May 21, 2010

At ten years old, UMass Boston Men's Lacrosse player Patrick `Packy' McDonagh (Dorchester, MA) was just like every other kid in the park, an energetic child enjoying a rambunctious and active lifestyle. The youngster enjoyed playing basketball or baseball with his friends for hours until he started noticing some fatigue setting in much easier than ever before. Doctors believed the symptoms were connected to a heart murmur but the truth was that McDonagh had a rare heart condition called Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT) which causes the heart to beat at rates much faster than usual, sometimes as high as four times the normal resting rate. For the time being, it was the beginning of the end of McDonagh's athletic career.

As McDonagh transitioned through middle school into high school, he found it harder to be a part of interactive sporting teams such as basketball and football because he was afraid of having SVT episodes in the middle of games. During his junior and senior year at Boston Latin Academy he even gave up playing baseball to join the golf team because he knew his heart would have trouble handling the vigorous practice schedule on the diamond. He saw a cardiologist regularly to make sure he wasn't overextending his extracurricular activities to a point that could potentially put his health in danger.

Entering his freshman year at Suffolk University, McDonagh hit an all time low when he attempted to walk-on to the varsity basketball team but had his worst SVT episode to date. His heart rate exceeded 250 beats per minute after less than 20 minutes on the court and he was informed that he would not be allowed to play until he was medically cleared. It appeared that his days as an athlete were numbered.

Since the episode, he had transferred to UMass Boston and was determined to compete again. McDonagh agreed to undergo an uncommon medical procedure that could alleviate many of the problems associated with his SVT. The procedure took place in February of 2008 and lasted for over four hours. Doctors used several entry points to scope McDonagh's heart and seal a valve they believed to be the major cause to his serious condition. There was no guarantee that he'd return to normal but McDonagh wouldn't be satisfied until he gave competitive sports one last chance.

That chance came in the spring of 2008 only months after the procedure when McDonagh walked on to the University of Massachusetts Boston Men's Lacrosse team.

"Growing up with a heart condition was not easy. Knowing that I had a physical limitation that none of the other athletes had was frustrating, but being told you can't and you won't was all I needed to hear to motivate me to one day compete again. It was enough fuel to inspire me to get back out there," said McDonagh.

After being cleared by his doctors to resume all the physical activities that he'd been deprived of over the years, McDonagh hit the gym on mission. The Dorchester native had accepted a position working at UMass Boston as the Athletic Facilities Assistant so had full access to all of the equipment on campus. He trained for the chance to finally make a team, any team, as long as it meant that he'd have the opportunity to compete. It was during his training at the Beacon Fitness Center where he met Matt Rowley, former head coach of the UMass Boston Men's Lacrosse team.

"[Matt] Rowley saw me in the gym working hard and asked if I'd ever considered playing lacrosse before. I hadn't; in fact, I'd never even picked up a stick. Maybe it was because of my size (6'4'', 215lbs) that he asked me to play, I'm not sure, but all I needed was a chance to prove that my days as an athlete were not over."

With some persuasion from Rowley, McDonagh signed on for what would prove to be a three-year journey over which an unproven athlete transformed into one of the best defensive lacrosse players in the Little East Conference.

It wasn't always smooth sailing for McDonagh. When he first stepped onto the lacrosse field he openly admits that he felt like an outsider. It was foreign territory to the gentle giant and he didn't speak the language. Basic drills such as passing, catching and scooping ground balls required all of his attention and several extra hours of work on his own simply to get him to the level of many middle school lacrosse players.

"I was embarrassed but never let it get me down. I knew that I was a good athlete and thought that I'd be able to pick it up right away but that just didn't happen. It was really slow at first and after only two weeks we were already playing games. It was trial by fire, there were times when I had no idea what I was doing out there but that didn't mean I wasn't going to give everything I had."

McDonagh's teammates admired the big man's attitude on the practice and playing field and began accepting the newcomer as one of their own. They ignored the fact that his skills were not refined and encouraged him to work harder so that he'd get to the next level. Everyone, including his coaches, saw lots of potential. Now it was up to McDonagh to harness and release the talented athlete from deep down that had been restricted from a heart condition all of those years.

It was not an immediate transformation, but over the next two seasons McDonagh began to show signs of a real lacrosse player. He compared those strides to a saying he'd heard while growing up that went something like, `you can't teach an old dog new tricks.' Except he believed there was always time to learn a new trick, or a sport for that matter.

"Things just started making sense. My teammates and coaches were great about helping me learn the game and after a while I started believing in myself and that I could play this game. Once I had that confidence, there was no stopping me."

Over the past three years with the UMass Boston Men's Lacrosse team, McDonagh's numbers have steadily improved. In his first season he played in 15 games, starting seven, while snagging 10 ground balls. After dedicating himself to the team during that first offseason, the junior established himself as one of the team's top defenders in 2009, starting all 13 contests while grabbing 35 ground balls.

"I felt like a lacrosse player. I felt like a real college athlete. I never thought I'd be able to say that five years ago."

His senior campaign proved that hard work does pay off. McDonagh recorded a career-best 52 ground balls, notched his first career assist and netted his first career goal in a Little East Conference game versus Southern Maine. The Little East Conference recognized the defenders accomplishments by honoring him as the LEC Defensive Player of the Week for the week of March 22-28.

Not bad for someone who before three years ago had never picked up a lacrosse stick and been told he'd never be able to compete at that level.

Not bad, Packy, not bad at all.