Clare Lochary

A trip to Africa gives Ryan Flanagan a new global perspective

by Clare Lochary March 07, 2011 in Lacrosse


Most people look up to Ryan Flanagan. They kinda have to. He’s 6-6.

“If you’re physically bigger than someone, they’re going to look up to you. It’s human nature. Standing out can be a strength,” said Flanagan, a senior defenseman for the nationally ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.

Being a leader is important to Ryan Flanagan. On the field, it comes naturally to him. The senior is a first-team All-American and the current co-winner of the Schmeisser Memorial Cup, an award presented annually to the best defenseman in the nation.  Off the field, he has to work at it a little more. Flanagan has thrown himself into the Carolina Leadership Academy and Sigma Alpha Lambda national leadership and honors organization.

“The big thing for me was becoming a vocal leader and that’s a huge thing for a ton of people. Going out and working hard is the easy part; knowing what to say and how to say it is harder. When the cards are down, you’re the one who needs to step up and say something,” said Flanagan

Flanagan’s leadership ambitions extend beyond the 60 x 110 dimensions of the lacrosse field, though. A diligent student, he maintains a 3.3 grade point average and found himself ahead of schedule to graduate last spring. After consulting with his coaches and family, he spent the fall 2010 semester traveling in Africa working with Fields of Growth, an organization dedicated to bringing lacrosse to Uganda.

“We need Africa more than Africa needs us. If I didn’t go there, it would not have touched my life and changed my worldview. And I definitely wouldn’t be smiling right now just at the thought of making a difference,” said Flanagan.

Last season, Flanagan and the Tar Heels were eliminated from the NCAA tournament in a 17-9 loss to archrival (and eventual national champion) Duke. Thus Flanagan found himself watching the final game at home, where he caught an ESPN feature on Fields of Growth, founded by Notre Dame director of Lacrosse Operations Kevin Dugan. Flanagan was planning to go to Costa Rica on his semester abroad, but the chance to incorporate lacrosse into his travels was too good to pass up.

“If I’d gone to Costa Rica, I would have been in the classroom with no teaching degree and no language skills. Coaching lacrosse and talking about lacrosse is the one thing I could do, so we used lacrosse to open a lot of doors and draw interest to the development work,” said Flanagan.

Besides teaching kids from the village of Kkindu his favorite sport, Flanagan helped local students cut down trees to build desks for their school (he admits he’s better with a lacrosse stick than he is with a machete) and visited a Ugandan to learn how his African business student counterparts viewed the challenges and opportunities of developing nations.

“We need to get the future leaders of Uganda involved in the development of their country. They know better than anyone else what they need,” said Flanagan

Flanagan is involved in several service projects closer to home as well. He has been active in organizing both the Susan G. Komen Foundation tennis tournament in Chapel Hill and lacrosse clinics around the country to raise money for breast cancer research and to help those suffering from depression.

As for 2011 season, Flanagan’s academic achievements have allowed him to carry a lighter course load and focus totally on lacrosse. During his junior year, he led the team in caused turnovers (36) and was second in ground balls (60). He hopes to improve upon those numbers as a senior, and to help propel the Tar Heels to their first final four since 1993. For all the good that came of watching last year’s semifinals on TV, he’d rather be there in person. North Carolina is off to a 3-1 start, and Flanagan has been a big contributor with 12 ground balls and 5 caused turnovers. The longpole defenseman even contributed two goals in a critical 10-8 win over Navy on February 25. It was the first time he had scored since his freshman year. He was self-deprecating about his rare attack contributions.

“That was a total fluke. I closed my eyes and shot. Right place, right time,” said Flanagan.