Being a professional athlete is not just about playing the game you love at the highest level, it is also about being a positive role model out in the community. Whether it be feeding the needy, bringing attention to their favorite cause or promoting the sport to underserved communities, MLL athletes do their part.
Just like Nick Colleluori did when he founded HEADstrong Foundation, to draw awareness to blood cancers, several MLL athletes devote their free time to raise awareness to causes near and dear to them. Each month we will profile an MLL athlete that encompasses the same selfless core values Nick had and name them the HEADstrong Humanitarian of the Month.
Our first HEADstrong Humanitarian of the Month is Charlotte Hounds defenseman Ryan Flanagan.
Flanagan has distinguished himself throughout his career for helping others. Just this past January he joined teammates and Hounds front office in cooking and serving dinner at the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte.
“The Hounds are always doing things in the community,” Flanagan said about his Ronald McDonald House visit. “They’ll send us a list of community events and ask us what we’re interested in. For me it’s always about doing anything with kids because they give you such a perspective on life. We get so caught up with playing and training and coaching and business and all that kind of stuff, but, when you’re with kids, all that type of stuff goes out the window. And it’s all about what are they having fun with. You’re at the Ronald McDonald House and there are all these families and these kids that are just going through different struggles in the local children’s hospital and the Ronald McDonald House is the -kind of the place for families to go find a safe environment when the children are undergoing treatment. So when the people at the Hounds offered the visit up, I jumped at the opportunity to connect with these people that are in such a difficult situation, but still have such a good attitude.”
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill grad has also been heavily involved in growing the sport of lacrosse by taking it to urban areas and underprivileged children, both with the Hounds and through his own program, Team 24/7, which quickly became the leader in Charlotte’s lacrosse instruction.
“When I was graduating, one of the things that was important to me was where I could play lacrosse and be involved in the community,” He continued. “I wanted to get to know the kids and the fans and the families and wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be somewhere where I could be involved in [working with kids]; again, going back to the idea of how they give you such a good perspective. They keep it fun, keep it interesting and you build relationships with every kid you meet.
“That was something important to me when I was going through college and when I was starting to wrap things up at school. Part of that was, how could I start something—because I wasn’t a teacher—how could I start something that was going to allow me to do that for years and years down the road, and that’s how 24/7 started. I knew I wanted to coach, I knew I wanted to be involved in the community and I knew I wanted to stay involved in lacrosse—because of the love of the game, because of how much it’s given me—so 24/7 started up. Wherever I was going after college 24/7 was going with me, it came down to Charlotte and I got an opportunity right away to work with the local community doing some free clinics and fundraisers through lacrosse. Since then it’s gone from 40 kids at the first clinic to anywhere from 700 to 1,000 kids this past year alone. It’s unbelievable and honestly something that I could’ve never imagined. When you’re drawing it up, you never expect that it is going to get that big and that you’re going to get to know every single one of these kids and everyone of these families that’s getting involved in it.”
Through his community work, Flanagan continues to provide a positive role model to young hopefuls, the importance of which he also stresses to his fellow coaches.
“We have that instant credibility with the kids and they get excited to hear anything we have to say,” Flanagan said. “Because of all we’ve accomplished and where we are in our careers, they look up to us and they respect us, and you’re a role model. It is one of the things we emphasize with all our coaches in that these kids look at you like you’re on cloud 9; you are who they want to be in a few years. And we make sure that all of our coaches know they’re a role model; every single thing they do and every single word they say, when these kids hear it, it’s the most important thing in the world. So, you do recognize it, and that’s what keeps you coming back to it, I think, is how important what you’re saying and what you’re doing is to a kid.
“We hear it every week; we have kids who are writing school papers, or giving presentations at school and what is their goal when they grow up? So many times we hear them say, “I want to be just like Ryan Flanagan” or “I want to go and run a free lacrosse clinic when I’m a high school senior or when I graduate from high school.” So, that stuff really connects you with being around all these kids. And again, that’s just what makes you continue to do it. You know, every weekend we’re on the field for eight or nine hours a day and it can be a grind, but, when you hear stuff like that, that makes it all worthwhile.”
Flanagan cites his leadership formation at UNC as one of the key factors in becoming a positive role model in the community.
“This is one thing that was very important to the coaching staff and faculty at Carolina,” he mused about his time there. “UNC’s athletic department aim is to develop leaders. You can see it in the business world, where so many guys who played lacrosse and were leaders on their respective teams, go on to have success in business or coaching or playing, whatever they do. So, I think, the little things they [UNC] teach you: How do you handle teammates? How do you get kids motivated? How do you get teammates motivated? That’s so important to us when we have a group of kids who are 12 or 13 years old. One of the biggest things for us—and we preach this at Carolina—is that it’s cool to care. It’s cool to be the hardest working kid, to be the kid that’s always going to be the first one on the field, be the first one to finish a sprint, the first one to get extra shots on cage and making it cool to work hard was really important to us at Carolina.
“That’s something that we’ve brought down to these kids; teaching them that work ethic that’s going to separate them on the lacrosse field and separate them in school, in work and in whatever they’re going to do going forward. Just having that mindset and then becoming leaders in themselves. We put a lot of accountability on 12 and 13 year old kids to rile the whole group there and you’ll go out on the field and you’ll have 50 12 year olds on the field at one time and they need to lead each other and they need to lead the person next to them and get them motivated and ready to play and hold each other accountable and it just benefits everybody and the lacrosse community at large in Charlotte. The big thing is just doing it the right way, being a good role model, like we said with our coaches. Those guys are role models and you need to lead yourself down the right path that is a good fit for you and is made for exactly what you do and then the dominoes start to fall and people start to see you carrying yourself the right way and the impact that you’re having on a group of people. I like it.”
With the Hounds, Flanagan sought out a way to give back even more. Together with the Hounds Foundation, the club’s charitable arm, he started Flanagan’s Friends, a program that gives underprivileged families the opportunity to enjoy a Hounds game.
“We’ll buy a group of tickets from the Hounds and we’ll bring kids from inner city or kids from the children’s hospital or if there’s a family that can’t afford tickets, we’ll bring them out to a Hounds game,” Flanagan continued. “We get them a signed Hounds jersey and they’re able to sit and experience the game. So, we’ll bring them in and we have this great environment and we’ll make them fans of the game! They’ll have a ton of people around them to support them and explain who the players are and what we do and I guess explain everything that’s going on with the Hounds. All the Team 24/7 families know and all the families within our club, and they know that this is a family that’s never been exposed to lacrosse and they know where the people are seated and they know why they’re there at the game. So, we’re trying to create new fans of the game, new fans of the Hounds.
“We’re trying to build the sport and do the right thing for kids. After the game, the kids get a chance to come down on the field and we’ll take a picture and they get a chance to meet us and a bunch of the guys on the team. When you take a kid from, just the inner city demographic, and you let him or her experience what it is to be part of the team—even if it’s just for that one hour—he/she sees the camaraderie between the team, he/she sees how we interact, and you hope that what they take away from that is that they want to play lacrosse, and just the impact that being part of a team can have. So when they get back to school or wherever they’re going, they will want to play football or basketball or tennis, anything where they can be part of that team culture where they’re all in something together, and the lessons that can be learned through being a part of the team.”
The Hounds organization has fully embraced Flanagan’s commitment to the community.
“Ryan is devoted to youth lacrosse, so much so that I truly believe he would rather be on the field working with kids than on the beach relaxing,” said Charlotte Hounds President and Managing Partner Jim McPhilliamy. “He really loves being out there teaching lacrosse. His passion for the game and teaching it has really helped grow the sport of lacrosse here in Charlotte.