Mario Lopez, pictured here as a freshman playing in a game against Syracuse in 1989, was a two-time All-American long-stick midfielder at UMass.

Meet Mr. Lopez, a Lacrosse Star Ahead of His Time

When my 9-year old son, Matthew, asked me if I would replace the image of Paul Rabil that had taken up residence as the screensaver on my phone for the last year, I was curious about whose face I would have to learn to live with on my mobile device.

When my son said, “Mr. Lopez,” I immediately thought it was NBA player Brook Lopez. I couldn’t think of another Lopez.

“Which Lopez are you talking about?” I asked.

“Mr. Lopez, my P.E. teacher,” he replied before adding, “Who did you think I was talking about?”

Separate from the fact that having my son's teacher staring back at me on my phone would be nothing short of awkward was the insatiable curiosity about why.

“Because he was one of the best lacrosse players, ever.”

He was?

He was.

If there’s one thing I have discerned from being a sports journalist for more than 20 years, it’s that some of the coolest stories are those that are born by chance. Five years removed from my days sitting on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” anchor desk, recapping NCAA lacrosse highlights, I found myself standing in the gymnasium of my son’s elementary school unearthing the lore of Mario Lopez.

How is it that I have spent countless days of many years inside this school volunteering as room parent — or for field days, fun runs, ice cream socials, auctions, salad bar days and every other calendar event that requires a warm body to chip in — and not know that one of the greatest lacrosse players in the history of the University of Massachusetts and one of the first to ever play Major League Lacrosse was responsible for my son's increased infatuation with the sport?

On the surface, Lopez is soft-spoken and every bit self-effacing, the antithesis of the athlete with a myriad of accolades. He was a two-time All-American and captain at UMass, made first-team All-Pro with MLL’s Bridgeport Barrage and also crossed over into box lacrosse with the National Lacrosse League’s Buffalo Bandits.

Despite a reluctance to embrace his big-shot cachet, Lopez tells an incredible tale of happenstance, by virtue of a fortuitous goad.

“If Mario were playing today, he would be one of the top players. Paul Rabil wouldn’t want to be covered by him,” Garber says. “Rabil could never beat him one-on-one. Mario was the Bobby Orr of lacrosse.”

What started as a double dare on a bus ride home from school in the ninth grade became a zealous pursuit of a dream Lopez never knew he had.

“My friend, David Bloodsworth, lived across the street from me in Amherst (Mass.), and he dared me that I wouldn’t play lacrosse,” Lopez says. “I knew what a stick was, but I didn’t know much about the sport. When I showed up to my first practice, my high school coach, Larry Briggs, was handing out equipment, and he asked me what stick I wanted. I chose the longer one because I figured bigger was better.”

On that spring afternoon, in the dusty grass fields of Amherst Regional High School, the stitches of lines engraving the palms of his hands cradling a lacrosse stick for the first time, Lopez’s love affair with the sport began. But as the expression suggests, there was a betrayal, of sorts.

“My parents didn’t allow me to play hockey or football because of the need for a helmet. My parents grew up in Puerto Rico, so lacrosse was foreign to them,” he says. “I ended up hiding my helmet in my closet for a few weeks. Eventually my mom found it and called me out. By that time, I was all in with the sport and I was able to convince her to let me continue playing. I told her there was no way I could stop.”

By the time Lopez was a senior in high school, his mother, Middy Fierro, whose first name is not lost on anyone who knows the sport, was not only “all in” as well, but she just may have been the original Leigh Anne Tuohy, the legal guardian of Michael Oher, the subject of the film, “The Blind Side.”

Like Tuohy, Middy is the inspirational matriarch of the Lopez family. While there wasn’t the parade of coaches like the procession that played out in the movie, there was one coach whom Lopez says won over his mother.

“Dick Garber came to our home and sat down on the couch in our living room and explained what it would be like to play lacrosse at UMass, as well as the family culture of the program and the balance between Division I athletics and school,” Lopez says. “My mom was completely taken by him. He had such a great demeanor and genuine communication style. He really knew how to bond with people, and my mom decided he was the one.”

Although he had the privilege of playing for the legendary Garber for two years before playing for Garber’s son, Ted, Lopez knew UMass was not a traditional college lacrosse power like Syracuse or Johns Hopkins. That started to change, former teammate Rob Falvey says, in part because of Lopez.

