Returning to his roots

Former col­lege All-Amer­ic­an re­turns home to the North­east for his an­nu­al lacrosse camp.

Listen up: Far North­east nat­ive Tony McDe­vitt ad­dresses his campers at the 7th an­nu­al Philly’s Finest Lacrosse Camp. Though he lives and works in New York, the Duke grad re­turns every sum­mer. PHOTO COUR­TESY JIM KONIECKI

No mat­ter how far life takes him, Tony McDe­vitt still finds him­self back home in North­east Philly every sum­mer.

At 28, he lives in New York City and makes a very nice liv­ing as a man­aging dir­ect­or at CapRok Cap­it­al, a fin­an­cial com­pany in Westchester County, N.Y. Be­fore that, he earned un­der­gradu­ate and gradu­ate de­grees from Duke Uni­versity, one of the most pres­ti­gi­ous uni­versit­ies in the na­tion. With a Wall Street job wait­ing for him when he fin­ished col­lege, the last place one might ex­pect to find McDe­vitt is back in the North­east.

But one thing keeps pulling him back to the area like a mag­net: lacrosse.

On May 30 and 31, McDe­vitt re­turned to Arch­bish­op Ry­an, where he spent one year as a stu­dent be­fore trans­fer­ring to Penn Charter. The re­cip­i­ent of a foot­ball schol­ar­ship, the Mill­brook nat­ive and Our Lady of Cal­vary gradu­ate ended up fall­ing in love with lacrosse, a bur­geon­ing — but in­tensely re­gion­al — game that hadn’t gained the pop­ular­ity in Phil­adelphia that it had in places like New York, Mary­land and Vir­gin­ia.

Lacrosse was why McDe­vitt was back for the sev­enth con­sec­ut­ive year as the or­gan­izer of Philly’s Finest Lacrosse Camp. In his first year of the camp, McDe­vitt had about 30 kids; now, an­nu­al par­ti­cip­a­tion has swelled to three times that. The growth of the sport in the Philly area is what brings him back each year. For someone who has ac­com­plished so much in the game des­pite not pick­ing up a stick un­til he was 15, McDe­vitt’s ob­ject­ive is to teach kids the ne­ces­sary lacrosse skills at even young­er ages.

“Lacrosse is grow­ing all over the place, in­clud­ing North­east Phil­adelphia,” McDe­vitt said on the second night of the camp, mostly com­prised of first-through eighth-graders. “The mes­sage I preach is to play everything. You don’t need to be a spe­cial­ist in grade school. Do it all. Find out what you like and you’ll see what you’re good at.”

McDe­vitt also played foot­ball and bas­ket­ball and wrestled at Penn Charter, but it was lacrosse that led him to Duke, where he be­came a three-time All-Amer­ic­an on de­fense. He sees the an­nu­al trip to Ry­an each sum­mer as his small part in the ex­po­nen­tial ex­plo­sion of lacrosse at high schools and col­leges across Amer­ica. Once kids be­come aware of the sport and all it of­fers, McDe­vitt main­tains, they’ll be hooked.

“For me, lacrosse mixes the best as­pects of every sport,” he said. “The ag­gress­ive nature of foot­ball, the con­di­tion­ing level of soc­cer, the de­fens­ive spa­cing and com­mu­nic­a­tion of bas­ket­ball and hockey … all of those, to me, make it a no-brain­er.”

Slowly but surely, as lacrosse be­comes avail­able in more loc­ales, young­sters are agree­ing with McDe­vitt. While equip­ment costs can be sky high for some fam­il­ies (a hel­met and stick alone can run you around $400), the learn­ing curve is much less chal­len­ging. Play­ers can prac­tice stick hand­ling, throw­ing and catch­ing against a brick wall by them­selves. There are also no phys­ic­al lim­it­a­tions, mean­ing there are ad­apt­able styles for each play­er, no mat­ter the body type.

With in­terest as high as it’s ever been, this year McDe­vitt transitioned Philly’s Finest to a non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion. The only cost of the camp was a small re­gis­tra­tion fee for in­sur­ance pur­poses, and now that he’s do­ing well fin­an­cially, McDe­vitt spoke of want­ing to put his own money in­to es­tab­lish­ing a sti­pend or schol­ar­ship for kids to at­tend high school and play lacrosse down the line. Lacrosse has been a huge in­stru­ment for suc­cess in his own life, and McDe­vitt wants kids to real­ize the same be­ne­fits the sport offered him, but at a much earli­er age.

“Lacrosse is huge in my life, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” he said. “It’s a big reas­on why I got to go to Duke. I want these kids to have the same ex­per­i­ence I did. We already have a lot of good play­ers out here from North­east Philly, guys who have im­proved so much year to year. What I tell them is, ‘we’re a team, and you have me on your side. We’re all in it to­geth­er.’”

As he’s done over the years, McDe­vitt brought in ex­per­i­enced camp coun­selors to help out. Among them were Kev­in McDe­vitt, his 22-year-old young­er broth­er and pres­id­ent of the men’s lacrosse pro­gram at West Chester Uni­versity; Jack Skeels, a former team­mate of Kev­in McDe­vitt’s and cur­rent mem­ber of the Montclair State lacrosse team in North­ern New Jer­sey; and Ry­an Fo­ley, who just gradu­ated from the Uni­versity of Notre Dame, where he was a lacrosse cap­tain. 

Wheth­er they star­ted play­ing at a young age, like Fo­ley and Skeels, or not un­til later on, as in the case of both McDe­vitt broth­ers, the mes­sage re­mained the same.

“You nev­er know what you’ll get from it un­til you try it,” Kev­in said. “A kid who isn’t good at foot­ball won’t know he’s maybe good at lacrosse un­til he picks up a stick. It’s a sport for any­one: big guys, small guys … it doesn’t really mat­ter.”

“You look back when you star­ted and the guys that helped you, and you just want to be that in­flu­ence for these kids,” Fo­ley said. “It’s a way for Tony to give back to his com­munity, and it’s a way to meet spe­cial people. For me, lacrosse got me a top-grade edu­ca­tion at a spe­cial place like Notre Dame, guided by people who have a spe­cif­ic vis­ion for the sport and its cul­ture.”

Or, as Skeels put it, “The camp shirts some of us are wear­ing say ‘Op­por­tun­ity’ on them. That’s what we’re try­ing to tell these kids; not only is it a huge op­por­tun­ity for your fu­ture, but you’ll love the sport, too.”

When he left to go back to New York that Fri­day even­ing, McDe­vitt had a big smile on his face, which is the case every year. He hopes that lacrosse con­tin­ues to grow in North­east Philly and bey­ond so that he still has a yearly reas­on to come back to his ho­met­own.

“The North­east holds a spe­cial place in my heart,” he said. “The mes­sage here is very clear: lacrosse can be a means to an end, something that will provide struc­ture in a kid’s life, something that keeps you out of trouble. I want them to play in high school and col­lege and get the same ex­per­i­ence I did. I re­mem­ber be­ing them 20 years ago, and I would have loved to have this op­por­tun­ity at that age. I’ve got a busy life, but I wouldn’t change this for the world.” ••

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