International Men

July 11, 2014
Photo by Scott McCall
Photo by Scott McCall

Onen Scores One for Uganda, Makes History Again

Midfielder, whose father died fighting LRA, becomes first African to score in world championship

by Matt DaSilva | | Twitter

VIDEO: Castro David Onen scores the first goal in Uganda's international lacrosse debut.
(James Verderamo/Lacrosse Television)

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Castro David Onen, a 26-year-old baker who had to quit his job to play for the inaugural Uganda men's national team, became the first African player to score a goal in the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship, as the Ugandans made their long-anticipated debut Friday against Ireland.

With chants of U-GAN-DA echoing in the grandstands at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, Onen sprinted from behind the goal, beat two defenders, dove in front of the crease and scored before he landed with 4:43 remaining in the third quarter. Despite trailing 17-1, the players rejoiced and followed Onen to the stands to show their appreciation.

"We have a lot of support here," Onen said. "This is our first time traveling outside of the country. I hope to spread the word of lacrosse in Africa."

Three years ago, Onen scored the first goal in the first game played on African soil. Playing for the Panthers in the August 2011 King's Cup, he won the opening faceoff, ran forward, spun and scored. To hear the Ugandan team general manager Tyler Steinhardt explain it, some 3,000 fans at Makerere University Business School (MUBS) in Kampala, Uganda, stormed the field.

"I scored the first goal in Africa. I'm very glad to come to America, another continent, in the world games of lacrosse, and to score again the first goal," Onen said. "It's a moment I will remember for a long time."

Onen, who as a child fled the Kitgum District in northern Uganda to escape the violence of the Joseph Kony-led Lord's Resistance Army, is one of four siblings. Their father died fighting for Uganda against the LRA. Onen was 15. The family found refuge with an uncle in Kampala, the Ugandan capital to the south. Onen and his two brothers remained there, while his mother, a nurse, and sister returned to Kitgum after the LRA retreated from northern Uganda.

When Fields of Growth International established a lacrosse compound in Kampala, Onen latched onto the sport immediately. So did Keneth Keith "Lubes" Lubangakene, 26, who grew up in war-torn Gulu and also left the North with his family to escape the terror of the LRA. Fleeing in the night, they were discovered by LRA soldiers and scattered in the jungle to hide. Only in recent years did Lubes reunite with his mother, while he also inherited a second family in lacrosse.

Before the Ugandan team departed the dorms at the University of Denver for its first game Friday, Lubes, a DJ back home and designated bongo drummer with the team, turned to Onen with a bold prediction.

"You are going to be the first to score the goal," he said, "because I trust you."

Video: Uganda's First Goal in FIL World Championship
Jul 11, 2014

David Castro Onen scores the first goal in Uganda's FIL World Championship Debut at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. Video by James Verderamo/Lacrosse Television.

Lubes and Onen consider themselves lucky. Some teammates have more gut-wrenching stories to tell.

Defenseman Ronald Otim, Uganda's best player, was born and raised in Kitgum. His father was beaten to death in an LRA attack, leaving him with just his mother and sister. Three years later, his sister became sick with malaria. While she was washing clothes by a stream, she fainted and drowned. A few months later, his mother died of HIV/AIDS. Left with no immediate family, Reynolds moved to Kampala to escape the atrocities of the LRA in northern Uganda and ultimately became a security guard.

After Uganda's historic game Friday, Lubes also thought of his best friend and roommate, Fred "Boketch" Okello, who was kidnapped as a child and forced to become a soldier in the LRA at age 14 after previously escaping in Gulu. Boketch escaped a second time during a firefight with the Ugandan army in the jungle and eventually found extended family in Kampala.

Lubes recruited Boketch to play lacrosse. Both were supposed to come to Denver, but Boketch in recent months would disappear for days at a time and did not make the team.

"I miss him. It's something like 10 years I've been with him and we stay in the same house. I want him to be here. But this is for the game, until I get back, and then I will see him," Lubes said. "I know right now he has some problems with his mind."

Uganda almost didn't make it to Denver. With each step of Fields of Growth's "Dream 2014" campaign came a new financial, political or cultural hurdle. Until recently, the U.S. embassy would not grant the players visas out of concern that they would desert the team and not return.

Castro David Onen leads a celebratory lap around Field 8 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, exalted after scoring the first goal by an African player in FIL World Championship competition. (Scott McCall)

"We've been sleeping in the hallways, taking our mattresses out and putting them in front of all the doors," Fields of Growth founder Kevin Dugan said. "But they did let us know, 'You don't need to worry about that, Coach. We want to go back and be ambassadors for lacrosse.'"

Dugan, whose organization also has established lacrosse in Jamaica, called Onen's goal Friday the most beautiful goal he had ever seen in his life.

Severe weather forced FIL officials to end the game early in the fourth quarter. Ireland won 17-1.

Uganda will play Bermuda on Saturday. If the first two days of the event are any indication, the Ugandans will draw a crowd not only of lacrosse supporters, but also of local citizens who have heard about them. The team has hygiene sponsors donating toiletries and food sponsors donating meals. Several players wore hand-me-down khaki pants during Thursday's opening ceremonies. Most of them have never traveled outside of Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world.

A Denver woman made and delivered bagged lunches for every player before the game Friday. Uganda captain Patrick Oriana stood up from the cafeteria table to accept the meal on behalf of the team, and the players chanted "Asante sana," Swahili for, "Thank you very much."

"You're welcome," the woman said. "Play well. Be strong."

Aimee Dixon, associate director of Fields of Growth, said the players have enjoyed "a different cultural experience of humanity" in the U.S. "These guys don't have national pride. They have village and tribal pride," she said. "For the first time, they're proud to be Ugandan. They are the ambassadors."

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