drills — with an added twist: Trevor Tierney's in the goal. Just the thought of staring down a superstar like this would be enough to set some fourteen-year-olds trembling in their cleats. But not Jaden. He grabs a pass from a teammate, spins around a defender and cuts in front of the goal — rocketing a behind-the-back missile straight at the greatest goalie in the game.
The ball smacks Trevor straight in his helmeted forehead and bounces away. Next time, Jaden knows, it'll go in.
May 22, the day of Joanne and Jaden's last regular-season game, starts like their teammate Kei'zuan's poem about City Lax:
Sun barely peeking through the clouds
Parents forming crowds
The chill of the wind has embraced my face
Tears form, the cold sneaking away.
Although the air is warmer than in the poem, the eye-watering wind is here, whipping through the grass in Martin Luther King Park. The crowds are forming, too, ready to watch the eighth-grade boys take on the Panthers from Arapahoe County at 11:30 a.m. and, the next field over, their female counterparts face off against the Columbine Coyotes a half-hour later. In fact, the home teams' cheering squad is larger than normal: babies, grandfathers, local kids who don't play on City Lax but are nonetheless messing with sticks and balls, Rosie Franklin doling out bear hugs.
Shoes tied, check
Tape on my stick
Ah yeah, it's time to hit.
The City Lax boys start things off with a bang: Kris, their face-off guy, wins the ball at first whistle and hustles toward the goal. On the sidelines, Erik Myhren's taking photos of the action and thinking about his next big play: organizing the Denver City Lax premiere at the Paramount Theatre in August. Some of the proceeds will go toward his charity, KNUW Seeds, the rest toward Jaden's tuition to Kent — if Jaden gets in, that is. Rod Allison is here, too, handing out tickets to the high-school boys' championship at Invesco this afternoon, at the same time he's trying to figure out how to get sticks into the hands of more kids in City Park, Whittier, Cole, Curtis Park and Five Points, expanding the reach of City Lax.
Looking down the road for the nod from my coach
It's time to start the show
The silence hits my ears. No more cheers
Just me, the ball, stick in the air, number four coming towards me with no look of fear.
Soon both fields are a blur of activity, with the City Lax players in blue, white and black proving they don't just belong on these fields, they own them. Again and again, speedsters like Isaiah, Kei'zuan, Jada and Marjoya streak down the field on fast breaks. And when their opponents get the ball, players like Patrick and Trevon are usually just as quick to leave them sprawled in the grass. Failing that, José and his wide-mouthed goalie stick make sure the ball never touches the back of his net.
Kei'zuan scores, as do Kris, Miles, Trevon and Isaiah for the boys' team; and Jada, Marjoya, Leora Bibbs, Ahsten Green and Desia Antwine for the girls. At halftime, the City Lax boys are up 7 to 2, and the girls at their half will be winning 6 to 4.
I grab my stick, I juke to the right, swim move to the left
Hold my stick, feet set.
Everybody is yelling, "Kei'zuan, pass the ball!"
But I am only focused on one thing
Getting that ball straight through the goalie's feet.
But as the second half of the boys' game gets under way, the Panthers score goal after unanswered goal. "They're coming back!" hollers Dazen Franklin from the sidelines, where he's clutching the lacrosse stick he uses in the club team he recently joined. On the other field, the Coyotes are coming back, too: They trade hard-fought goals with the City Lax girls until, with less than a minute left, they're one point behind.
This is when the Franklin twins turn on the juice. On alternate fields, Joanne and Jaden make leaping catches at midfield and head off for their respective goals. They're vrooming, blowing past one opponent after another until it's just them, the goalie and the net.
The end is never really in doubt. It's like their game cheer: "1, 2, 3, City Lax – you know!" Both Joanne and Jaden know they're going to score, just like they know, deep down, that both their teams will win today (the boys 10 to 7, the girls 13 to 11). Just like the twins know they're going to roll into the Jamboree in early June and play with every ounce of hunger in their guts. Just like they know that next spring they'll be returning to this hardscrabble patch of green to help their former coaches hone the hunger of their successors, and give other kids a chance to shine.
I jute, I turn, release
The ball flies exactly where I want it to be
Right between the goalie's feet.
Score, the game is won.
City Lax undefeated
And we did it all for fun.
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