ERIC GREGG knew exactly what he had brought back to his West Philly home. But everyone looked at it like it was something alien. Was it a tennis racket? A hockey stick?
No, it was a lacrosse stick. Gregg had borrowed it to show his parents. That Christmas, Santa brought Gregg his own lacrosse stick.
And so Gregg's love for lacrosse began, and later inspired him to introduce inner-city children to the sport.
According to several surveys, lacrosse has been one of the nation's fastest-growing team sports for more than a decade, a trend that continued in 2012.
Gregg, the son of former Major League Baseball umpire Eric Gregg and the head coach of St. Joseph Prep's lacrosse team, would like to see the sport grow even more among inner-city kids. It's why Gregg, along with former Lower Merion great and two-time All-America John Christmas and Penn Charter grad Billy McKinney, founded LEAPS (Lacrosse, Education, Attitude, Perseverance, Success) in 2008.
LEAPS started with about 40 kids. Today, Gregg runs the nonprofit program 11 months a year with as many as 500 kids participating.
It all goes back to when Gregg was in fourth grade at Episcopal Academy. An Episcopal teacher, George Wattles, introduced him to the sport.
"I'll never forget my father's reaction, 'What the hell is that?' when I first came home with the stick," recalled Gregg, laughing. "It was the same reaction everyone had in the West Philly neighborhood where I grew up. We're talking 1987, 1988, so no one knew what it was. Everyone called it a hockey stick or a racket. Even when I got older, dad used to refer to it as a racket. It was borrowed. I'll never forget it - it was a quick stick."
Gregg attended Wattles' summer lacrosse camp. He admits he wasn't very good at the start, then someone asked if anyone wanted to play goalie. Gregg thought, why not? By the end of the week, he was chosen best player of the camp.
By the sixth grade, he was moved up to play for Episcopal's seventh- and eighth-grade team. When he reached high school, he shared time in the net for the Churchmen. But his ability was enough to get him noticed by Gettysburg College, where Gregg played while earning a bachelor's degree in sociology.
He played briefly for the Philadelphia Barrage, backing up goalie Brian Dougherty, the son of Episcopal's legendary basketball coach Dan Dougherty. Brian Dougherty was the 1995 NCAA Tournament MVP for Maryland before becoming a National Lacrosse Hall of Famer.
"The game changed my life," Gregg said. "It introduced me to a whole new world. But there was something I noticed. I was always the only African-American kid playing lacrosse in grade school, in high school, and in college, it was the same way until my junior year, when two black kids from Baltimore came to Gettysburg.
"With the Barrage, I played with Bobby Horsey [a West Chester native] so I was usually one of two or three African-Americans on a team growing up. I received a lot of encouragement coming up. But I wanted to encourage other kids to try and play the game.
"What I see today is concerning. Why aren't more African-American kids playing lacrosse? It's the main reason I started LEAPS, to see 26 kids from the program playing college lacrosse and get a college education."
The idea was literally spawned on a bar napkin. Gregg had been working with Christmas running a clinic at Penn Charter, which coincided with an AAU basketball practice. They couldn't help but notice when one of the basketball players wandered over and grabbed a stick, mimicking what Gregg and Christmas were running with their kids.
"I remember John and I both looking at each other," Gregg said. "We were watching the kid and thought the same thing - why not start something to get inner-city kids involved. But it had to be more than just playing the game. We wanted to make it about attitude, and attitude of gratitude. We wanted to show we could help these kids make the leap into lacrosse, so we came up with the acronym. We had guys that started us, and through them, we learned to love the game. Why not show another generation what was opened for us."
They're succeeding. The program began with barely enough equipment to fill a garage, but now Gregg has to rent out storage facilities to house all of the donated equipment LEAPS receives from high school and college programs throughout the area.
With the NCAA Final Four being played in Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field this weekend, Gregg holds onto his grand dream of one day seeing a LEAPS player suiting up for an ACC or Ivy League school.
Eric Gregg, the larger-than-life umpire with the large personality, died of a stroke on June 5, 2006. He passed away before he got a chance to see what his son Eric created. Eric stopped for a brief moment to reflect on his dad and how happy he thinks he would have been to see how his son's selfless act has encouraged others.
"At the end of the day, when I see a LEAPS kid just go to college using lacrosse, we know we're doing something right," Gregg said. "We're using lacrosse to mentor kids and get them there. I love working with kids, and I love lacrosse. My dad even came around to know it wasn't a racket. For me to be able to do this, I know he is smiling."