How Syracuse Legend Rodney Dumpson Rekindled His Love of Lacrosse

TEEING OFF ON THE 18TH HOLE at the Village Club of Sands Point, Rodney Dumpson had one of those rare moments when the world makes perfect sense.

The private golf course had lush greens and breathtaking views of Hempstead Harbor and the Manhattan skyline. A wealthy Long Island enclave, the Sands Point peninsula inspired the fictional East Egg of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” a century ago.

It’s also just a stone’s throw from the Port Washington public housing project where Dumpson grew up.

Dumpson glared at the Guggenheim Mansion, the epitome of opulence with its Italian Renaissance-era architecture and historically preserved features.

“Something came over me,” he said.

Dumpson turned to his golfing friend and former Schreiber High School lacrosse teammate Stuart Lieblein, a commodities broker who played at Hobart and currently serves as president of the Port Washington Police Athletic League (PAL).

“Stuart, what do you see?” Dumpson asked.

Confused, Lieblein replied, “What do you mean?”

“I see a clubhouse and a mansion.”

“What’s your point?”

“It’s crazy to me that if a kid just got an opportunity, this is what could happen. You’re talking to that kid.”

In that moment, Dumpson felt a renewed appreciation for the sport that took him from Port Washington to Syracuse. He played on the first midfield line alongside the Gait brothers from 1988-1990, winning three NCAA championships and scoring the deciding goal in a 13-12 win over Johns Hopkins in the 1989 final — a game better known for the epic encounter between Gary Gait and Dave Pietramala, now the head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, at Syracuse.

Dumpson had buried that memory along with the others. He had a complicated relationship with lacrosse. “Bittersweet,” he said, souring on the sport after the New York Saints released him in 1993. He scored in each of the six games he played as a pro. But it wasn’t enough.

“It’s a love-hate with this game,” said Keith Owens, Dumpson’s lifelong friend who was a year ahead of him at Schreiber and Syracuse. They frequently were the only two Black players on the field. “You’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far.”

“If a kid just got an opportunity, this is what could happen. You’re talking to that kid.”

DUMPSON WENT RATHER FAR, considering he did not know his father and his mother died when he was 6. His older sister, Wendy, was his legal guardian. The youngest of six siblings, Dumpson seldom stayed in one place. But he had the support of his extended family and a diverse group of friends from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“On Long Island, in towns that are extremely wealthy but also have poverty, kids go to school together,” Dumpson said. “It’s what makes Long Island special.”

In middle school, Dumpson befriended Cliff Mendelson, whose father, Herb, was an All-American soccer goalie and lacrosse team MVP at Syracuse in the 1940s and was a senior partner at a prominent law firm in New York.

“A Jewish family. How about that?” said Dumpson, the youngest of six siblings. “I spent a lot of time with that family. Ski trips, family events — they basically adopted me.”

Dumpson previously tried lacrosse in grade school but his family pedigree pointed his ambition elsewhere. His uncle, Bill Dumpson, starred in multiple sports at then-Port Washington High School and was the first Black player named to the All-Newsday basketball team. He went on to play baseball at South Carolina State, striking out 17 batters in an exhibition against the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League and leaving with the opponent that night to join the pros. He spent three years in the Negro leagues and also played basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters, where he earned the nickname Showboat.

In Dumpson’s family and the neighborhood where he grew up, basketball was the measuring stick. That other sport with a stick? It wasn’t even a consideration until he saw Owens play.

“I’m a student of many games. I’m a people watcher,” Dumpson said. “I got to sit back and watch Keith.”

Neither Owens nor Dumpson were recruited to play lacrosse in college. Owens went the junior college route, becoming a two-time NJCAA All-American at Farmingdale and Nassau. Dumpson joined the workforce, spending two years at Aristo Grid Lamp Products installing aircraft lights.

Both played for Harvey’s Lax Club, routinely outperforming Division I players who came home for the summer to compete at Cantiague Park in Hicksville. That’s where legendary Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr. discovered them.

Owens had blazing speed, a lightning quick release and distributed the ball with pinpoint precision. Dumpson had a powerful shot and downhill dodging ability. Simmons was busy breaking new ground with the Gaits in British Columbia, but Cliff Mendelson convinced him to add Port Washington to his itinerary.

“He just kept pestering Coach,” Owens said. “I had never met Roy. Never spoke to him. I met him when I got to Syracuse. The day I got there was the day I got my acceptance letter.”

OWENS AND DUMPSON ARRIVED at Syracuse in the spring of 1987. Owens played sparingly. Dumpson redshirted.

Owens emerged the next year, scoring 11 goals as the Orange went undefeated and won the NCAA championship his senior season. He went on to play in the USILA North-South Game.

Dumpson won two more NCAA titles with Syracuse but found himself frequently overshadowed by Gary and Paul Gait. During ESPN’s broadcast of the Hopkins-Syracuse final at Maryland’s Byrd Stadium in 1989, commentator Leif Elsmo characterized Dumpson, who finished with 16 goals that season, as “pretty much a guy who carries the water for the Gaits.”



While Dumpson understood why some saw him as an accessory on one of the greatest teams of all-time — “The entire lacrosse world carried the water for the Gaits,” he said. “We still do.” — he would soon establish his own place in lacrosse history.

With Syracuse ahead 12-11, Dumpson retrieved an errant pass from Paul Gait near the ground, whipped it behind his hip with one hand, set his feet, crow-hopped and sent a blistering shot past Hopkins goalie Quint Kessenich for what held up as the game-winning goal.

Back home in Port Washington, Owens listened on the radio as Dumpson put the finishing touches on a game that’s still considered among the best in NCAA championship history.

“I was proud,” said Owens, who was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame last year. “We’re best friends. We’re from the same town. We’ve known each other since we were 5 years old.”

Owens and Dumpson remain close today. They’re business partners, co-owners of Chip Away, a company that removes road rash and does paint repair on leased and used vehicles for auto dealerships in the tri-state area.

“We’re connected at the hip,” Dumpson said. “I don’t know how to finish my sentences without Keith.”


Port Washington (N.Y.) products Rodney Dumpson (6) and Keith Owens (1) both played for Syracuse in 1988.

DUMPSON HAD BARELY FINISHED HIS SENTENCE on the 18th hole when Lieblein challenged him to rekindle his connection to a sport that inspired a kid from the Port Washington projects to reach his potential. All it took, Dumpson insisted, was an opportunity.

“You’re right,” Lieblein said. “So what are you going to do about it?”

When Dumpson returned to his home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, he called Gary Gait, who had recently been named the head coach at Syracuse after a successful 14-year run with the women’s team. Then he called USA Lacrosse regional director Harry Jacobs, coordinating a sizable donation of sticks to the Hempstead PAL lacrosse program.

“I know what it feels like to play with inferior equipment,” Dumpson said. “Back in my day, everyone played with the Brine Superlight and I got a wooden stick. Psychologically, that plays a role. Now, who wants to play with an old Superlight when everyone’s playing with Stallions?”

In November 2021, Dumpson was the special guest of the Harlem Jets during a USA Lacrosse Pick Up & Play clinic in the Bronx — part of National Celebrate Lacrosse Week.

“He was like a rock star to those kids,” Jacobs said.

Thirty years after figuring he had left behind lacrosse for good, Dumpson has rediscovered his sweet spot. He coaches his 14-year-old daughter, Lila, who plays for the Franklin Lakes/Wyckoff rec league team. She just started playing lacrosse.

“You’re talking to a product of what can happen if you put a lacrosse stick in an athlete’s hands,” Dumpson said. “The most important thing I learned at Syracuse was everybody has a role to play, just as in life.”