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The First and Only Black College Lacrosse Team

  • Brian Purchia

U.S. college lacrosse is about to hold its championship tournament. Until recently lacrosse has been an elite sport played mostly by white athletes. But, 30 years ago this spring, a black team from Baltimore shocked the lacrosse world by beating the number one ranked team in the country. Now a movie about the first and only black college lacrosse team is in the works.

Lacrosse has been played in North America for hundreds of years. Native Americans say the creator gave them the game, which they sometimes used to settle disputes. Different tribes would play each other with as many as a thousand players attacking goals kilometers apart. People died.

Modern lacrosse is a little less violent. It is a fast paced, hard hitting, high scoring game between two teams of ten. Some of the best college teams in the country are from the Baltimore area: Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and Navy.

Most of the rosters are dominated by white players.

There has been one exception. Another Baltimore college, Morgan State had a team. They called themselves the 'Ten Bears'.

Chip Silverman was a 27-year-old assistant dean of the graduate school in 1969, when Earl Banks, the school's legendary football coach and athletic director, stopped him on a walk across campus.

" 'You being white and all you must of played lacrosse.' And I was joking with him, 'Now Earl, that's kind of racist statement.' He says, 'You're white aren't you?' I said, 'Yeah.' 'You played lacrosse?' 'Yeah.' 'Well, there you go.' He says, 'I need a lacrosse coach.' I says, "I didn't know we had a team.' He says, 'Oh you're starting the team,' ” recounted Mr. Silverman.

Chip had never coached before. But, he put up flyers around campus, and 30 athletes showed up for a meeting. Two-thirds were football players. Many would later star in the NFL, including Stan Cherry.

"After the first meeting he comes up to me and he says, 'The name's Cherry and I hate white people,'" remembered Mr. Silverman.

Dr. Miles Harrison was one of the students that pressured the administration to start the team. Miles and six others had been all-state lacrosse players in high school.

Dr. Harrison says, “It was a bunch of jocks really wanting to continue something at a school where it didn't exist.”

But, it was the height of the civil rights struggle in America and the 'Ten Bears' were right in the middle of it.

“Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated and when you look at that kind of cauldron being stirred and in the midst of that we're trying to bring ourselves as African-Americans into a sport that was pictured as only white," says Dr. Harrison.

Morgan played its first varsity season in 1970.

"I had a defense the first couple years that were primarily football players that averaged about 6 foot 6 inches tall, 270 pounds; now you put a lot of little white, preppy players against us they were terrified," says Mr. Silverman.

Dr. Harrison says, "We had to know as we started to engage these other teams there were going to be some racial difficulties encountered, that's where the world was at that time."

"I always instructed my guys if you're going to react to somebody calling you the 'N' word then you're not going to play on this team," explains former Head Coach Chip Silverman.

"You always worry was there going to be something that was so overwhelmingly racial that it would upset the tone of the game, and the one that I always worried about is the fairness of referees. Were the referees really going to make calls fair enough to allow us to compete?" says Dr. Harrison.

Compete they did, from 1970 to 1975; the 'Ten Bears' were ranked in the top ten, four out of five years. They made the championship tournament twice.

"And in 1975 we were involved in the greatest upset in intercollegiate sports history, we beat Washington and Lee University when they were number one in the country," says the former head coach.

Washington & Lee (University) had not lost a regular season or home game in three years.

Despite Morgan's achievements the school dropped lacrosse in 1981. Since then lacrosse hasn't integrated as much as Chip and others had hoped. Today, there are only a handful of black college lacrosse players.

But, the team's legacy lives on. Miles and Chip wrote a book about the team.

Mr. Silverman says, "Today the best player in the country is Kyle Harrison, Dr. Harrison's son. He plays for the number one team in the country, Johns Hopkins University."

Film Company Warner Brothers has just decided to make a movie about the 'Ten Bears.'

Morgan's president Earl Richardson says, "I think there is a great possibility that in the future we might be looking at the renewal of the lacrosse effort here at the campus maybe by the time the movie comes out and we can get Chip Silverman to come back and we're all right."

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