Josh Square grappled with the enormity of the moment as he stood with Hampton University men’s lacrosse team. Was he up for the next challenge?
The Stonewall Jackson High School senior thought so. After all, he’d come a long way in a short time to reach this point.
He’d overcome the stares and taunts he received from opposing players and fans when they realized he was an African-American competing in a predominantly white sport.
He’d rejected the advice from his club coach and his parents who recommended he wait at least two years before playing lacrosse at a four-year college so he could gain more experience.
And he refused to give up playing for Hampton after he initially failed to hear from Pirates lacrosse coach Lloyd Carter. It all counted for something.
But as he watched this surreal scene unfold before him as the Pirates prepared to take the field for its seminal game as the first historically black college or university to start a Division I program, Square wondered whether he could build on the foundation being established this chilly February afternoon? Or would he crack under the pressure of being a torch-bearer when he arrived at Hampton next fall as part of the program’s first recruiting class?
This was no longer a far-flung pursuit for him. This was real. Only one choice awaited him: Move forward with confidence.
“I stepped on the field and thought, this could happen,” Square said.
The original plan had Square attending Northern Virginia Community College in Manassas for two years and playing for the lacrosse team. It wasn’t a bad deal. Square’s long-time club coach, Rich Klares, ran the NOVA squad and there wasn’t any coach Square respected more than Klares.
Klares took the time to teach Square how to play the sport after Square first became interested in lacrosse as an eighth grader. Square had tried football and track, but found them unfulfilling. A family friend gave Square a lacrosse stick one day and Square began studying up. But he needed more than watching YouTube videos. He needed on-hands instruction.
“When I first got my stick, I lacked the fundamentals,” Square said. “[Klares] is the only person who showed me what to do.”
Klares thought Square had potential. Square was fast and in Klares’ words, “shifty,” which is why Klares moved Square from defense to midfield to take advantage of his speed. But Square faced a steep learning curve after picking up lacrosse so late.
Klares believed Square wasn’t ready to make that initial jump to Hampton, especially to a program facing its own growing pains. Square’s parents sided with Klares, given his extensive lacrosse knowledge.
But Square disagreed. He wanted to play at a higher level immediately so he researched schools that might provide an opportunity. He narrowed his scope to HBCU schools when he came across news about Hampton’s plans to start a Division I program. Hampton’s administration approved the proposal in the spring of 2015 and now head coach Lloyd Carter was putting the pieces into place.
Carter had the background to lead Hampton. He played lacrosse at Morgan State, which was the last HBCU school to field a men’s lacrosse team before folding in 1981. Carter came to Hampton and helped launch and then oversee the school’s club team from 2012-15.
To gauge Hampton’s interest, Square emailed Carter last fall with highlights, but never heard back. Undaunted, Square saw Hampton was scheduled to play a scrimmage at the University of Richmond in January. Square contacted Carter again and in one paragraph expressed his interest in the Pirates.
A few days later, Carter responded by inviting Square to the scrimmage. Square, along with his father Arthur, met Carter in Richmond to talk about joining the team. Carter liked what he saw and offered Square a spot. Although NCAA rules allow Division I lacrosse programs 12.6 scholarships a year, there was no guarantee of money that day. The only guarantee was an opportunity. Square accepted right then.
The next time Square saw Carter was at Hampton’s inaugural game Feb. 12 against Roberts Wesleyan, a Division II school from New York. Square loved the surroundings and the team felt like family, something he said was lacking with his travel and high school teams.
He met ESPN commentator Quint Kessenich, shot around on the field during warmups and spent time with the players. One in particular, junior captain Alex Sales, left a lasting impression.
“He said this program was bigger than us,” Square recalled. “It’s about diversity and you are a role model. It is possible to play Division I lacrosse and be an African-American.”
At first, Square fit right in. He was another lacrosse player dressed in layers to ward off the cold during a travel-team game in the fall of 2014 in Maryland. It wasn’t until the game finished and Square removed his helmet that he became the object of attention from fans.
“All the opponent’s parents stared at me and the opponents stared at me,” Square said. “I basically laughed it off. I was walking with my teammate and whispered, ‘Look over, look over.’ We laughed it off. I did not take it personally.”
Square is accustomed to generating those types of reactions. Participation is rising each year, but lacrosse with its elitist reputation remains a marginal sport for African-Americans. According to the latest data by the NCAA, African-Americans comprised 3.5 percent of the total number of college lacrosse players for 2014-15 compared to an 85.5 percent participation rate among whites.
Over the years, Square has dealt with racially-tinged comments. Some he knows are said in jest, others spoken maliciously. But he found ways to deal with the jabs, intentional or not.
It started in the household, where his parents raised him to rise above color by devoting his time and attention toward something else.
“Being a black man, you have to be better against the others,” Arthur Square told his son. “You are going to be judged not on character, but on color. Once they see [your character] they will respect you. He bought into it.”
Klares reinforced that belief and ensured Square understood he was always welcome on the lacrosse field and race did not matter.
“We talked about it and I let him know it was for everyone,” Klares said. “There is a perception it’s exclusive, but I told him this sport takes in everybody.”
Still, it wasn’t easy for Square to hear hurtful comments about race defining his ability to play lacrosse, especially when he saw himself in a no-win situation with whites or blacks.
“I felt like I could not be embraced by whites because I was black and I could not be embraced by blacks because I played lacrosse,” said Square, who said he was called various names, among them Oreo for being perceived as black on the outside and white on the inside.
But Square, a second-team all-Conference 8 selection this season, refused to take the bait if someone taunted him.
It helped Square he was one of seven African-American members on this year’s Stonewall Jackson team, a rarity given most high school teams have one African-American player on its roster at the most. Andrew Wilborn, a 2015 Stonewall Jackson graduate and Square’s former teammate, also plans to play lacrosse at Hampton.
“I am very proud of Josh and extraordinarily happy for him,” Stonewall Jackson head coach Adam Ward said. “He has a desire to constantly try to improve and the work ethic to match it. This didn't come easily for him; he has matured over the last four years to reach the point he is at now where he knows what it takes and is willing to do it.”
Square’s Christian faith also helped anchor him during the most difficult times.
“I’m not playing for others, but playing to glorify Christ,” Square said. “I play for Him. He gave me the ability to play.”
LEADING THE WAY
Even though Klares advised Square against playing for Hampton immediately, he fully supports his pupil’s decision. Klares told Square his own story of missed opportunity when he let fear stand in the way of trying out for the Toronto Blue Jays in high school.
“What’s the worst that can happen? You try and fail?” Klares said. “I’m more proud of him taking that chance.”
Square’s parents agree, even if Square’s decision to attend Hampton will stretch them financially. The turning point came after Arthur saw the reaction on his son’s face at the Richmond scrimmage.
“He was so excited,” Arthur Square said. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see him get what he wants.”
Hampton went winless this season and did not score more than five goals in a game. But as Square continues to step out, he sees the impact his decision is having. His six-year-old brother Elijah has already begun taking lacrosse lessons. One day Elijah was pouting because he lost a board game. Square told his brother that not everybody wins. Elijah wrote about that experience for school.
“His ultimate drive is not about [himself], but about the difference [he] can make,” Arthur Square said.