Edwards a proud Black leader in NLL
Damon Edwards has become one of the most influential Black men in NLL history. He leads by example on and off the floor.
When Edwards was drafted 31st overall in the 2009 NLL Entry Draft by the Toronto Rock, it was an anomaly to be Black and play professional box lacrosse. The few that came before him paved the way for Edwards to establish himself in the predominately white league.
“I can see [the change] from when I started in this league 13 years ago,” Edwards said. “I looked around, and it was maybe me and just a handful of guys. Now, almost every other team has diversity in it. It’s something that’s special, and I think it’s just going to keep on growing.”
Notable moments of Black history in box lacrosse include 2003 when Kurt Silcott became the first Black man to win the NLL’s General Manager of the Year Award. Kurt’s brother, Brian, was one of the earliest Black men to play in the NLL. In 2016, the Buffalo Bandits named Billy Dee Smith as captain of their team. This was an extraordinarily rare honor for a black man at that time.
During November training camp before the 2023-24 season, the New York Riptide named Edwards their next captain. Edwards is the team’s first Black captain and he is the only Black player currently on the Riptide’s roster. It was a surreal moment for the 35-year-old, who is a 12-year NLL veteran. This was something that he never would have dreamed of happening.
“It kind of gives me goosebumps,” Edwards said. “As soon as I was selected as a captain, that actually ran through my head. I was like, ‘Who else has been a Black captain in this league?’ and Billy Dee [Smith] was the only name that could come to mind. It’s something that I don’t take lightly. I hope to be a positive influence for kids growing up and black guys in this league.
“It was a special moment for me, especially with this franchise. This group of guys that we have in the room there – we have a lot of captains in the room. So, to be selected to lead this group was something that was definitely special for me. It’s not something I strived for, and it’s not something I play for. I play to win games with the group of guys we have in [the locker room].”
The announcement was applauded by many, but it was notably recognized with great pride by the NLL’s Black community. After the Riptide’s season-opening game at Nassau Coliseum against the Philadelphia Wings back on December 2nd, Edwards was congratulated by one of the Wings’ Black players, Isaiah Davis-Allen, who is one of two Black players on the Wings.
“The first game I played against Philadelphia, Isaiah Davis-Allen, after the game, he acknowledged me [being named captain],” Edwards said. “He said he was proud to see a brother be captain. That moment there was pretty special for me.”
For Edwards to hear that recognition from one of the younger, talented black men in the NLL was incredibly gratifying. Edwards has spent much of his professional career, both as a player and a coach (he has been a coach in Ontario’s Minor and Jr. A leagues), speaking up and speaking out about what it means to be Black and play lacrosse.
These are conversations Edwards feels we need to have to continue to educate the public, especially the youth, about cultural challenges and racial injustices that many Black people and Black athletes face.
Three years ago, Edwards founded Damon45, a program that focuses on teaching youth about diversity, inclusion and racial injustices. Using lacrosse as a helpful tool to help spread those messages, participants will gain perspective on racial inequality and Black history.
As a bi-racial man who coaches young men at the Jr. A level with the Toronto Beaches, leads men in professional sport with the Riptide, and works alongside brave leaders in his community during his day job as a firefighter in the city of Pickering, Ontario, Edwards has formed a unique ability to effectively and tactfully communicate about issues that have long been difficult to talk about.
“It’s pretty white-dominated in Jr. A as a whole,” Edwards said. “I try to work in life lessons here and there. Two years ago, I spoke to our group about the program I run, Damon45. They were extremely responsive to that. It’s not just about lacrosse; I try and mix in life lessons in there, too.”
With diversity in the game growing at all levels, Edwards believes that it is necessary and worthwhile for black players like himself to be engaged and forthright with younger generations of lacrosse players about the Black experience and the barriers and challenges they’ve faced regarding lacrosse so we can move forward and encourage more diversity in the sport.
“You see players around the league going to these different programs and these different areas where maybe [lacrosse isn’t] as accessible to the kids,” Edwards said. “You see, these kids take to it like no other. You see the joy it brings them – the joy it brought me. I can definitely see the diversity growing more in this league [in the future].”
Taking charge and leading the way has become second nature to Edwards. He has honed his leadership skills over the decade-plus he’s been in the NLL. Having witnessed firsthand how much more diverse and inclusive the league has become since he was drafted, Edwards now hopes to teach through action how the next generation of pro Black players can become inspirational leaders themselves in the NLL.
“I’ve been around for a long time,” Edwards said. “You blink, and then you’re the older guy in the league. I don’t even see it as these guys looking up to me, but I just try to do things the right way. I try to play the game the right way. I try and lead the right way. Hopefully, I can make this a more inclusive place for everyone to play this game.”