DURHAM, N.C. - When the Duke men's lacrosse team steps back onto the grass at Koskinen Stadium this spring for the first game of the season, one player will be fulfilling the dream of many former athletes. Casey Carroll - five years removed from his senior season at Duke in 2007 - returns to the program after serving deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the United States Army's 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
Carroll, a two-time All-America defenseman in his previous seasons with the Blue Devils, has one year of athletic eligibility remaining after missing the majority of his junior campaign due to injury. While he says he and head coach John Danowski tossed around the possibility of him later returning to the field near the end of his collegiate career, the idea didn't fully take hold until Carroll returned from his most recent tour overseas in February. The Baldwin, N.Y., native has also previously said that his decision to return to the field, and to join the U.S. Army, has been influenced by Sgt. James J. Regan, a former Duke lacrosse player who was killed in 2007 while serving in Iraq. Now Carroll is back with the team, knowing that no matter the outcome at the end of the season, he will be able to appreciate the opportunity to simply pick up his stick and return to the field.
With the start of the Blue Devils' 2013 season inching closer, Carroll acknowledges re-acclimating to civilian life and the demands of being a full-time student-athlete have been enjoyable but challenging. In addition to attending practice and pursuing the Masters of Business Administration degree within the Fuqua School of Business, Carroll and his wife, Erin, also welcomed the arrival of their first child, Casey Patrick Carroll, in late September. Though the balance of his commitments to his family, his studies and his teammates have certainly tested his time management abilities, Carroll says he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"Coming back a second time, you really have an appreciation no one can have until you've been in the situation," he says. "I'm happy and healthy, my wife is happy and healthy and my son is too. So long as those things are fine, you're really able to prioritize what is important to you in life and enjoy every bit of it you can while you can."
"The playing was the last piece," John Danowski said. "For me the issue was, first of all school is a long haul and just getting into Fuqua and MBA program is extremely difficult. Casey had to get in there on his own, which he did. Second of all, Casey is married and being responsible for another person also was going to have its challenges. The third part, being a new father was also another challenge. On the field Casey has lost nothing. He has lost no skills, no desire or hunger to play. But what Casey has really brought to the program is this pure joy of being on the field. Watching the joy on his face when playing, which is something for us is really hard to verbalize the feeling he gives us each day."
Another aspect of the year so far that has been fun for Carroll is connecting with teammates who are as many as 10 years younger than him, and some of whom are the younger brothers of former teammates or players he coached years ago at Duke lacrosse camps. Carroll is also under the direction of someone he used to take the field with - former Duke standout Matt Danowski, who returned to the program this year as the Blue Devils' assistant coach overseeing the offense.
"Casey chose his own path and give him a lot of credit, not only for joining the Army, but for doing what he believed in and not just falling in line and doing what he thought he was supposed to do," Matt said. "I wish I could have had his attitude of he's here and just enjoying himself. Usually when you're a senior or a fifth-year you put so much pressure on yourself to win and to maximize your potential and all of that stuff. [Casey] just wants to go out there and enjoy playing lacrosse, practicing having fun and lifting and running. That stuff isn't that hard for him maybe because he was an Army Ranger or maybe because he's just happy to be out here and not overseas. He's finding the joy in all of it, which is something I wish I could have done when I was a senior and something I hope our seniors pick up on."
Now 28 years old and a husband, father and military veteran, Carroll's perspective, though certainly different than that of his current teammates, has been a source of inspiration and more often than not, one of humor as well. While he has been spared some of the squad's duties and rituals that generally fall to rookies, Carroll says he has earned nicknames of 'Pops' and 'old man,' which he takes in stride. Despite the occasional ribbing about his age, however, Carroll appreciates the effort the coaches and players have undergone to incorporate him back into the program's culture.
"The faces and the names change, but the kind of guys and what I truly loved about playing for Duke the first time is the type of men that we had on the team and you can still see it," he says. "They're just hard-working guys that love to play lacrosse. They welcomed me with open arms and it's been a delight to be back and hanging around with them."
While Carroll's plans beyond the 2012-13 season and the completion of his MBA degree have yet to be laid out, he says he plans to cherish every minute of his experience this year. His four and a half years of active service in the military, coupled with the opportunity to return to Durham and the sport he loves, have provided him with a unique perspective on leadership and dedication. Those lessons, Carroll says, will undoubtedly prove to be applicable both on and off the field.
"The more I thought about it throughout my time in the military, coming back here to have a chance to go to Fuqua is such a great opportunity," Carroll says. "Of course, with lacrosse on top of it, it was such a special set of circumstances. I know a lot of the alumni and athletes that wish they could have had that opportunity. They'd be getting all over me if I didn't take that chance."