Lettuce, cabbage or flow are a few of the colorful terms men’s lacrosse insiders use to describe the hair that falls out from the back of a helmet. And for several years, Cole Williams’ long locks were as visible as the No. 14 jersey he has worn for Johns Hopkins.
But this spring, the senior attackman is sporting a shaved head. The radical look is not intended to startle longtime Blue Jays fans or stand apart from the crowd, but a result of the Marrottsville resident and Loyola Blakefield graduate suffering from alopecia.
“Sure, I definitely miss having hair,” said Williams, who turns 22 next Friday. “But growing older and maybe a little more mature, it’s not the biggest deal. There’s definitely more to life than just hair. So when I decided to shave my head, it was a difficult decision, but it actually was kind of freeing to shave your head and have that sense of control over the disease. Once it was all out, it was all out, and I just embraced it.”
Williams is not the only Johns Hopkins player dealing with alopecia. Junior midfielder Jack Keogh has endured the disease “for as long as I can remember,” he said.
Like Williams, Keogh no longer has eyebrows, eyelashes or body hair. He has tried to be a sounding board for his older teammate, but said Williams does not need much guidance.
“I think he’s done great with adjusting to it,” Keogh, 20, said. “Cole has a lot of great things going for him. He’s a super confident dude, and he’s been dealing with it in a great way.”
Alopecia is an auto-immune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly views hair as an invader and attacks it, causing it to fall out, according to Dr. Teri Kahn, a pediatric dermatologist at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore and a clinical associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. Other auto-immune conditions include diabetes, lupus and arthritis.
Although there are generally few health risks associated with alopecia — which has affected athletes and celebrities such as NASCAR driver Joey Logano, American Ninja Warrior contestant Kevin Bull and Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis — the emotional and psychological toll can be heavy, especially among children and teenagers, she said.
“The stigma can be devastating,” Kahn said, adding that there is a market of oral and topical medication that can facilitate hair re-growth. “Hair is such an important part of our identity, and when you start to lose it — especially as a teenager or patients who are very young — this is something that can impact their self-esteem dramatically.”
Keogh, who hails from New York, said his family has photos of him as a 2-year-old with patchy and thinning hair. After finding tufts of hair in his lacrosse helmet during a tournament in the summer after finishing fifth grade, he elected to have his head shaved.
“I think I was almost excited,” he said of showing up for the first day of sixth grade. “My close friends were supportive, and we were 11 years old. So I don’t think any of us really knew how to deal with things like that, those changes. I probably didn’t even process that it was a big thing.”
Because of his nearly lifelong exposure to alopecia, Keogh said he doesn’t fret about the lack of hair.
“For me, a lot of it is having the right perspective about it,” he said. “There are things that could be so much worse. It’s not that big of a thing. I understand that people struggle with it, and it’s hard to adjust to it, but something that helps me a lot is just keeping it in perspective. I’m still happy, healthy, and able to do the things I want to do.”
Williams was initially diagnosed with alopecia when he was 3. The hair regrew, but fell out again when he was 9.
“It was, ‘Why me? Why is this happening to me?’” he said of his reaction. “It was definitely tough when you’re a fourth and fifth grader and you don’t look like everyone else. That was something I was dealing with, but I got used to it.”
After about three years, the hair returned, and when Williams joined the Blue Jays, he perhaps had the longest hair on the team. But last February, Williams noticed clumps of hair on his pillow and shower floor, and in August, he decided to shave his head.
“I said, ‘Maybe I should just buzz it all off,’ and have that little sense of control as to when all the hair would be out,” he said. “So we kind of had a little party with my parents and my best friend. We had a shaved head party where I shaved my head, he shaved his head, and his little brother shaved his head. It was a little celebration.”
Sue Williams said she can recall her then-eighth grade son returning home upset from Resurrection-St. Paul School in Ellicott City because he had been paired with a kindergartner who also was bald. So to see him accepting his current condition has been heartening.
“I think it shows that he’s growing up, and he’s taking ownership of himself and that he can overcome hurdles that are thrown his way,” she said. “It makes you as a parent feel good that you raised your child right and that he sees what really matters.”
Although Keogh will miss the 2020 season to rehabilitate a right knee injury he suffered last fall, Williams leads Johns Hopkins (1-2) in assists (four) and points (10) this year.
Coach Dave Pietramala said he hopes Williams and Keogh become advocates for children dealing with alopecia.
“I think both of them are great examples for young kids that are dealing with those challenges,” he said. “Here are two guys in the spotlight that are on the national scene in lacrosse, and both have a similar medical challenge, and both have dealt with it very graciously and openly. I think it’s a great thing for young people that are dealing with this challenge to see that it’s OK, that it’s OK to talk about it. It doesn’t change who they are and how important they are as people.”
Both Williams and Keogh said they have embraced the positives of going bald, including faster showers and minimal time spent in front of mirrors. They said they also like to poke fun at teammates who obsess over their hair before stepping out in public.
“You’d be surprised by the number of guys on our team that are super concerned with their hair,” Keogh said. “They will look around for their special shampoo and conditioner, and we’ll tell them to check our lockers, and they’ll start going there before they realize that they’re going to the lockers of the two guys without hair.”