October 27, 2008

Oct. 27, 2008

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Lacrosse Magazine. To get LM delivered to your mailbox each month, visit www.uslacrosse.org and join US Lacrosse today.

by Rochelle E.B. Gilken, Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Julian Owens had a lacrosse stick in his hands every day at after-school day care. His mother didn't know what it was used for, and she was worried about her boy, who failed second grade with a learning disability and was growing up without a father since he was eight months old.

"I had no idea of anything about the sport other than there's a stick and a ball, and he always wanted one," said Jennifer Owens. "He never went anywhere without his stick. His first stick was bigger than him."

During his second try at second grade, she let him join the team at Melaleuca (Fla.) Elementary School and watched his first game in shock.

"I went back to work with my mouth hanging open. `Oh my God. What have I done?' There's a stick flying at him constantly," she said.

She has not missed a game since.

The second-grader who tried to play big against fourth- and fifth-graders is now a sneaky 6-foot-1, 175-pound attackman.

And Julian, now a junior at Palm Beach Central (Fla.) High School, keeps his grades at a B average.

"If I didn't have lacrosse, school would be really hard and difficult," said Julian Owens. "It keeps me motivated. I need a 2.0 to play. And I have to run if my grades drop below a C. I don't want to run."

In his sophomore season, he earned first-team all-district and second-team all-league. His father has not attended a game.

"He knows I play. He's going through things. If he doesn't show up, it doesn't matter really. I wouldn't mind if he was there, but it's his loss. Coach is always there for me. I can ask him anything," Julian said.

Julian, 17, gets life lessons and hand-me-down lacrosse equipment from coach Bill Allen. Julian even suits up in some of Allen's old gear.

Allen has been Julian's coach since day one, from elementary school to high school. Allen remembers Julian's relentless pleas to play. When he failed second grade, his only concern was whether Allen would let him on the team. He cared about that more than anything. But Allen gave him a chance.

"He was a kid that really wanted to play and showed it by having a stick in his hand every day," he said. Owens calls Allen the positive male role model in her son's life.

Allen is the president of the Palm Beach Lacrosse Foundation, which runs the lacrosse team that Julian joined in elementary school. The foundation is an affiliate of the US Lacrosse BRIDGE (Building Relationships to Initiate Diversity, Growth and Enrichment) Program, which helps promote lacrosse in communities where children typically wouldn't be exposed to it or have the money to play. Just about everyone on Julian's team ate free or reduced-price lunch, Allen said.

For seven years, Julian has helped Allen give lacrosse clinics for the Palm Beach Sports Commission.

Owens still doesn't have the money to play. Jennifer works as a hairstylist around her son's lacrosse schedule and they make do with what he can get.

He needed new cleats, but those will have to wait. He uses the same gloves he wore in third grade, but those will have to smell. They're snug, but they're good enough.

"I work out deals where I make out payments. I try to buy things or borrow them," Owens said.

Julian bought new sticks with his birthday money each year, and only now does he have the luxury of a stick with a titanium shaft.

He scored 40 goals and 40 assists as a freshman, then upped that with 43 goals and 40 assists as a sophomore with the Broncos.

"I can score and feed. Most people can feed or score. I can do both. I'll penetrate, make a defenseman collapse on me and I'll feed," he said.

Julian is lanky and quick. When he is in front of the net, goalies take cover.

"When he had the ball, I was always on guard for the shot," said Jimmy DiFrisco, the 2008 All-South Florida first-team goalie for Palm Beach Gardens High School. "He scored on me a couple times. I think he is the guy who put the most goals behind me in a single game."

Owens is a two-sport athlete. He also plays varsity basketball, but recognizes that his best shot at a college scholarship is through lacrosse. For a black kid growing up in urban West Palm Beach, his choice of sport seemed strange -- at least at first -- to many of his basketball teammates, relatives and friends.

Julian's basketball buddies ask him what he does with the stick he carries around. Some of them went to his game to support him, encouraging him to do a pick-and-roll and shake an opposing defender.

His family, too, doubted his selection.

"When he was younger, his dad and uncle said, `Why are you letting him play a preppy white-boy sport? What's he going to do with that?'"

But Jennifer had an answer ready.

"I looked at it as a way for him to be successful at whatever's going to give him the advantage," Jennifer said. "He's dedicated, loyal. I want him to be as successful as he can be."

She said that once her relatives saw the intensity of the game and Julian's skills, they stopped doubting it.

And though his sport may be alien to his friends, being Division I material for any sport affords respect in the halls of his high school.

"They compliment me and say, `Oh, he's D-I,'" Julian said of his friends. "I know he will play somewhere in college," said Allen.

Lacrosse may not have been the obvious fit for Julian. His opponents and teammates were often privileged. But he said he never felt like an outcast or an outsider.

"I always feel part of the team," he said.

Before a game and even on the sidelines, Julian is usually by himself. Quiet. Reserved. The most conversation his mom typically gets out of him is, "I'm good. I'm fine."

His attitude comes out as soon as the ball hits his stick.

"Once I get the ball everything just comes to me. I get it and just go with the flow," he said.

He realizes lacrosse isn't for everyone, but he has this advice for someone who is interested but might not be the stereotypical lacrosse player:

"Try it and see if you like it. You never know until you try it. Don't follow someone else's dreams. Follow yours."

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