The cameras were on, but the lacrosse-stick-carrying teens surrounding the city's police chief were reluctant to smile. A coach urged them to loosen up a bit, but their game faces were on.
"This is lacrosse," Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III reminded the crowd gathered next to the Johnny Unitas statue at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday. "You're either going to smile or act real tough."
In the end, everyone smiled as Bealefeld draped his arm around the middle and high school students who are part of a growing lacrosse league that partners with Baltimore police officers throughout the city.
The Parks & People Foundation's Baltimore Middle School Lacrosse League is expanding this year from six to 10 teams, and the commissioner hopes to see 30 teams competing. It's a jump from just a few years ago when Bealefeld began the project mentoring a single team at Calverton Middle School.
For the police, the partnership is a way of getting cops into the communities they serve and, as Bealefeld said, "Give our young men role models." All the teams in the league come from economically depressed areas of the city, and it's a way of expanding the reach of a sport that can be viewed as elitist.
But the commissioner has another goal in mind — "grow the next generation of lacrosse players so we have a formidable force in the region."
Organizers timed Saturday's event to coincide with the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic, featuring an afternoon of lacrosse with Georgetown, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and UMBC, among others. It was all lacrosse all the time, and Bealefeld didn't disappoint with his intimate knowledge of the sport. He played mid-fielder in high school from 1976 to 1980 and in community college, giving up only after he broke his collarbone on the field and took his police academy entrance exam wearing a neck brace.
He quizzed the teens on teams he thinks have a shot at this year's championship — for the record, the commissioner doesn't think Hopkins will win — and he singled out a young man who is an example of what the day was all about.
William Winer started playing in the lacrosse league while at Bluford Drew Jemison Academy in East Baltimore. He credits the discipline — kids can't play if their grades are poor, they get into trouble or show bad attitude — with getting into Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, regarded as one of the city's better high schools.
There, at the age of 14, he's already made the varsity lacrosse team and is studying architecture and culinary arts. Lacrosse, Winer said, "gave me a chance to do something different."