Matt Rambo stood out in lacrosse so much in the fifth grade that he played two age groups above other 10-year-olds. Even then, he rose above his competition.
"He was two years younger than seventh-graders [and] shot it 10 miles an hour harder than anybody we played, and was one of the more dominant players in the tournaments," said Brian Dougherty, Matt's fifth-grade club coach. "I just remember him being unbelievably good at his craft since the fifth grade."
Over the years, the relationship has grown between Dougherty and Rambo, who will play for the Philadelphia Wings when their inaugural National Lacrosse League season starts in December. When Dougherty was named head coach at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy two years ago, he asked Rambo to be his offensive coordinator. Rambo graduated from La Salle College High School, so his decision to take the position took awhile.
Now, as both a high school coach and professional player, Rambo intends to be a presence in Philadelphia. It is where he grew up. And after spending last summer with the Charlotte Hounds of Major League Lacrosse (an outdoor league), Rambo is finally able to play in front of his friends and family.
"It's kind of like a dream come true playing for your hometown. I don't have to have my parents and everyone travel so far for home games, so it's literally a dream come true," Rambo said. "I would never want to play for another city or team other than the Wings."
Rambo started playing lacrosse at age 6, after his father and older brother introduced him to the sport. He played a variety of sports growing up, but lacrosse was the one that stuck.
"They were kind of my role models in life, so I kind of followed their footsteps and they told me great things," Rambo said of his older brother and father. "I always had a vision growing up in the third and fourth grade of playing [Division I] in college, so I always took it seriously and trained as hard as I could."
Rambo became the No. 1 high school player in Pennsylvania in 2013. While going through the college recruiting process, Dougherty had a feeling that the young player would wind up where he had played — the University of Maryland.
"I didn't really have, I don't think, a whole lot of influence on him, but I was talking to the coach about him a lot," said Dougherty, who later played with a previous incarnation the Wings, as well as the MLL's Philadelphia Barrage. "I had a feeling he was going to go to Maryland, so I wasn't pushing it too hard."
Rambo went on to become the Terrapins' all-time scoring leader and part of the national championship team in 2017.
He has carried his success on the field into his new role as both a pro player and high school coach. Under Dougherty, Rambo has shown an ability to connect with the players and develop the next generation of lacrosse talent.
"He's got that charisma about him that he can hang out with 17-, 18-year-old kids, and they literally listen to every word he says," Dougherty said.
Now that Rambo is playing for the Wings, his playing career has in many ways come full circle. Rambo vividly remembers when his junior-high club team attended the old Wings games. One memory stands out: Players greeting fans afterward.
"How nice the players were. That's what I really enjoyed," said Rambo, who hopes a similar practice continues with this new Wings team. "The fans were so involved. They were such a big part of it and, just being in Philly and knowing the fans in Philly, [there's] nothing I expect more than the fans to be involved."
Rambo brings a variety of skills to the Wings. He is a left-handed shooter, rare in the indoor game. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound forward also has displayed an ability to score and to deliver the ball to his teammates, which will make him tough to defend.
"At La Salle, he just scored goals. A lot of them," said William Leahy, Rambo's high school coach. "You knew he was a good shooter, but when you get to college, that's going to end. You better have other dimensions, like if they're going to focus on you that much, then you better get the ball to other people who can score. He grew into that, especially during his junior and senior season."
With lacrosse's growth on the youth and college levels, the sport seems to be hitting its stride. According to Bloomberg, since 2012, the sport at the youth level has grown 35 percent. It's not football or hockey, but it has some of the same exciting aspects of those sports.
"We're a tough, gritty sport. There is a lot of hitting. There is a lot of stick checks, but at the same time, it's fast-paced on the field," Rambo said. "It's the fastest game on two feet, so if you want to come watch the most exciting game on two feet, because there is not that much stoppage and if you want to see some hits, if you want to see checks, if you want to see a lot of goals, this is perfect for that."
Since Rambo spent his first pro season outdoors with the MLL, he expects to take some time adjusting to the indoor game.
"Along the way, I know I'm going to learn a lot from veterans," Rambo said. He went on to list his other goals: "Just being a student of the game, because you can always learn more and more, no matter how old you are. Just to give it my all every time I step on the floor. If it's practice, if it's one-on-one, or if it's in a game, just give it all I got."