It’s common knowledge these days that most NCAA student-athletes go pro in something other than sports. For a quartet of former lacrosse student-athletes who will be recognized at this year’s NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championships, that mantra has translated into successful careers serving and protecting American interests as United States Navy SEALs.

This weekend, in addition to crowing national champions in Divisions I, II and III, the NCAA will honor Lt. David Dauphinais, and Lt. Commanders Rorke Denver, Andrew Fortmann and William Gallagher. All four SEALs will be interviewed in front of a packed M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and will participate in Friday’s pep rally for the eight teams at the Inner Harbor Amphitheatre.

Both Fortmann and Gallagher played at Navy, while Dauphinais competed at Boston College. Denver was a member of two national championship teams at Syracuse.

NCAA lacrosse has become synonymous with Memorial Day weekend, which is why we want to recognize the importance of the holiday and honor those who so freely serve and protect our country.
-- Jeff Jarnecke
NCAA associate director of championships

“I am thankful for the opportunity, and I hope it generates support for the SEAL community and the military as a whole, but it is not in our nature to seek the limelight,” said Dauphinais. “During this upcoming weekend, we will be enjoying some great lacrosse, but the SEALs who most deserve recognition are overseas right now ensuring we can have such an event.”

SEALs, named for the environment in which they operate (sea, air and land) are highly trained special-operations units. SEALs carried out the recent raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

Honoring the SEALs has special significance given that the men’s lacrosse championships have long been played on Memorial Day weekend, when the entire nation pauses to commemorate American soldiers who died in military service. 

“The NCAA has been working with the SEALs for more than a year now, and we were committed to recognizing their contributions to our country and showcasing their contributions to their institutions while playing collegiate lacrosse,” said Jeff Jarnecke, NCAA associate director of championships. “NCAA lacrosse has become synonymous with Memorial Day weekend, which is why we want to recognize the importance of the holiday and honor those who so freely serve and protect our country.”

An attackman and midfielder at Boston College, Dauphinais’ student-athlete experience taught him humility and the value of hard work.

“Some NCAA athletes can walk into their college programs and immediately dominate the field, court or track. Not me. I had to work hard to earn playing time. This was a lesson that I still carry with me today,” he said.

It’s a lesson that has paid dividends for Dauphinais, who currently commands a platoon with a West Coast-based SEAL team, and who has seen action in multiple combat zones overseas, including Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“The experience of playing collegiate athletics is more formative than you think,” Dauphinais insisted. “When you see the name of your school on your jersey, it means you represent something bigger than just yourself. That is truly a coveted position to be in.”

It was that desire to be a part of something larger that also drew him to military service, and the selective nature of the training attracted him to the SEALs. It is, said Dauphinais, about as hard as it gets.

He also found the challenge appealing. “I heard about the fact that 75 percent or more of candidates don’t make it through SEAL training, and that sounded good to me,” he said.

Playing lacrosse certainly didn’t hurt his chances of success. Indications are that certain sports like lacrosse, wrestling and water polo translate well to SEAL training. Denver speculates that the combative nature of lacrosse, the fact that it’s a team sport and the fitness it demands could all factor into the phenomenon.

As it happens, Denver, who grew up in Northern California, was a decorated swimmer and water polo athlete in high school and didn’t pick up a stick until his sophomore year when he saw a flyer advertising a new lacrosse club.

“I was just lucky, for whatever reason, to pick it up and really fall for it,” he said.

Denver caught the attention of the Syracuse coaching staff at a summer camp hosted by the university after his junior year in high school. He ultimately earned a scholarship to the school, where went on to become a two-time All-American and team captain for an Orange program that captured the 1993 and 1995 national titles.

Beyond absorbing critical life skills as a student-athlete at Syracuse, Denver said he also gleaned an important guiding principal that has had direct bearing on his life and career. After a national semifinal win against Princeton in 1993, a reporter asked then Syracuse head coach Roy Simmons Jr. if the victory was particularly sweet revenge since the Tigers had defeated the Orange in sudden death the previous year.

“I remember coach Simmons saying, ‘We don’t use words like revenge at Syracuse,’ ” said Denver. “Being a combat leader in the SEAL teams and keeping my focus on the fact that we have very real enemies – and it’s our job to go meet them wherever the fight shows itself while not letting my leadership be guided by revenge or payback – has helped me do my job as an officer effectively without a clouded view of things. It’s also one of those little nuggets that has a direct relationship to who I’ve become as an officer and as a man.”

Given that Denver earned a fine arts degree at Syracuse, it’s hardly surprising that it was a book – Winston Churchill’s My Early Life – that led him to pursue a military career.

“I put that book down and it was like a lightning bolt hit me. It occurred to me that service in the military was the best place for a young man without a tremendous amount of direction to find a focus and earn his place in his society’s pecking order.”

Denver has certainly done that. Currently, he is the executive officer of the Naval Special Warfare Center’s Advanced Training Command, which teaches advanced combat skills to individual SEALs and SEAL teams. Credited with the Bronze Star with Valor, three Navy Commendation Medals and three Naval Achievement Medals, the decorated officer has been deployed to Central and South America, Afghanistan, Liberia and Iraq. In 2006, in Al Anbar province in Iraq, his team earned the most combat decorations since Vietnam.

Denver has been back to the lacrosse championships only once since hoisting the trophy with his teammates, and he’s looking forward to this weekend’s return trip.

“It’s going to be a treat,” he said.

Leilana McKindra is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.