Matty Levine ’74 brings lacrosse opportunities to inner city youth

Matty Levine ’74 and CityLax run 52 varsity lacrosse teams across all five boroughs of New York City. PHOTO COURTESY OF SPORTS INFORMATION

Dubbed the godfather of New York City lacrosse by The New York Times, Matty Levine ’74 has been a central figure in the sport for the past two decades. After earning All-America honors twice as a goaltender for the Ephs, Levine continued to play lacrosse after graduating from the College.

Yet arguably his greatest contribution to the sport has been the opportunities he has provided for students in urban areas to play lacrosse.

Levine founded CityLax, a nonprofit organization that engages over 2000 student-athletes in New York and runs 52 varsity teams. CityLax has not only popularized a traditionally suburban sport for boys and girls in the city, but it has also done wonders for academic achievement and students’ futures in higher education.

Levine started his lacrosse journey in fourth grade, playing in his hometown of Manhasset, N.Y. With the help of local high school coach Renzie Lamb, Levine’s parents and other local parents helped organize a youth lacrosse program. Levine expressed his gratitude for his early development in lacrosse. “We had great parent-coaches who helped introduce lacrosse to us in the Manhasset Youth Program I grew up in,” Levine said. “Then I had outstanding coaches for my Manhasset Middle School and High School teams, three who would become future hall of fame college coaches. Incredible!  They developed me at the position of goalie and fueled my passion for the game.  I guess you could say I was just blessed to be able to grow up and play lacrosse in Manhasset, Long Island.”

Levine went on to play for Lamb in high school. When Levine was in 10th grade, Lamb left to become the head coach of men’s lacrosse and assistant coach of football at the College. Lamb had an exceptional 35-year career and was inducted into the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2016.

With his connection to Lamb, Levine began to consider attending the College. “During the recruiting process as a high school student-athlete, my parents impressed upon me how much they thought the Williams academic atmosphere, with small classes taught by an outstanding faculty, combined with the lacrosse opportunity of playing goalie for Coach Lamb was a very special opportunity for continuing my post-high school education and playing career.Levine said. “Coach Lamb had been my high school coach … so reuniting with him was certainly an important factor in my decision. I decided to apply early decision. Fortunately, the admissions office gave me that opportunity.”

In addition to the College’s academic excellence and coaching connection, Levine also mentioned that Williams was unique because, unlike Div. I schools, he could play varsity as a first-year at the College. And he did just that, becoming the starting goaltender in all four of his years at the College and earning All-America honors as a junior and senior.

Following his graduation, Levine continued his lacrosse career, playing on several high-level clubs. “There was no professional lacrosse in those days,” he said.  “Club lacrosse was purely amateur.  We all had busy careers, but the teams managed to practice once a week and play on the weekends up and down the East Coast… I played for about 10 years. After I started a family, I stepped away from playing lacrosse for the first time since I was 10-years-old but then came back to it in my mid -40s to play in tournaments in places like Lake Placid. [Now,] at age 66, I recently played in a tournament in Florida. The guys I play with (and against) have become life-long friends, and some of them are my former Williams teammates.  It is still an honor to play lacrosse at my age.”   

In 1996, after settling down with his family, Levine and his brother-in-law formed New York’s first-ever youth program, Doc’s NYC Lacrosse. Levine recalled the rising popularity of the program. “We grabbed our kids’ friends and invited them to try, and it’s grown to a program of boys and girls, kindergarten through eighth grade,” he said. “We have about 400 to 500 kids playing each year.”

From there, Levine saw the opportunity to not only influence more lives but also to expose kids in urban and often underprivileged areas to lacrosse.

As Doc’s NYC Lacrosse expanded, Levine noticed kids in the neighborhood watching his practices on a Harlem field and asking to play. “They didn’t know what lacrosse was at all; they had never seen it,” Levine said. “They just knocked on the door and said, ‘What’s that?’ And we said, ‘Well, [we’d] love to have you come in [and] give it a try,’ and many of them did.  And so our program took an important step toward diversity as kids from Harlem and the Bronx joined us. This was unique to lacrosse at the time and is part of a continuing trend that our school-based CityLax program has led.”

