By: Griff Volker
In August 1941, an aviation cadet named C. Markland Kelly was assigned to duty onboard the USS Hornet before the aircraft carrier was dispatched to the Pacific Ocean. At 24 years of age, he was just a year removed from his spectacular season as the goalie for the University of Maryland’s Men’s Lacrosse team. The next year, however, his F4F Wildcat fighter plane did not return from an escort mission during the Battle of Midway. To this day, the exact circumstances of C. Markland Kelly’s death are unknown, but his legacy has lived on in the lacrosse community through the Kelly Post Lacrosse Club and its Vice President Matt Lewandowski.
“The program was started by the American Legions Post, and that’s where the ‘Post’ comes from,” he said. “The ‘Kelly’ is the C. Markland Kelly Foundation…so with the heritage of our program, it’s great that to get the kids out there to talk about what the veterans and the guys in the armed forces do.”
Matt, a former attackman and 1989 graduate from the University of Delaware, has coached his Kelly Post team in the Shootout for Soldiers for the past three years. Matt first became involved through Pat O’Connor, a mutual friend whose son was involved in the first year’s event.
“When they were first organizing it, I remember Pat talking about it and we went, ‘Yeah, we’re in’,” Lewandowski said. “So right from the get-go it was an off-the-charts awesome idea, and then to have Tyler and his friends pull it off the way that he did, it’s really impressive.”
“We actually played, our group of nine and ten year olds, in the very first hour of the very first Shootout [for Soldiers] at Boys’ Latin,” he added. “It’s the coolest thing that your kid is going to do as part of a youth lacrosse team.”
Matt started coaching at Kelly Post when his son and his teammates were suiting up for the U-11 team, and has continued to coach teams in that age group. In the Shootout for Soldiers, he has coached two Kelly Post teams and even a team for the Looney’s lacrosse club. Not one to sit on the sideline the entire day, he also plays with the “old man’s lacrosse” team, as he describes it, around the 1 AM time slot.
One way he makes the games for fun for his players is by mixing up his Looney’s and Kelly Post teams. He says that this strategy ensures that his young players are not just participating in another typical lacrosse game.
“I’ll try to get thirty or forty kids signed up for Kelly Post and we’ll play each other and mix up the teams,” he said. “It’s fantastic, with the pro guys out there and the coaches from college and high school, it’s a bit like a lacrosse reunion.”
Last year, his players were very excited to be coached by MLL players Michael Kimmel and Dan Burns. Despite the excitement of these guest coaches, Lewandowski makes sure these boys know the importance of the Shootout for Soldiers’ mission.
“Whatever you do you can do because of the sacrifice of the guys that go and defend our freedom”, Lewandowski said. “I try to get the parents to have the kids try to raise a couple of bucks on their own, so they understand what impacts us. It’s not just another lacrosse game. It’s a different experience. It’s not about who wins or loses, it’s about playing and recognizing that you have the freedom to play because of what others sacrifice for it.”
One conversation during last year’s Shootout for Soldiers has resonated in Lewandowski’s mind while he was playing in one of the early morning games.
“I was playing with one of the veterans who had never played lacrosse before,” he said. “He was in town and heard about the Shootout and he’s like ‘I’m going to play lacrosse’. So I was playing attack and he was playing defense and I got to chat with him while the ball was at the other end. He was asking me ‘What should I do?’…it’s cool that guys like that recognize the event and come out to the event. And he was like ‘Gimme a stick, I’ll go out there and do it’. It was really cool for me. We were talking about what was going on at the time with Afghanistan and his experience.”
For this year’s Shootout for Soldiers, Lewandowski is looking forward to again both playing and coaching in the event. While he says he is decent shape, he is not as concerned with a potential injury as much as he is with staying involved with the Shootout for Soldiers. He is proud to say that he was part of the first game in the inaugural Shootout for Soldiers, and he is looking forward to seeing the expansion of the event to five cities this summer. Lewandowski is glad that he has been a part of helping veterans who need the support that the Wounded Warrior Project provides. His Kelly Post team is similarly looking forward to this year’s event.
“It’s such a unique event, and the fact that we’re able to raise money for the veterans organization and to raise some awareness is awesome,” he said. “Who wouldn’t miss doing it? It’s great to raise money for great things.”