Less than a month ago, Jules Heningburg envisioned himself leading the Redwoods attack against the Whipsnakes at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, during the Premier Lacrosse League Championship Series. An Electrocardiogram (EKG) test that revealed he was at high risk for cardiac arrest under high intensity training altered those plans.  

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Jules Heningburg addressed his Redwoods teammates before exiting the PLL bubble.

Black Lacrosse Alliance Seeks to Be a 'Beacon of Hope and Light'

Less than a month ago, Jules Heningburg envisioned himself leading the Redwoods attack against the Whipsnakes at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, during the Premier Lacrosse League Championship Series. An Electrocardiogram (EKG) test that revealed he was at high risk for cardiac arrest under high intensity training altered those plans.  

It would have been easy to dwell on the negative. Instead, Heningburg searched for the opportunity in light of the obstacle the way he finds open lanes to the goal. That’s what he’s always done. He thought he was destined to play college basketball until he broke his wrist. He transferred to Seton Hall Prep his sophomore year of high school and turned into the school’s first US Lacrosse All-American. He felt snubbed by more established programs, so he stayed close to home and became a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection at Rutgers. He was traded by the Whipsnakes to the Redwoods after the third week of last season. The next week, he set what was then the PLL’s single-game points record.  

He believes that each change happened for a reason.  

“Every opportunity you have is a responsibility,” Heningburg said last week. “You really have two choices about how you are going to handle it. I always choose the latter and want to move forward with my life. That's exactly what I am doing right now.” 

The Redwoods leading scorer last year made his most impactful assist this summer off the field. The grandson of a civil rights activist and community organizer has found his voice as a champion for racial equity.  

“Lacrosse is a predominantly white sport; that's something no one can really deny,” Heningburg said. “But at the end of the day, there are black boys and black girls out there playing, and they don't see anyone like us playing at the highest level. If we could come together and be a beacon of hope and light for these young players, it could inspire them to keep going through everything of what it's like to be a black lacrosse player. 

“We wanted to create change and push this game forward. We knew the best way to do that was to start the Black Lacrosse Alliance.” 

“We wanted to create change and push this game forward. We knew the best way to do that was to start the Black Lacrosse Alliance.” — Jules Heningburg

Composed of the black lacrosse players of the PLL, the Black Lacrosse Alliance, which launched on July 17, was the culmination of more than two months of behind the scenes planning. In reality, it was a lifetime in the making.  

“We all had similar experiences where we were the only black player on a team, or one of two or three if you were lucky,” said Archers LC’s short-stick defensive midfielder Dominique Alexander. “Thinking about all the kids across the country who are picking up the sport that look like us and are outnumbered, we didn't want them to feel like they were by themselves.” 

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Heningburg heard from a familiar voice: Redwoods captain, mentor and the PLL’s Director of Player Relations, Kyle Harrison. “We need to get together and talk about what’s going on,” Harrison told Heningburg. What started as an email thread among the black lacrosse players in the PLL soon turned into a group chat and then a Zoom call every Friday.  

During the first call on May 29, everyone shared instances of discrimination and prejudice both between and outside of the lines. Emotions flowed. Outrage and anger eventually gave way to discussion about how they could use their platforms plus the national spotlight of the Championship Series to make an impact.  

“It was a really productive conversation because everyone was so invested and all these experiences were so personal,” Atlas LC midfielder Romar Dennis said.  

The painful stories gave the group that spanned from New York to British Columbia common ground and sparked a desire for action. They knew they were stronger together but needed to find the best way to unify and present that message. 

A long email from Team USA veteran and US Lacrosse board member Chazz Woodson offered motivation. 

“I have taken a lot of runs, and I am not as effective as I used to be,” wrote Woodson, who was recently named the head coach at Hampton University and was on the Redwoods’ original roster back in March of 2019. “I could draw a slide here or there, but you young guys have to take over and start putting points on the board here.” 

“Alright,” Alexander thought upon reading the email, “if Chazz Woodson calls you up to the big leagues, you have to step up your game a little bit.” 

Many players have taken up the call. Alexander and Dennis participated in an IMLCA Diversity and Inclusion Round Table webinar along with Trevor Baptiste and Whipsnakes midfielder Tyler Warner that was moderated by Redwoods head coach Nat St. Laurent.  

The same day Woodson sent the email, Dennis tapped in his iPhone’s notes app the numerous instances of racism his father experienced after immigrating from Panama to the United States in 1978 to play in the Yankees’ farm system. He wasn’t sure when he’d share it with the public, but he knew there was no power in silence. The commentary turned into a powerful Instagram post on Father’s Day, which Dennis expanded on in an interview with US Lacrosse Magazine. 

“We have the generation right now that is committed to making change,” Harrison told US Lacrosse Magazine in a feature entitled “Silent No More: A Racial Awakening For The Lacrosse Community.” 