From there, Levine saw the interest of kids from urban backgrounds and asked the New York Department of Education to help incorporate lacrosse into public schools and underserved areas. In 2006, Levine founded CityLax, helping the New York City Public School Athletic League grow lacrosse from six varsity teams to 52 varsity teams across all five boroughs, drawing 2000 students annually.

It was not an easy journey. Levine had to generate interest in a sport foreign to city kids at a time when social media and network coverage of lacrosse were nonexistent. Levine commented that “just trying to start a brand-new ‘team sport’ in the inner city with space limitations, getting kids out of the mindset of traditional sports and convincing kids to try something new was a real challenge in terms of establishing a lacrosse culture in the first high schools we worked in.”

In addition to marketing the game, Levine was also able to meet the substantial funding  goals to run youth sports programs. Alongside the funding from the Department of Education and the public schools, CityLax hosted fundraising benefits and galas to generate enough resources for a team.

Levine made it clear that CityLax’s priority is not only creating lacrosse teams inside city schools, however. It also maintains and provides follow-up funding for them every year. “We don’t walk away from anything that CityLax has helped to start up,” Levine said.

Another challenge Levine encountered was finding enough coaches for a relatively unknown sport in the city. Levine understood the demands of being a teacher in New York City public schools, as well as the additional responsibility of coaches having to learn the sport themselves. “Finding that person in a school, with or without lacrosse experience, who’s got the charisma and the desire to take on the job is definitely a big challenge because you need somebody in the building who wants to own it, who’s really going to talk it up and get kids to buy in and who will manage it by working with CityLax day to day,” Levine explained.

Even with all these challenges of popularizing lacrosse in an urban setting, Levine has seen the massive impact that CityLax has had on its participants. Every winter, 60 to 70 former college lacrosse players, including CityLax alums, volunteer in free clinics to polish players’ skills and introduce the sport to new faces.

Encouraging kids to think about their educational pathways and having a sense of structure in lacrosse have been major priorities for CityLax, and the results have been outstanding. According to the Department of Education, the graduation rate for New York City public high schools hovers around 70 to 75 percent; in the last two years, CityLax boasted a 98 percent graduation rate, and 95 percent of its students continued on to college.

The social benefits of a team sport cannot be overstated. “After they leave CityLax and go off to college, I’ve had kids call me, ‘Coach, I’m at SUNY Binghamton, and the first people I befriended when I walked on campus were the guys who organize and play on the club lacrosse team; they are all my best friends now,’” Levine shared. “So, think about a kid from the inner city going off to a big state school , looking for some anchors to try to get [their] feet situated. It’s very likely the first time [they have] been out of New York City … and they are looking for a way to connect socially and with their new community; lacrosse has been that connection for a lot of the kids CityLax has helped.”

It is tempting to expand this program, which has yielded exceptional academic and athletic results, horizontally, but Levine prefers to develop the program vertically. He wants to create more middle school programs to get kids interested and developing in the sport early on. In fact, CityLax is currently partnering with communities in Brooklyn and Albany to set up elementary and middle school programs.

Levine’s efforts to bring lacrosse to the city and set student-athletes on the best possible educational paths have not gone unnoticed. U.S. Lacrosse awarded Levine the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015, the Program Administrator of the Year Award in 2008 and the Man of the Year Award in both 2005 and 2007. He was also inducted into the Manhasset High School Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Long Island Metro Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2010.

Even with these accolades, Levine remains humble and grateful. “In my life, I was so fortunate to have had coaches and teachers that gave me the gifts of lacrosse and a Williams education,” Levine said. “Everything I do involving lacrosse today is my way of trying to pass along these gifts to young people, so they may hopefully gain similar opportunities in life that I have had.”