In 1978, as Craig Damron walked to his car shortly after Maryland men’s lacrosse lost to Johns Hopkins at Homewood Field in Baltimore, a Blue Jays fan snuck up behind him and swiped the Maryland flag draped around his shoulders.
The Maryland alumnus, who led the Terps onto the field with Maryland’s state flag fluttering in tow for nearly three decades, gave chase. Other Maryland fans joined in, attempting to recapture the banner. The rival fan distanced himself as he sprinted up a hill and into the street.
But when a man in his car noticed the heist and exited his vehicle, the jig was soon up. The man chased down the hijacker, tackled him and returned the flag to Damron.
“They have taken the game away from us,” the Maryland supporter told Damron, “but they are not going to take away our flag.”
Those words resonated with Damron, who by that point was already 10 years into his flag-bearing duties. The tradition began with football in 1968, and soon spread to the men’s basketball and lacrosse teams.
Since its introduction to the lacrosse program in the early 1970s, the flag-led emergence onto the field has become an iconic element for the Terps. Spanning five decades, five coaches, two conferences and three national championships, the unique entrance has been a constant.
“It symbolizes a lot of this program. We talk a lot about playing for more than ourselves and playing for our state, our school, our alums and our fans,” coach John Tillman said. “Coming out, and us running behind it is almost like the [victory song], ‘Maryland, we’re all behind you.’”
[Read more: Maryland men’s lacrosse will face No. 6-seed Towson in NCAA tournament first round]
Back in 1968, Damron was a frustrated student who watched Maryland’s slumping football program approach two calendar years since its last victory. Apathy set in for some students, so Damron sought a remedy.
Ahead of a home game against North Carolina, he walked into coach Bob Ward’s office. Damron told Ward he had a Maryland flag, and offered to lead the team onto the field with it, hoping to generate excitement inside the stadium. Ward agreed.
The Terps beat the Tar Heels that October day — and the flag was encouraged to return for more pregame sprints out of the tunnel.
“In my opinion — I guess you could say it’s a bit biased — but Maryland has the best looking state flag in the entire nation, without fail,” Damron said.
[Read more: Maryland men’s lacrosse crashes out of Big Ten tournament in 12-7 loss to Johns Hopkins]
As Damron’s entrance with the endeared flag continued to gain notoriety around the campus, other coaches began taking notice.
Coach Lefty Driesell welcomed Damron to lead the men’s basketball team on the court, and coach Bud Beardmore invited him to escort the men’s lacrosse team onto the field with the state flag.
During his tenure guiding Beardmore’s team out of the tunnel, Damron watched while the Terps won the 1973 championship in Philadelphia and the 1975 title at Homewood Field in Baltimore. And even when the program changed hands from Beardmore to Dino Mattessich in 1981, and then again to Dick Edell in 1984, Damron’s involvement lived on.
But in the mid 1990s, Damron discontinued his flag duties with his extensive “Maryland family” so he could be with his own, which included three young children. And his absence was apparent.
“We went to the players and said ‘Where’s the flag man?’” said Bud LaChapelle, who had three sons playing on the lacrosse team at that time. “I said, ‘Jeez, a big university like this — over 40,000 people — if they can’t find somebody to carry the flag, I’d do it,’ just jokingly.”
Just days before the Terps played Syracuse in the 1997 NCAA tournament semifinal, though, that quip shifted to reality when assistant coach Scott Marr called LaChapelle.
“Hey flag man,” Marr said to LaChapelle over the phone. “We need you!”
From then on, LaChapelle assumed the flag responsibilities until 2000, when his sons had finished playing lacrosse at the university.
The tradition survived another coaching change when Dave Cottle took over for Edell in 2001. But under Cottle, the flag responsibilities were turned over to the strength coach.
First, it was Craig Fitzgerald. Then, Marc Heinecke took over when he became the lacrosse strength coach. After Heinecke left College Park for a new job, the next strength coach, Michael Szemborski, was thrust into that role in the spring of 2009.
In the moments leading up to the 2009 season opener, Tim Ahner, the equipment manager, suddenly approached Szemborski and handed him the flag. After some initial confusion, Ahner exclaimed to him that, as strength coach, he was the flag guy and needed to get ready for his debut, following through on that unofficial part of his job description.
“It was just kind of something that got passed through the years of whoever was the strength coach for men’s lacrosse, that was kind of their job,” Szemborski said. “Along with working the team out, it was their job to get the guys hyped up. And the biggest way to hype the guys up was get them going in the locker room, and run them out onto the field.”
Cottle resigned following the 2010 season, and the routine carried over into the current era with Tillman in charge. Tillman said the flag tradition was something that stuck out to him long before his time in College Park.
And since taking the helm, he’s added another component to that ritual.
Against Virginia in 2014, the Terps were set to wear special Under Armour uniforms, which would be auctioned off after with proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior Project. So for that game, an American flag and a Wounded Warrior Project flag joined the Maryland flag in the sprint out of the tunnel.
The addition of an American flag occurred only periodically at first, but eventually became a permanent fixture in 2017.
“Certainly there’s pride in this state, but there’s pride in our country. There’s a big thanks to the people that are serving all around the world,” Tillman said. “To me, that’s a little bit of a tribute to them.”
When the American flag got added for good in 2017, Tillman wanted to pay homage to Brendan Looney — a player he coached when he was at Navy — who died in a helicopter crash while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. A day after Looney would have turned 36, Tillman gathered his team for an announcement.
He told his squad that long-stick midfielder Nick Brozowski would carry the American flag out against Yale to honor Looney. Brozowski was the choice because his brother, Derek, served in the Marines.
“It was one of the coolest honors [Tillman’s] ever given me,” Brozowski said. “He knew how important this country is to [my brother], me and my family. My brother was so pumped about it and so proud, and my family, too. It was awesome.”
A few months after introducing the American flag as a permanent element of the pregame routine, Maryland won its first national championship since Damron led the team onto Homewood Field in the 1975 title game.
On that Memorial Day victory, it was then-faceoff specialist Will Bonaparte who carried the state flag out. That season, along with carrying the American flag, players began taking on the Maryland flag responsibility when Szemborski was working with other sports.
Since beginning in the 2018 season, they’ve developed a system for choosing the individual who will be in that role. The team captains decide on the player, then inform him shortly before the game. For road games, a player who is from the area where the team is playing typically carries the Maryland flag, serving as another step for out-of-state players to become fully immersed in the Maryland culture.
“I love where I’m from and everything,” said Brozowski, a Massachusetts native. “But at the same time, it is so cool to play for Maryland and play for the state. And especially being here, you kind of adopt this place as your home. And running out with that flag is really showing that.”
More than 10 different players have carried the Maryland flag in the 2019 season, joining a growing list of people who’ve had that honor since the tradition’s inception.
Over the years, through the facelifts to the program, the famed Maryland flag has remained a constant. And no matter who has the flag in their possession coming out of the tunnel, the representation remains the same.
“That was one of the biggest distinguishers of Maryland lacrosse. Just the idea of the pride we have in our state,” Szemborski said. “There’s so many amazing lacrosse programs in the state of Maryland. But for us to be the flagship, and to run out on the field with the flag was something that was a huge sense of pride.”
CORRECTION: Due to an error, a previous version of this story said Michael Szemborski carried the flag at Gillette Stadium before Maryland men’s lacrosse’s national title in 2017. It was Will Bonaparte. This story has been updated.