Erwin picked up ball, Hopkins on short hop

College lacrosse: Homewood Field didn't have to cast a long shadow to pull the future `heart and soul' of the No. 1 Blue Jays within its orbit.

May 22, 2004|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Half a mile.

That's about all that's ever separated Benson Erwin from the tradition of Johns Hopkins lacrosse.

As one of four adopted children of Robert and Nancy Erwin, Benson grew up in Baltimore's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood, in the shadows of historic Homewood Field.

He made the short walk from West 39th Street to countless Blue Jays games as a youth, but even if he didn't attend, he always knew exactly what was happening on game days.

Peering out his third-floor window, Erwin could just make out the stadium lights through his thick bifocals. The games were so near that he could hear the cheers of the crowd as they echoed through the neighborhood.

When he was 3 years old, a doctor told Erwin's parents that their son's vision was so poor, he'd likely never be able to succeed in a sport like lacrosse where the ball is small and hard and the action is fast.

But that never stopped him from moving forward - never stopped him from believing.

Even if he didn't know it at the time, Erwin was destined to make that half-mile journey to play under those same lights.

"I don't think about it too often, but sure, there have been times when the odds have been against me," said Erwin, a junior defensive midfielder for Hopkins, the nation's No. 1 team.

Erwin, a three-year starter who has become one of the best in the country at perhaps the game's least glamorous position, doesn't say much about his vision problems. His teammates and coaches will tell you he doesn't say much about anything.

"We're almost done with three years now, and Benson and I probably have said maybe 100 words to each other and I feel like we know each other very well," said Hopkins assistant coach Seth Tierney.

"But even though we're under that 100-word mark, Benson is the first guy on this team I want in my foxhole. He's the guy. He's our heart and soul and he's our backbone."

When he was 3 months old, Erwin's mother noticed that his eyes looked peculiar, that they didn't appear to be in sync with each other. He underwent three operations on the muscles at the sides of the eyes in order to uncross them.

Just after his first birthday, he was fitted for glasses.

"Maybe the doctor was right, maybe Benson wouldn't ever play sports, but I wasn't going to make that decision for a 2-year-old boy," said Nancy Erwin. "It's all he's ever known. It's a part of who he is."

Aside from the operations, Erwin, 22, had a typical childhood. He watched television and played games with his older sisters, Meghan and Kate, and went outside to a nearby alley with his lacrosse stick and fired shots at Carter, his younger brother.

`Treat it like a family'

And of course, there were the practical jokes that the kids played on his mom and dad, who adopted them all through Catholic charities.

"We just treat it like a family, and that's the way it is," said Benson. "My parents taught me at a young age that this is perfectly normal."

Added Kate Erwin, 22, nine months older than Benson: "A lot of people have a tough time talking about [adoption], but this has never been a sensitive subject to us."

Benson, who knows that his birth parents are in the military and that he was born at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County, said he is considering tracking his birth parents down this summer because he's "curious to see where he comes from genetically."

Nancy Erwin works for the American Civil Liberties Union and was employed at the White House in consumer affairs during the Carter administration.

Robert Erwin is an attorney and met his wife when the two were studying at Purdue University, where they were classmates of Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese.

However, it was lacrosse - not football - that often ruled the day in the Erwin household.

Born in Ecuador, Meghan, 25, played at Garrison Forest and Ohio Wesleyan. She is married and teaches autistic children.

Meghan and Kate, who attended Friends School before going to the New England Culinary Institute (she is a pastry chef at the Four West Restaurant across from Homewood Field), once played against each other in high school.

Carter, a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association wrestling champion, was a high school lacrosse teammate of Benson at Friends and is a goalie at Trinity College (Conn.)

"There was always this tension - was he going to score on me [in practice] or am I going to stop him?" Carter said. "But it was fun, almost like just having a really good friend on my team."

Staying home

Benson was a three-sport standout at Friends, teaming with longtime best friend and current teammate Kyle Harrison, but Friends doesn't carry the clout in the eyes of lacrosse recruiters that a Boys' Latin or Gilman does.

Erwin's toughness and unselfishness were never questioned. He has done some boxing training and is hoping to work up to sparring this summer.

He once had nine assists in a high school lacrosse game, but didn't remember the last two because he had a concussion.

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