UNC senior traveled to Uganda to spread lacrosse and charity
On paper, Ryan Flanagan had it all.
During his junior year, the North Carolina lacrosse player was the co-winner of the Schmeisser Memorial Cup as the nation’s top defender.
A business administration major and three-time dean’s list honoree, Flanagan had interned with Nike and Bank of America.
But behind his successful facade, the lacrosse star was battling depression.
And in the fall of 2010, Flanagan decided he just needed to get away.
The rising senior was a semester ahead in school and had little holding him back.
“Aside from lacrosse, there was no real reason for me to be back here,” Flanagan said. “It was either come back and just hang out and get drunk or go do something else.”
In August 2010, while students returned to Chapel Hill, Flanagan packed his bags and flew to the east African country of Uganda.
For two months, he worked with the organization Fields of Growth International, helping to develop the impoverished nation and connect with its people through the sport of lacrosse.
Flanagan is now one of 10 finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award — a distinction that honors athletes who have made significant contributions in their communities and showcased success both in the classroom and on the field.
Through his charitable work and athletic prestige, Flanagan has left a mark on his surroundings. But more than 7,000 miles away lies the village of Kkindu — a place where an impromptu visit gave a struggling athlete so much more.
Taking the plunge
In January 2010, Flanagan was diagnosed with depression. Struggling with personal problems while starting all 16 games of UNC’s 13-3 season, Flanagan had a tumultuous junior year.
And even while interning on Wall Street the following summer, Flanagan couldn’t shake his desire to escape.
After seeing a feature about Fields of Growth on ESPN, Flanagan contacted the organization’s founder, Kevin Dugan.
Dugan told Flanagan about Fields of Growth, and immediately the athlete was sold on making the trip. Without a hint of hesitation, he made what would prove to be a life-altering commitment.
“Ryan did not seem nervous or anxious at all, he just seemed really determined to just try and grow and develop as a person,” Dugan said. “I could just hear in the enthusiasm that he had that he just wanted to have a really deep and soulful experience.”
Flanagan had considered other destinations and programs, but he ultimately decided on Fields of Growth because of its ties to the game he loved.
“I knew lacrosse was kind of the big theme around it,” Flanagan said. “And if I don’t know about anything else in life, I definitely know something about lacrosse.”
Flanagan was set to serve as co-captain of the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team during the 2010-11 campaign, but before taking off, the defenseman had to break the news of his impending departure to coach Joe Breschi and his teammates.
Flanagan said they couldn’t have been more supportive.
“I had known that he was looking to broaden his horizons, if you will, but I know a lot of people weren’t expecting that,” teammate Thomas Wood said. “We were a little shocked, but we definitely admired his decision.”
Building ‘fields of growth’
When Flanagan first arrived in the village of Kkindu, the native children outside marveled at his 6-foot-6 frame.
But moments later, they pounced on the tall stranger, welcoming him with hugs.
It was a greeting Flanagan said he’ll never forget.
“That’s a rewarding feeling — like somebody appreciates you being there,” Flanagan said.
During his time in Uganda, Flanagan helped build an athletic field and schools in the village of Kkindu, all the while keeping in touch with his coaches and teammates back home through regular blog posts about his experiences.
But throughout his stay, when he wasn’t doing manual labor, Flanagan got the opportunity to play lacrosse with the village’s children.
The game was foreign to the children, but Flanagan said they would often play until it was too dark to see the ball.
For Flanagan, the opportunity to share something so dear to him with children who were so eager to learn was an experience like no other.
“It was a gift just to be able to teach lacrosse and spread the game that I grew up with, and just giving back to a game that has given me so much,” he said. “The opportunity to go over would never be here without lacrosse.”
The journey, continued
The 21-year-old returned to Chapel Hill a new man.
“I was coming off living in Manhattan where you have everything to going to Africa where you have nothing,” Flanagan said. “For me, it was an opportunity to be like, ‘Okay I didn’t have anything in Africa and I was just as happy as I was when I was in New York.’”
Since returning to America, Flanagan has continued work with Fields of Growth by organizing lacrosse clinics and donating the proceeds to the organization. He hopes to soon raise enough money to build a school in Kkindu.
Flanagan and Dugan continue to work closely, and the recent UNC graduate might soon have an official position within Fields of Growth.
Dugan said he is thankful for the chance to work side-by-side with Flanagan, and said his passion for giving back is unparalleled.
“He’s very dynamic, very energetic and enthusiastic, and he’s very driven,” Dugan said. “I’ve never met somebody at such a young age who was just so determined to make their life count.”
The winner of the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award will be announced May 28.
But win or lose, the lessons Flanagan took from his experience in Uganda are more than enough to satisfy an athlete whose idea of a break from everyday life turned into a cause he would support for a lifetime.
He might not receive the award. But in the eyes of his teammates, Flanagan will always be a winner.
“He’s one of those guys that does everything right and should be looked up to for it,” Wood said. “He couldn’t have done anything else during his time here to represent Carolina in a positive light. I can’t imagine there’s anyone more deserving.”
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