Harrisburg, PA — Okay, first things first. I love Chipotle Mexican Grill. Have for years. And when I write I love Chipotle, I’m not talking a materialistic love, or a casual love. I’m talking a circle Y-or-N, put-it-all-on-the-line, high-school-first-crush kind of love.
My wife and I are obsessed. We find the place a circus for our mouths. When people tell us they think Chipotle is “just okay,” we have a difficult time restraining ourselves from slapping them.
It’s for this reason that I slowly became curious about the ways of the men’s lacrosse program at Messiah. Every time my wife and I would be on our standard, bi-weekly date at the Chipotle in Harrisburg, Pa., we’d run into several players. Every time.
Slowly, it turned into some type of unspoken competition. I’d pass senior midfielder Eric Petters in our athletic facility, and the words would roll off my tongue, almost as a fight-or-flight reaction.
“Went to Chipotle last night … didn’t see you,” I’d taunt.
“Was there twice each of the two days before,” Petters would sternly reply.
I’d carry on to my office, agitated. He thinks he likes Chipotle more whole-heartedly than me?? Impossible!
Well, maybe not.
It turns out that the majority of Falcons’ lacrosse players are die-hards. Seniors Pete Owens and J.J. Miller, along with junior James Baden, are from the Annapolis, Maryland area, where you can find Chipotles on nearly every block. Senior Grant Leichty also resides from a C-Town ‘hood, growing up on black beans and cilantro-flavored rice in the metro D.C. area.
Then there’s senior goalie Zach Cureton, who may be the biggest Chipotle O.G. of them all.
“The entire mom’s side of my family is from Denver, man,” Cureton bragged. “I’ve been eating this stuff since I was old enough to chew.”
The first Chipotle ever built was in Denver. Cureton’s steely eyes and heavily-stained Life Is Burritoful t-shirt let me know he was telling the truth. At once, I felt ashamed for doubting these fine, burrito bowl loving, young men.
To make it up to them, I offered a truce: Come to Chipotle on Halloween night, and dinner was on me. Of course, this offer was made partly out of generosity and mostly out of frugality: For those folks who dressed up as processed foods, Chipotle would sell burritos for just $2 apiece.
It was part of the chain’s Boorito 2010, The Horrors of Processed Food campaign: Chipotle would donate up to $1,000,000 of the $2 burrito proceeds to Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a non-profit group “working to educate people about the importance of eating unprocessed food made with simple, fresh ingredients.”
Without question, it was the most selfish charitable act I’d ever taken part in. And, without question, Messiah lacrosse team members showed up in droves. Leichty arrived as bacon. Cureton came as Hidden Valley ranch dressing. Petters stepped out of his car as Easy Cheese spray and junior midfielder Andrew Nichols as fish sticks.
Miller came wearing a giant replica of an Oreo around his neck — some type of snack food manifestation of Public Enemy’s Flava Flav. And it didn’t stop with just the get up. When a Chipotle server asked Miller what he was supposed to be, Miller replied with, “I’m milk’s favorite cookie, son.”
Winning my vote for best processed food of the night was senior Phil Wendt, however, as the 5-7 attackman came as a Hot Pocket, wearing little else. Wendt was such a crowd pleaser that even Amanda — a Chipotle employee whose name the players yelled in unison when walking into the establishment — wanted a photo taken with the Pocket.
“We like to have fun,” Petters said while digging into his discounted burrito. “We really are good people, when you get to know us.”
Not that many folks from outside the program would realize it. Male lacrosse players have long had a national reputation as being less than desirable citizens, and those perceptions have not eluded Messiah’s campus.
“Sometimes we’ll introduce ourselves to people, and we’ll get that, ‘Oh, you’re a lacrosse player’ type of reaction,” Cureton said. “That rubs us the wrong way, because our team is really a good group of guys.”
Cureton and company may be, but they’re in the midst of an uphill battle of typecast. The sport of lacrosse is of Native American origin, where tribes would use the game to settle disputes. Teams attempted to push a rock into another team’s goal using sticks, on fields that sometimes were several miles long. When players were savagely killed in competition, well, that benefited the team doing the killing.