“Massachusetts lacrosse, at the time, was not respected,” Falvey says. “The school was good, but players in upstate New York didn’t respect us. They did after they saw Mario play.”

It’s been nearly three decades since that warm afternoon at Alumni Stadium, but Falvey’s narration of the Minutemen’s matchup with Syracuse is flawless.

“In 1989, Mario’s a freshman, we’re playing Syracuse in our last regular season game. They are No. 2 in the country and they have the best player in the country [Gary Gait]. Mario is covering Gary, and this is a big deal. We’re losing 7-1 and end up coming back to lose by just one [10-9]. Everybody knew who Mario was after that game. There was no better pat on the back for a guy than being asked, as a freshman, to cover Gary Gait.”

“That Syracuse game was definitely a highlight for me,” Lopez says. “I was 18-years old, a freshman and charged with covering Paul and Gary Gait. I was playing at home, the place where I grew up, in front of 13,000 fans. I was able to cause a few turnovers, which was a huge confidence boost for me playing Division I for the first time. That game let me know I could play against the best and hold my own.”

A matchup against the Gait brothers may have fostered a reassurance for Lopez, but for his teammates, it only served to confirm what they already knew. “Beyond just being a very good lacrosse player, he was very cerebral, high IQ on and off the field,” Falvey says. “He was one of the fastest guys on the field and he played as hard and as tough as anybody, but boy was he intelligent.”

“He was one of the most popular players I’ve ever coached,” says Ted Garber, who coached Lopez his junior and senior years at UMass, and drafted him in the inaugural season of MLL in 2001. “The one thing that stood out is just how unselfish he was. It was never about him. At the professional level, there are so many egos to manage, but with Mario, there just wasn’t one. He was one of the easiest players to coach.”

That posture is also what made him a favorite among his teammates.

“The respect Mario had from Sal LoCasio, who was regarded as one of the greatest collegiate goalies, and who was also a senior when Mario was a freshman, is all you need to know about Mario’s work ethic,” Falvey says. “He had so much respect for Mario. Sal was tough; he was very hard on every single player, especially when we lost. I don’t ever remember him being hard on Mario for not doing his job.”

Lopez’s work ethic was on full display after he blew out his ACL at the end of his junior year in 1991. Seven months later, he had some wondering if he had only suffered a sprained knee rather than one of the most devastating injuries in sports.

“If anyone who saw him after and thought he was super-fast, imagine what he was like before,” Falvey says. “He recovered like it never happened. I mean, the guy comes back from that kind of injury and gets even better.”

The seasons flew by, and Lopez, who earned a starting role as a long-stick midfielder, finished his run at UMass as a two-time All-American and a three-time All-New England selection, with a degree in psychology and a scrapbook of memories. With a trunk full of accolades, Lopez left campus with an even bigger challenge than covering the Gait brothers — figuring out what to do with the rest of his life.

“I had a degree in psychology, but I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Lopez says. “It was actually a buddy of mine’s dad who recommended that I work with him. He was a special education teacher and during my senior year I needed a senior project and needed to do some kind of volunteer work. I ended up going in twice a week to work with kids, and that’s how I found education as a calling.”

The work Lopez did with children was not consigned to the classroom, as he found his way back to the lacrosse fields as an assistant coach at his alma mater. For many former college athletes, that’s usually where the story about the glory days ends. For Lopez, professional lacrosse wasn’t an option, figuratively and literally.

“I had no designs on playing after college,” he says. “The MLL wasn’t in existence, so I never thought of myself as a future pro. I was just happy to be playing college lacrosse.”

At the time, club lacrosse, namely the USCLA, represented the pinnacle of the sport, dominated by summer tournaments. It wasn’t long before Lopez was on the circuit, playing for the Brine Lacrosse Club in Boston, an opportunity to still get his lacrosse fix when he wasn’t coaching students who were just a year or two his junior.

But real life was still waiting, and Lopez decided it was time to take his work in the classroom to the next level, enrolling in the master’s program at the University of Virginia.

“At this point, it’s about my education, I’m no longer thinking about playing lacrosse. In my mind I was done. I finished my four years at UMass and that’s it,” Lopez says. “Then I meet the assistant coach at UVA, [current Penn head coach] Mike Murphy. He says, ‘Why don’t you come play with me on Team Toyota in Baltimore?’ I hadn’t even heard of Team Toyota. I looked at the roster and Paul and Gary Gait were on the team. That was just insane. I was like, ‘These are the best players, right?’”

