To many fans in the Lone Star State, it’s common to view other sports as something to do when you can’t play football. The pressure on kids to not only play, but win for their hometown, presses heavily on their shoulders. When the culture makes it clear that football is king, is there any room for multisport athletes?
One of the first pioneers to break through the societal norm, Brandon Mullins, made the decision to forgo playing college football to pursue a concept that’s too often not a factor in these decisions: having fun. Even until the mid to late 2000s, lacrosse had very little traction in Texas despite the season not overlapping with football. Coaches can demand athletes put lifts, meetings, and offseason get togethers as their top priority, often pulling rank over the various teams student-athletes may be a part of. But for Mullins, there was a great draw to not only football, but lacrosse too. Even as a young kid, he found the connections between the two sports that could help elevate his skills on both fields, while giving him a mental break when switching from one to another.
In his hometown of Coppell, Texas, lacrosse is far from unheard of. Each year the game draws greater participation numbers and for kids growing up in the new millennium, the sport isn’t attributed with the outcast stigma. When Mullins found the game in the fifth grade, the only option to get started was to scour for gear, or, as he and many others did, head down to the local Sports Authority to buy a complete starter pack. Once he had a stick in his hands, a bond with the game started growing stronger by the day. Habits quickly formed that were uncharacteristic to a young kid in North Texas.
Sticks were being strung, unstrung, then tied up again. YouTube was scrubbed for any highlights, tutorials, or news related to the game he was falling in love with. Before long, a pack of middle schoolers were joining Mullins, talking lacrosse, sharpening their skills, and absorbing anything they could about this foreign world they were diving into.
The growth of the internet helped propel these kids from a non-traditional area, having access to knowledge never shared in their own backyard.
Mullins and his friends weren’t the only ones, but they were trailblazers of a culture that’s growing like wildfire across the state. They all bought into it together and immediately started defining the look of lacrosse players in their area. Where they went, their sticks did too. The pack of young lax junkies turned into a solid core of talent staying together through high school. College lacrosse in the area carried little weight and televised games were far and few between, all focus was on the Coppell High School program. Every lacrosse player in Coppell wanted nothing more than credibility for their sport. In Texas that comes through winning and national recognition, a constant uphill battle.
For years, resources from gear to games were slim pickings. Now the game is growing leaps and bounds down south. In 2015 the Major League All-Star Game took over Houston to test the waters, drawing a large crowd for the exhibition. Top NCAA programs return to participate in the Patriot Cup, inviting recognized D1 men’s and women’s programs to compete in Dallas for a kick off to the regular season. Mullins attended this year’s Cup, now in its eleventh year and relocated to The Star, a state of the art indoor facility built for the Dallas Cowboys and used by the community for various events. On the men’s side, Notre Dame squared off with Georgetown, followed by Duke and Stanford women’s teams. The event also featured three high school games and to Mullins’ surprise the 12,000 seat indoor stadium was filling up to absorb the action. Fans were met from Houston, Austin, and all over the South, making their way to Frisco for the weekend’s lacrosse festivities. Riding the wave, it was recently announced this year’s MLL Championship will also head to the NFL practice facility. Along with the dedicated lacrosse fans, Brandon believes the draw of pro sports in air conditioning and Frisco’s growing economy will be enough to draw a crowd. He feels the Texas community craves any lacrosse played at the highest levels and will pack stadiums at the drop of a hat.
To Mullins, this is all happening because Dallas has become a lacrosse hotbed, followed by incredible growth in Houston and Austin too. He’s been a part of the growing pipeline of student-athletes to NCAA schools putting the state on the map. Brandon firmly believes there’s some high quality players in Texas and the more college coaches realize that, the more coaches will come to check it out. For now, the ones that do pull off the jump from the South to the NCAA are the ones that have stayed committed to the sport. They force people to notice them and Mullins is no exception. He had to look past handfuls of football scholarships to the nation’s top universities to set sights on playing lacrosse for one of the world’s most historic programs at Syracuse. Both games hold a special place in his heart, but he couldn’t find it in himself to put down the stick despite what society was shaping him to do.
It paid off. He played in all seventeen games as a freshman, taking the starting job by the end of the season. It led to multiple conference championships and four NCAA Tournament appearances, along with multiple All-ACC Team honors, ACC All-Tournament Team nominations, and listings on the Tewaaraton watch list. Not bad for a kid from Texas. Now Brandon is living back in Coppell, finishing grad school and coaching at his alma mater. There’s enjoyment for him in watching the explosion. He’s watching cities add multiple youth teams and towns picking up the game that he’s never even heard of. It’s still not a school sport, with most struggles coming from keeping the clubs organized. Those in charge come and go, while the teams are still forced to navigate around school sports, primarily football. With help of athletes returning to their roots, like Mullins, the line of communication is opening and the level of education is growing across the board. Each season he sees the game working to mirror the way things are done in the East as a model and it’s bringing progress.
Brandon Mullins is doing his part. He’s one of the few that really knows what these lacrosse-crazed kids are going through and has carried the weight from other sports, classes and extracurriculars. Balancing lacrosse and life can be difficult, especially in the football-centric state. Knowing that, he makes the time to share his experiences from his upbringing, his time at Syracuse, and playing the Boston Cannons to give back in anyway that fits. To flourish, the game need graduates to match feet with Mullins to not only open the door for future generations, but to hold it as they navigate their way through.