In more recent times, lacrosse has had its share of high-profile black eyes, from the 2006 Duke University rape trial to last spring’s homicide investigation involving a men’s lacrosse player from the University of Virginia.
“In all honesty, the sport gets a bad rap because it often deserves it,” said Geof Weisenborn, Messiah head coach. “There’s very much a ‘play hard, party hard’ mentality that resonates throughout the sport at the college level. A lot of times, there’s a manly, macho, testosterone-driven type of attitude that lacrosse players wrongly carry over to their lives off the field. Does that mean that everyone that plays lacrosse is like that? Of course not. But the negative perceptions that a lot of people have of lacrosse players has often turned out to be true.”
At Messiah, Weisenborn and his team are doing their best to change those impressions. In addition to holding weekly, player-led devotions, the Falcons spend their spring breaks in a manner foreign to college lacrosse programs: Games in warm climates are eschewed for the chance to perform missions work and team building exercises.
“We’ve worked with Habitat For Humanity and a group called PA Christian Endeavor for the last few years,” Weisenborn said. “We’ve helped rebuild a church in West Virginia, worked in homeless shelters and soup kitchens locally, and renovated houses for some people less fortunate. It may take our guys some time to really grasp what we’re doing, but in the end, I think they appreciate it.”
As Wendt attempted to keep pieces of his burrito from falling into his life-sized Hot Pocket sleeve, he spoke about the difficulty of changing a preceding reputation.
“I remember being a freshman, just wanting people to not think of us as punks,” he said. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but it takes time. You can’t put on a front. You just have to be yourself, and hopefully people will notice.”
Since Weisenborn arrived as the program leader in 2005, he’s prescribed by a simple theory: Character over talent.
“Sure, we want the most talented players, but they have to be the right fit for Messiah,” Weisenborn said. “We’ve been very intentional about the type of guy we’ve recruited. We have a set of clear priorities. Because of that, I think we have a really good group of guys.”
After spending Halloween stuffing my face with 10 of Weisenborn’s men, I can agree. We talked everything from lacrosse to faith to Chipotle, each and every one of them thanking me for the experience on more than one occasion.
Weisenborn says he wants his players to “own their faith” while at Messiah, thus the fact that weekly devotions are held without coaches present. Chatting with Weisenborn about his players’ love of Chipotle revealed that it is player-led, too.
“I know they like the Chipotle, and I know they talk about the Chipotle all the time,” Weisenborn said, putting the in front of Chipotle for unknown reasons. “I think there are two types of people: Those that really, really love the Chipotle, and those that just don’t understand what all the fuss is about.”
With Weisenborn clearly in the latter group, his players are not. Before we said our goodbyes to Amanda and staff Sunday evening, Petters told me a story that nearly made the lime-salted chips fall out of my mouth.
“So, in the spring of 2009 I wrote an email to Chipotle,” Petters told me. “I talked about how we had to drive all the way to Fredericksburg or Cockeysville, Maryland to eat Chipotle. I wrote a fairly long letter asking them to consider a Chipotle in Harrisburg. I told them that I thought a location here would really succeed, and listed several reasons why.”
As someone who used to drive the 69 and a half miles to Cockeysville just for the taste, I listened intently.
“About two days later, I got a reply thanking me for my email,” Petters continued. “About two weeks later, I got another email from one of Chipotle’s big timers, telling me that he couldn’t say much, but Chipotle was targeting this area, and I should look for two restaurants coming. On August 6, 2009, this place opened.”
I sat dumbfounded. The man at which I used to sling verbal guacamole had helped deliver the very utopia I was sitting in.
Like many athletes, Messiah’s men’s lacrosse players are often misunderstood. Should you meet one of them, give them a chance before you judge.
And, like many athletes, Petters goes by a nickname. Teammates and friends call him Pett. But after this Halloween, I have a new nickname for him.