The Global Game: Rob Pannell and Nakeie Montgomery’s Experience in Japan

By Jerome Taylor

Jun 21, 2023

In the waning minutes of the gold medal match, Team USA was striving to snatch back the lead from Team Canada. And off a reset, with 2 seconds remaining on the game clock, Rob Pannell helped make it happen. He took a few steps from X before slinging a sidearm pass to Tom Schreiber, who buried the game-winner.

The scene of Paul Rabil throwing his hands up in triumph while Pannell and Schreiber embrace to start the dog pile is etched in the annals of international lacrosse and further engraved Pannell's name in the sport's history books.

Lacrosse has taken Pannell across the country, and in 2018 it took him across the Atlantic to Israel, where he helped Team USA secure gold. But this spring, however, the sport took him across America’s other bordering ocean, where the stakes were different, but the impact was no less significant.

Once primarily associated with North America's northeastern seaboard, the sport is now blooming in new soil, and 11-year veteran superstar RP3 and emerging talent Nakeie Montgomery are among the seeds fostering its growth. 

In March, both players embarked on an inspiring trip to Japan, merging their mission of spreading lacrosse with the allure of a fascinating and receptive culture.

"Japan's an amazing place," Pannell reflected during the summer training camp. "They're going to be an incredible powerhouse in the sport of lacrosse in the coming years just because of their dedication to the game, their love for it, and the people they have there supporting it... it was an incredible trip, a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

However, it wasn't just Pannell who reveled in the experience. Montgomery, a 24 year old, primed to take up the mantle in a post-Pannell era that figures to be faster than ever, carved his own path while he was out there. 

Lacrosse has allowed Montgomery to transcend borders, both domestically and internationally, taking him from Dallas, Texas to Duke, to the Premier Lacrosse League, and eventually to Japan. Montgomery's journey, far from over, represents the expansive growth of the sport, and he’s helping accelerate it further.

“We got to meet with a primary school [in Japan]. So like, 1st, 2nd, 3rd graders, and we gave them lacrosse sticks and taught them how to pass and throw,” Montgomery shared.

He didn't merely make a transpacific trip; he embarked on an exchange where sport met culture and fostered connections transcending boundaries.

"Japan was a lifetime trip... it was crazy that lacrosse took me all the way to Japan,” Montgomery said. “I have so many new friends, actual, like, homies in Japan. Next time I go, I'm a thousand percent going to hit them up.”

Not only did Montgomery forge new bonds, but he was also able to strengthen existing ones. His journey to Japan allowed him to share an unforgettable experience with a vital supporter in his life: His mother.

"She always wanted to go to Japan,” Montgomery said. “So once it was a thing that we were going to Japan, it was kind of a no-brainer that she was going to come... it was awesome to have that experience, and to do it with her was obviously so cool."

With the World Games starting Wednesday evening, Pannell readies himself for his third stint in the international tournament. Given his age and the space between competitions (he’ll be 37 when the next tournament rolls around), this year’s games are likely his last in the red, white, and blue uniform. It's a bittersweet realization, but one that he meets with the same dedication that has characterized his illustrious career.

On an international stage, Pannell and Montgomery are not just athletes; they are ambassadors. Though their journeys differ, they are united in a shared mission, representing the transformative power of lacrosse.

In this spirit, Pannell casts his gaze forward, acknowledging the rising tide of talent in Japan. He sees their studious nature and dedication to the game and anticipates an influx of Japanese players into the professional lacrosse scene.

"With the culture over there, and with how studious they are of the game and their desire to be great," Pannell said. "I do think that over time, 10, 20 years, whatever it may be, there will be a handful, if not more, Japanese players in the pros."

The lacrosse community caught wind of Japan’s talent in 2022 when they clinched a bronze medal at the Sixes tournament in Birmingham, Alabama. Riding high on that success, they're set to channel that momentum into this year's World Games.

Montgomery adds another dimension to the demographic change that can occur in lacrosse. As a black player in a sport that hasn't traditionally had diverse representation, he is acutely aware of his position. He embraces his role as a beacon of inspiration for not just aspiring athletes abroad but also for those who don’t see themselves represented in the sport.

The message he imparts is one of defying limitations, advice he has followed through his journey in lacrosse.

"Just don't put yourself in a box," Montgomery advises young black kids who may only see representation limited to sports like football and basketball.

"You can do whatever you want to do. If you want to play football, play football. Want to play football and lacrosse? Play football and lacrosse. Whatever you do, do it as best as you can. And do it with an open mind and an open heart.”

As the sport’s spectators' eyes turn towards the World Games, these ambassadors’ experiences in Japan, their aspirations for the sport, and their messages to the next generation come to the fore. Together, they represent the current reality and the future of lacrosse — a game expanding beyond borders, transcending cultures, and growing in diversity.

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