Five years after Lopez made a name for himself as a college freshman defending the Gait brothers, he was now recognizing them as his teammates.

“For whatever reason, I was able to play with these guys. You know, I was an All-American at UMass, but it wasn’t until I played with them that I thought, ‘Wow, I can really hang with these guys.’ It really was an exciting time, because I thought my playing days were over.”

Lopez played for the Bridgeport Barrage in MLL’s inaugural season in 2001.

Lopez played for Team Toyota for two years while finishing his master’s and graduated from UVA in 1998. With degree in hand, Lopez found the walls to hang it on in Glastonbury, Conn., where he was hired for his first counseling job at Gideon Wells Middle School.

Again, Lopez was not restricted to the classroom, and was named the Glastonbury lacrosse coach.

“I was head coach my first year and then I got drafted by the Buffalo Bandits, which was a little strange, because I was older, and it was indoor lacrosse,” he says. “You don’t play with a long pole and I was a defenseman, and indoor you play with a short stick. I showed up and made the team, which meant I just couldn’t do the high school head gig with all the traveling. So, I stepped down and became an assistant.”

The traveling Lopez refers to was exacerbated by what he calls a “young man’s game.”

“I would clock out as a guidance counselor on Tuesdays, fly to St. Catherines, Canada, for practice and take a red-eye home the next day to go to work, and then head to Buffalo or wherever our games were on the weekends,” he says.

And that was just in the winters.

During the summer, Lopez was living out that dream he never knew existed, playing professional lacrosse in the inaugural season for MLL.

“I was drafted by the Bridgeport Barrage, and all of a sudden I’m playing with all the best lacrosse players, I’m on TV and getting paid, and I’m like, ‘Are you serious? How awesome is that?’”

Even more impressive to Lopez is the realization that he owns a special place in the history of the sport, something for which he has an incredible appreciation.

“We were the pioneers. How many athletes get to say that?” he says. “I got to play during an era which is considered to be one that had the best players of our time. That’s pretty special.”

For Garber, it was a no-brainer having Lopez, who was an All-Pro his first season, anchor his defense.

“He was an extremely versatile defender with great instincts,” Garber says. “He was the best lacrosse player to come out of Amherst High School and is still one of the top two or three players to come out of Western Mass today.”


Lopez with a class of fourth-graders at Bugbee Elementary School in West Hartford, Conn. Above him in the orange shirt stands 9-year-old Matthew Bonner, the author's son.

Whatever the measure of success is for Lopez, it is arduous for him to talk about his achievements. Such recognition leaves him at a loss for words, but when Garber paid him the ultimate compliment, it left Lopez speechless.

“If Mario were playing today, he would be one of the top players. Paul Rabil wouldn’t want to be covered by him,” Garber says. “Rabil could never beat him one-on-one. Mario was the Bobby Orr of lacrosse.”

While Lopez seldom comes up in the conversation about the sport’s all-time greatest players, the comparison to Orr is not about numbers, and everything about attitude.

“All the top players, in any sport, have that similarity,” Garber says. “They understand that to sustain success, you have to keep working to get better. That’s all Mario ever did. He took such pride in his work ethic. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s had great success. If you want to talk about compliments, he was always the guy to cover the other team's best players.”

After two seasons with the Barrage, Father Time was ticking, and Lopez decided it was time to call it quits.

“I just kind of got to the point where I felt like I had peaked and wanted to finish on top,” he says. “I can honestly say I don’t have any regrets.”

“Mario never played this game for anything but wanting to be the best player on the field,” Falvey says. “He just tried harder than everybody else, yet he was always smiling.”

Adds Lopez, “Look, no one is playing lacrosse for the money. We play for the love of the game.”

When Lopez retired in 2002, he began another athletic pursuit, earning his P.E. degree from Central Connecticut State University. It shouldn’t come as any revelation that Lopez was splitting his time between classes and running his own lacrosse clinics with Chief Lacrosse, LLC, something he was able to pull off with the support of his wife, Leslie, who shares the same love for kids in the classroom as an instrumental music teacher.

It wasn’t long after their first son, Danny, was born in 2008 that Lopez finally hung up his cleats. He stopped running his clinics, opting for more family time.

“I just wanted to be with my kids, and be a dad,” Lopez says. “I thought I was going to miss coaching tremendously, but I really didn’t miss it at all.”

