By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 1/19/09
Twenty-five city youths participated in a free clinic run by LEAPS (Lacrosse, Education, Attitude, perseverance and Success) directors John Christmas and Eric Gregg and five youth teams played in a tournament in the MLK Day Fundraiser at the Starfinder Foundation’s Urban Promise Center in Manayunk.
The event kicked off the LEAPS program, a non-profit program hatched by Christmas and Gregg, two prominent African American pro lacrosse players from the Philadelphia area. Their mission is to expand on previous efforts by local lacrosse officials by building youth programs as well as helping bring high school teams to the Public League.
Monday’s event began with five 5th- and 6th-grade team – Ashbee of Lower Merion, Brandywine Youth Lacrosse, Radnor, Conshohocken and Central Bucks Lightning – competing in an all-day tourney after making donations of at least $500 to LEAPS. Central Bucks won the crown, defeating Ashbee in the finals.
After the tourney, Christmas and Gregg along with 33 members of the Haverford College men’s lacrosse team worked on basic skills with a group of mostly boys. Most of the youths came from Overbook and Roxborough and many were transported by Haverford College.
Henry Ruffin, who coaches the Overbrook Monarchs youth football team, got his players involved in the event because he is also trying to start a lacrosse team and is receiving support from LEAPS.
“My son has played the sport and I looked at the sport and I liked it and I thought it was be something good for the boys,” said Ruffin. “It will open up a lot more doors for them. He needs to learn to play all sport.
“I think the LEAPS program is great. These guys (Christmas and Gregg) are pro-active, they are doing it. You have a lot of organizations that people say, ‘Well, come on up,’ but they want you to do all the legwork. They’re actually working with me, step for step.”
Haverford coach Mike Murphy, whose team is ranked in the top 20 in the nation in Division III, has placed a high premium on community service and brought his team back early from winter break to participate in running the event.
“The inner-city lacrosse concept is something we’ve been very interested in at Haverford since I arrived there seven years ago,” Murphy said. “We did get involved in inner-city lacrosse with a school called Discovery Charter School. John and I have been talking about the concept of LEAPS for a while.
“This is particularly something I believe in strongly, just to give back to the game. From our program here at Haverford College, this is an opportunity to introduce our players to community service.”
Murphy said the potential gain from this event and others involving all lacrosse communities is significant.
“The benefits are limitless,” he said. “It’s another sport and another outlet for the kids. And we keep talking about this with John.
‘If we can get 50 kids to try it, and half play in high school and five of those 25 are helped into college, that’s a big plus.”
Gregg said the event Monday was the first of many community activities that LEAPS will run. This Friday LEAPS will send a large group of city youths to the Philadelphia Wings’ home opener at the Wachovia Center in the name of Christmas – who plays for the team but is taking the year off to start LEAPS.
LEAPS, meanwhile, has launched its website www.leapslax.org. Gregg also noted that LEAPS has developed its initial plan of three initiatives:
1. Expanding lacrosse in the Philadelphia School District. The goal is to build on the Middle Grades program that has run for three years, work with college coaches Chris Bates (Drexel men) and Bonnie Rosen(Temple women) and other Public League officials by building lacrosse into the curriculum. Some work has been done in training PE teachers in lacrosse by Sloan Green, Rosen and other leaders.
2. Help build community-based leagues in the city. They plan to build off of other community leagues in the city such as Pop Warner, youth soccer and cheerleading programs by offering lacrosse in the spring.
3. Helping build lacrosse in the borough of Ardmore, where Christmas got his start. Although Ardmore is in Lower Merion Township and is served by the popular Ashbee program, few African Americans are playing (“There has to be more than one John Christmas,” Gregg said.). LEAPS will give clinics on a weekly basis for 20 weeks at the Vernon Recreation Center and partner with educational services and nutrition experts to make the programs well-rounded. They will start with a group of approximately 30 youths in 3rd through 6th grades in hopes of helping kids participate in the Ashbee program.
Recently, Christmas and Gregg have met with all the major players who have been working to bring lacrosse programs to the city for over 15 years.
Some of them include: the Philadelphia Lacrosse Association and New Start official Jef Hewlings; the Philadelphia Public League and middle school athletic director Rick Howard; and Tina Sloan Green, founder and president of the Black Women in Sport Foundation. They also will be meeting with US Lacrosse officials in the Bridge program as well as lacrosse leaders who have built successful programs in other inner cities such as Boston, New York, and Washington D.C.
“We are maintaining a narrow focus,” Gregg said. “We do not want to get too big too quick; we know the dangers of that. We have to work hard to make this work and get to where we want to be.”