Jules Heningburg ignored the text messages and social media notifications flooding his phone in late May as he concentrated on work for a new digital training program he was launching with his sister Chiara Quinn.
But the buzz persisted, and Heningburg finally relented late on the evening of May 26th. He was in a five-bedroom house near Pacific Beach in San Diego, but the video mentally took him about 2,700 miles away, to his family’s home in Maplewood, New Jersey.
The killing of George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer, tapped emotions deep inside of Heningburg, as candid comments from his father and eye-opening stories of his grandfather echoed through his mind.
Heningburg has had a transcendent lacrosse career, which included the distinction as the first U.S. Lacrosse All-American at Seton Hall Prep and a two-time captain and All-American at Rutgers, that has him among the Premier Lacrosse League’s brightest stars. But Floyd’s death inspired a revelation about Heningburg that many did not know.
He is black.
In his Twitter post, he shared he was “privileged.” He was able to fly under the radar because of his lighter complexion, though his older brother, adopted brothers and best friends could not.
“Being black can not be a DEATH SENTENCE,” he concluded in that post. “Speak up.”
He accepted his own challenge.
Unlike other pro leagues, Heningburg’s words and actions could kickstart meaningful changes in the PLL and the sport because of the powerful influencers empowering him to speak his truth. Heningburg hoped his insights would resonate in the tight-knit lacrosse community and then they steadily beyond.
Jules Heningburg grew up in Maplewood, N.J., a diverse community about 12 miles away from Manhattan in New York. His grandfather, Gus Heningburg Sr., was described in a lengthy obituary by the Star-Ledger as “One of Newark’s Most Influential Figures.” The story described the breadth of his impact, from his stint as an Army intelligence officer to recruiting lawyers and raising money for the NAACP legal defense fund in the early 1960s, to integrating New Jersey’s construction trade and hosting an NBC series called “Positively Black,” where he had the opportunity to interview luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and James Baldwin.
Jules’ father, Gus Heningburg Jr., had a front row seat to much of the racial tensions in the area, and he was often a target of racial discrimination. Because of his experiences, Gus Jr. was mindful to ensure his children were aware and empowered, though he always reminded them that they would have to be “twice as good to get half the credit.”
Jules, though, didn’t fully grasp his dad’s messages and considered him just being “overprotective.”
In February 2012, that all changed when police fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin while he walked back from a convenience store. In a rush, all those lessons and stories from his father and grandfather finally clicked for the then 14-year-old Jules.
“I existed in this middle ground,” Jules said of his early mindfulness of his own racial identity. “I didn’t feel the fear and anxiety, and didn’t have the negative personal experiences because of my skin color.”
As he matured, he started to see race more clearly. This was particularly clear as he transitioned from playing basketball with only black teammates to lacrosse, where only 2.8 percent of Division I men’s lacrosse players are black, according to a 2018 NCAA report. Still, Jules’ older sister Chiara played lacrosse, and their father had an appreciation for the sport so he made the move even though none of his black friends took it up with him. Initially, he longed to be accepted by his white teammates, and he believed they would only come around if he was the team’s best player. That was the driving force to his rapid growth in the sport.
But then came a harsh lesson.
“I realized it didn’t matter,” Jules said, “and it really hurt.”
Like Jules, his sister Chiara also has a light complexion, which led others to assume she was white. She remembers in middle school a classmate joking about a black person hanging from a tree in the park.
"They didn’t think anything of it with me standing there,” she said.
Chiara said her and her younger brother were protected by their family and diverse community, though she witnessed the sting of race when Jules was at Rutgers.
Despite his age, Jules quickly earned a starting role. A parent of a player Jules passed on the roster made a racist comment before a game in the stands that Chiara overheard. The other parents, meanwhile, said nothing.
“I kept my mouth shut,” Chiara said. “But I knew there was going to be a lot of uphill work for him to get the respect he deserves. In his entire career, he’s never been touted as the best of the best, or given the accolades because he went to Rutgers and not Johns Hopkins. But he helped transform the program and change the culture.”
Even though the origins of lacrosse are widely attributed to Native Americans along the Eastern Canadian-U.S. board, in the 20th century it had become an East Coast prep school sport played by suburban white males.
If players are looking to play college lacrosse, they need to attend camps and clinics across the country. They also need to play for elite level travel clubs, all of which can average $8,000 per year, a 2019 story in the Daily Orange noted.
Jules shared that he was grateful that both his parents were able to provide great opportunities for him and his siblings. Jules attended nearby prep school Seton Hall and his family encouraged him to participate in many sports including lacrosse.
