Face-off with adversity

Lacrosse: The North Carolina men's team has pulled together on and off the field after one teammate commited suicide and another was hospitalized.

March 27, 1999|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Talk to the North Carolina men's lacrosse players about their losses, and the Tar Heels won't utter a word about their humbling defeats to Pennsylvania and Navy. Down in Chapel Hill, losses take on a more personal meaning.

Over the past two tumultuous months, the Tar Heels have had one teammate commit suicide and another, starting defenseman Matt Kull, hospitalized for what university officials would only specify as "a serious medical condition." Tragedy has laced the North Carolina program, which has had four ordeals involving players since 1995.

It was only four years ago that Kevin Reichardt, a St. Mary's School graduate who would have been a sophomore midfielder for the Tar Heels, was murdered six days past his 20th birthday in a random shooting in Chapel Hill. Then defenseman Peter Murphy was near-fatally stabbed with a pocket knife in 1997 during a fight outside an off-campus dance club. He has since recovered after undergoing surgery to repair damage to his abdomen.

"We sometimes say: How much more wrong stuff can happen to a group of guys in college?," said senior midfielder Ryan Beard, also a St. Mary's graduate. "All you can do is move on and thank God for your health. I hate to say it, but it's just been bad luck."

But No. 14 North Carolina (5-2), which plays at No. 6 Maryland today, has now transformed misfortune into motivation.

On March 15, Kull was rushed to the hospital. Five days later, before the Tar Heels' game against Princeton, Matt's father, Gary Kull, delivered a heart-felt speech to the team and then wore his son's No. 30 jersey on the sideline.

Final score: North Carolina 11, Princeton 10, in overtime. A poignant picture of intensity overcoming adversity.

"That kind of inspired us," Beard said. "He's fighting for his life, so we can at least fight for him on the field as a team."

After a clamorous on-field celebration, the Tar Heels presented Matt Kull with the game ball.

Just four days later, Kull was discharged from the hospital but will not play again this season.

"There was no better feeling than going up and giving Matt's father a big hug," said junior attackman Chase Martin, a former Gilman School standout. "Just to see him smiling was a great feeling. There was a lot of emotion. I'm smiling right now just thinking about it."

North Carolina had a trying time coping with its first hardship of this season.

A month before the Tar Heels' first spring scrimmage, sophomore midfielder Kevin Lawn took his life, sending many of the players into a tailspin. The state medical examiner said Lawn, 20, a native of Ridgewood, N.J., survived for four days at the University of North Carolina Hospital before dying from asphyxiation by hanging. His death was certified as a suicide.

Some players call the days surrounding Lawn's death a blur. Others remember the countless nights when teammates broke down in front of each other, talking candidly about their previous experiences with suicide.

"It's brought us closer together," said freshman midfielder Pat Jackson, a Loyola High graduate. "It's almost as if we're a family and not a bunch of guys just tossing a little white ball around. I think we're succeeding now because of that great sense of family that otherwise wouldn't be there."

Added Jackson, whose friend and former St. Paul's School goalkeeper Alec Schweizer committed suicide last April, "I don't want to say it's beneficial, but it's like you know what to expect now. When your teammates get down and don't want to go to school or practice, you can tell them that it's normal to feel that way."

Although the Tar Heels refuse to blame their two losses on the tragedy, they agree about the lack of concentration and teamwork earlier this season. In mid-March, the players started to reconnect during a four-day trip to Colorado, where they played Air Force and Denver.

At the first practice back, the team received the distressing news that Kull was in the hospital. An ominous sigh could be heard from the huddle.

"You think with Kevin's death, it couldn't get worse," Martin said.

Kull's illness initiated a time of reflection.

North Carolina would be without its vocal leader. The man who supplied the vicious checks. The man who provided the light moments, such as listing his favorite hobbies as weightlifting and eating.

"It shows there's more to life than just lacrosse," said senior midfielder Justin Bowman, a St. Mary's graduate. "It's a privilege to be doing what we're doing. So in the four years you're here, you should give all that you can."

The hard-working and selfless turnaround surfaced in Saturday's triumph over Princeton. It didn't resemble the recent efforts by the Tar Heels.

Of the last 15 loose balls, North Carolina grabbed 10. Of its 10 goals scored, North Carolina recorded seven assists. Rallying from three goals down late in the third quarter, it won its first one-goal game against a top-10 opponent in five years.

But for the Tar Heels, it's not about wins. It's about the losses.

"It seems we've made more visits to the hospital in college than most people have their entire lives," Beard said. "I still remember each instance and when I heard about them.

"But I wouldn't trade these guys for anything, even if we lost every game for the rest of the year. We share a common bond that will last through our lives."

Pub Date: 3/27/99

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