At the center of that movement is Heningburg. He shared the first draft of what would become the personal essay “Standing at the Crossroads” with the group organized by Harrison. Heningburg took it upon himself to drive the conversation and help amplify other voices. He talked to athletes behind Major League Soccer’s Black Players Coalition, which launched on Juneteenth, and connected with players in other leagues to both learn about some of their challenges and let them know what was going on in lacrosse. He drew inspiration from LeBron James’s More Than A Vote Organization and the “Stronger Together” video in which prominent NFL players called on the league to release a statement defending black players and condemning systemic racism.  

Heningburg even helped develop the BLA logo — a black fist clutching a lacrosse stick — and sourced t-shirts through Adrenaline Lacrosse and Jono Zissi, the head coach at Torrey Pines High School, where Heningburg is also on staff. 

“I would consider him a leader,” Alexander said of Heningburg. “I totally commend him and appreciate what he's doing to help us all organize our message and be a facilitator for these conversations. It’s very similar to how he's a facilitator on the field and sets up guys for success.” 

As for the name, that took some time and several conversations. Inclusion group? Coalition? Diversity? None of them felt right. At a moment when most issues veer towards the gray and even the most mundane topics can become divisive, Heningburg and the BLA knew they needed a consistent message. A clear and unambiguous voice.  

“It's not easy when you see some of the comments and you hear some of the rhetoric that mistakenly attacks what you stand for and what you believe in,” Heningburg said. “It's definitely something that we've tried to make very clear. Black Lives Matter means one thing to us. Black Lives Matter. People that want to twist that and talk about an organization or talk about anything else is unfortunate because our true mission is to grow this game and make it more available to young black boys and girls in our country.” 

While the BLA did not seek out the permission or approval from the PLL, the league was all in on their stance.  

“Kyle has the league's perspective, but we were going to do this regardless and weren't going to whitewash our message whatsoever,” Dennis said. “We need to be unapologetic and keep things real. We hoped the league would be supportive and they were. It just aligned perfectly.” 

“They had our back,” Heningburg added.  


Romar Dennis (left) and Kyle Harrison have both been outspoken about racial inequity in lacrosse and the United States.

For the Championship Series, a fanless and fully quarantined 16-day tournament in lieu of a traditional season, the PLL gave players the option to wear Black Lives Matter warm up shirts, jersey patches and leg sleeves.  

The statements did not end there. Dennis has worn LaxStraps with the flags of Panama and El Salvador to celebrate his parents’ backgrounds and his Afro-Latino heritage. Many players wrote messages on their cleats like “End Systemic Racism,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and the names of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Redwoods midfielder Pat Harbeson pledged to make a donation to Harlem Lacrosse for every ground ball he collected during the Championship Series “to help fight for equality and create an equal playing field for those who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and limited resources.” The league also connected each team with a nonprofit partner for the Championship Series, like OWLS Lacrosse, which creates opportunities for underserved youth in Chicago.  

And before all the conjecture about chirps and trash talk, the tournament began on a quieter note.  

“At this time, the Premier Lacrosse League asks that we take a moment of silence in recognition of the ongoing fight against racism and prejudice for people of all colors,” PA announcer Chuck Lott said at the start of the NBC broadcast between the Redwoods and Whipsnakes on July 25. By Sunday, the phrasing changed to “for all people of color.”  

Throughout the series, many players have kneeled during the National Anthem, which has been played before the broadcasts. Many teams have locked arms. “Unity,” read one PLL tweet that featured Chaos LC’s Josh Byrne, Tyson Bell and Dhane Smith kneeling while Mark Glicini and Patrick Resch placed their hands on Smith’s shoulders.  

Yet perhaps the most impactful message was a 79-second TV spot that featured members of the BLA. Heningburg filmed his portion while in Utah before heading back home to San Diego. One by one, they addressed the camera directly with statements that began with “I stand for.”  

“If you cheer for us in there,” the video concludes, “stand with us out here.”  

“Ultimately I am much more than a lacrosse player,” Heningburg said, expanding on the video’s message. “If you can't respect and acknowledge me for who I am off the field, I don't really see why I am someone you'd want to be a fan of. Those things are very intertwined. Whether we're putting the ball in the back of the net, getting stops on defense, or leading the league in assists, you have to respect us as human beings first outside of respecting us as just lacrosse athletes.” 

That will not be the last word. After the Championship Series concludes this Sunday, the BLA plans to keep the conversation going along with promoting education and awareness. While the shape that takes remains to be seen, their hope and resolve to make the sport more inclusive persists.  

“The sport is very much reflective of the state of our country in a lot of ways, and the mission to create positive change in lacrosse will pay dividends down the line for the rest of the country,” Heningburg said. 

“If we can change lacrosse, we can change the country.”