Jules’ experience highlights the hard-to-ignore facts around race in his beloved sport. A point guard in basketball, he was naturally suited to be an attacker in lacrosse. The first player he looked up to was Billy Bitter, a shifty attacker for the University of North Carolina. But Jules was expected to grow taller, so shiftiness wasn’t going to be one of his strengths. He then looked up to Steele Stanwick, a two-handed attacker at the University of Virginia who would lead the Cavaliers to a national title and win the prestigious Tewaaraton Trophy, given to the nation’s top player.
Like the majority of elite lacrosse players, both Bitter and Stanwick are white.
“There weren’t a lot of black players who were playing attack and playing my style,” Jules says.
Instead, black lacrosse players were often cast into one position, defensive midfielder. On most teams, that player is usually the team’s most athletic, needing to have excellent lateral movement, top-end speed and the endurance to cover a lot of the field.
He wonders how much his light complexion enabled him to continue as an attacker instead of being shunted to a defensive position as ‘that was what was expected’ even though his body and playing style were more suited to offense.
Silence No More
After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery outside Atlanta and George Floyd in Minneapolis Jules needed to speak out.
“I feel we all have a voice,” Jules said, “and, in my community, I could strike a chord. I felt a responsibility to share.”
As he prepared his thoughts, Jules said most people would presume he was being a “good white guy” by making a strong statement condemning the killings of Arbery and Floyd.
So his initial post quickly established that he’s black. Then he crafted a draft of a subsequent post, titled “Standing At the Crossroads.” Jules shared his story with depth and perspective. But he wanted some feedback, so he shared it with his childhood best friends and his sister Chiara.
Chiara wasn’t completely comfortable with Jules’ post.
“I was scared for him,” she said. “I come from corporate America, and I’ve worked with influencers from the beginning of my career. I was nervous because I didn’t want him to be eaten up and spit out.”
But before publishing the post, Jules received a text from Mike Rabil, the co-founder of the Premier Lacrosse League. Rabil knew Jules’ father, Gus, and he wanted to check in to see how Jules was coping in the wake of Floyd’s death. Jules told Rabil about what he was writing and asked if he wanted to see the draft. Rabil asked if he could share the draft with his brother Paul Rabil, a PLL star playing for Atlas and the league’s co-founder.
Knowing full well that lacrosse wasn’t the most progressively-minded community, Jules naturally had concerns about sharing his story, but the Rabils’ support emboldened him.
“That was the defining moment,” Jules said. “If they’re willing to back me, then we can really get somewhere. For the longest time, at least in college, the messaging in lacrosse was, ‘No one is taking a knee in the locker room.’ If you took a knee, you’d get shamed.”
At 8:25 p.m. on May 29th, Jules posted his story on Twitter and asked his roommate to film him reading his story for his Instagram account. They were shared and liked widely and broadly.
The reception has been overwhelmingly positive.
Both the Rabils were among the 447 Twitter users who retweeted Jules’ post. And U.S. Lacrosse Magazine published his Twitter post.
— Jules Heningburg (@Julesheningburg) May 30, 2020
Jules isn’t one to sugarcoat things, so he doesn’t when he’s talking to young black kids who are playing — or are interested in — lacrosse. Expect to be called names, not accepted, receive fewer opportunities and fewer chances to make mistakes.
“It’s hard for me to tell them that it’s going to be easy and that they may want to quit,” he said. “But if those things don’t defeat them, they’re going to get to a point that they are so strong, they can overcome anything.
“I personally seek challenge and difficulty,” Jules added. “If you don’t have it, you will not grow as a person.”
Heningburg, 24, believes he has a lot of growth in him. Though he’s just beginning his professional career, Jules is determined to use his voice and his platform.
“I want to leave this game significantly better than I found it,” he said, “and I want to do this for as long as possible.”
Soon, he and some other PLL players will announce the Black Lacrosse Alliance, which he hopes will be an example to kids that there are positive examples and individuals they can look up to, something that was limited for him.
Chiara said that Jules is a middle child, someone who never “rocked the boat.” But she’s proud that her little brother has remained true to himself.
“I’m thankful that he’s still just Jules,” she said. “He’s stayed true to himself, and that’s hard to keep, as you navigate this big, crazy world.”
Jules and Chiara have just introduced Mission Primed, described on its website as “a four-day, invite-only Digital training experience (designed) to prime the next generation of lacrosse student-athletes heading off to college.” Jules said what he knows now would have been so helpful for him when he was younger.
“If he’s able to shed a tiny bit of light and be in a position to empower just one person to create change within themselves, regardless of color,” Chiara said, “that will be a success.”