Lopez may have traded in the turf for more family time, but he was still cradling the sport, unable to stop teaching the game. Today, kindergarteners through fifth graders learn the basic skills of lacrosse from Lopez, who is the PE teacher at Bugbee Elementary School in West Hartford, Conn.

His involvement with lacrosse, though, couldn’t and doesn’t end there. With sons Danny and Lian in fourth and first grade, respectively, Lopez has once again dusted off the dry erase board and is back on the sidelines coaching youth lacrosse in his hometown of Granby, Conn., hoping his boys have even half the experience he had playing a sport he was dared to try.

“I try hard not to over-coach them after practice, and try to just be Dad,” he says.

But Lopez admits he tiptoes that fine line between parent and coach.

“When they play outside at home, I try to let them direct those moments of having fun shooting and tossing the ball around,” he says. “Athletes do better when their motivation to practice comes from within and not from a parent. I’m so appreciative that I have the chance to teach the game to my boys. I’m very lucky.”

Gratitude may seem like a simple emotion, but for Lopez, it’s what inspires his enthusiasm to teach, whether in the classroom or on the field.

“Kids love stories, and one thing I like to do is tell stories about my playing days, specifically stories about being coached,” Lopez says. “I also share stories about great sportsmanship that I remember from my playing days. I have so many examples which relates to what we are doing in the gym.”

Lopez’s lessons have resonated with my son, Matthew, who started playing lacrosse when he was 5 years old. Since then he has played both lacrosse and baseball during the spring. But after four years of double dipping, he decided to take focus on lacrosse this spring. Getting hit by a fastball in the nose last year garners some of the blame, but it was the unintentional influence of his P.E. teacher, and the person holding court on my phone that motivated his decision.

“Mr. Lopez didn’t start playing lacrosse until ninth grade,” my son is quick to remind me, “and Paul Rabil started playing when he was 12, and they both played in college, so maybe I can too.”

As a parent who covered collegiate and professional sports almost my entire adult life, I am schooled on just how many 9-year olds go on to play a sport in college. But Matthew’s reasoning for choosing to only focus on lacrosse allows me to be indulgent, because in that moment, his recognition of Lopez and Rabil’s belated introduction to the sport was not about playing professionally, but rather the aspiration of hearing the roar of the crowd at Richard F. Garber or Homewood Fields. I’ll take that persuasion all day, every day.

It’s worth noting that my son was also curious about the college his current youth lacrosse coach, Christopher Keever, went to — Central Connecticut State. Not once has he asked whether he played professionally.

There are legion of athletes for kids to look up to these days, and Rabil keeps great company with the likes of Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron — my son plays hockey, too — but with all due respect to all of them, when it comes to navigating youth sports, my son’s obsession with Mr. Lopez is nothing short of refreshing.

I miss the sound of his Little League bat making contact with the pitch or the screams from a gaggle of his teammates when he makes the out at first, but I can’t bemoan that tradition being replaced by an eagerness to be just like his teacher, who happens to be one of the game’s greats.

“That why we teach and coach,” Lopez says, “to hopefully have a positive impact on kids. It's been a while since I've been interviewed for a lacrosse-related article, but it's been great thinking back on my playing days and what an awesome influence lacrosse has had on my life.” 

While Mr. Lopez didn’t make the cut as a screensaver, there is a relic hanging in my son’s little man cave, next to his favorite piece of memorabilia adorning his room: the iconic picture of goalie Jim Craig celebrating Team USA’s victory over Russia in the  “Miracle on Ice,” which is fitting considering Lopez’s influence on the sport of lacrosse, reminding us that “great moments are born from great opportunity.”

With the images reflecting in the large picture window that looks out on the backyard, I listen to my son running around the swings and behind his rebounder, narrating his own play-by-play, pretending to be Lopez in a national championship game, and I can’t help but be reminded of the words of legendary Baylor football coach Grant Teaff: “The best teachers coach their students and the best coaches are great teachers.”

For Lopez, who works tirelessly to be great at both teaching and coaching, and who was hailed as having one of the most ardent work ethics in the game, the irony is not lost on his summation of his experience.

“I’ve had a very lucky life,” he says. “I always look back with such gratitude. So far, so good.”

Michelle Bonner is an Emmy, AP and Murrow award-winning journalist who spent seven years as an anchor for ESPN.