After participating in Unified Basketball, a basketball program that brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities, Jacob Hallam and his four friends were approached by one of the participant’s mothers. She told them that her son, who had disabilities, loved lacrosse and looked up to his older brother who played, but there was no lacrosse program for him.
At the time, it was just a conversation between five teenagers and a mother who wanted her son to have the chance to play lacrosse. But that conversation lit a spark, and that spark led to so much more.
This led Hallam and his friends to create Unified Lacrosse, a nonprofit organization for kids with disabilities who wanted to participate in the sport. The idea came to be right at the end of eighth grade, and Hallam and his friends started to take action in 2014-15, their first year of high school. They were then able to obtain a 501(3)(c) their sophomore year.
His high school would not sponsor lacrosse because of the liabilities, so Hallam and his friends had to form their own program by turning elsewhere.
“We reached out to a nearby high school special needs program leader … and he kind of helped us organize it — like this is what you’re going to need, these are the paperwork that you’re going to need,” Hallam said. “So he kind of guided us through it, but we had to fund our own money because the high school wouldn’t sponsor it.”
Once the organization was established, a summer and fall league was held, both of which ran five to six weeks. Four educational camps to improve the kids’ lacrosse skills would be held in each session, with a special event at the end of the season to bring everything together. Some of the special events included the opportunity to play at halftime during a Denver Outlaws game, or even going to Denver University and playing during halftime there.
Hallam said these special events often generated some of the most memorable moments.
“It was an indoor game (and) we were playing at halftime, and the guy, he scores a goal, and he just starts running around the field,” Hallam said. “In the indoor it’s like a hockey rink, so there’s boards, and he’s running and banging the boards … there’s like probably 15, 20,000 people there just screaming and cheering him on and he’s just living it up. That was probably the coolest moment.”
In addition to Unified Lacrosse, Hallam and his teammates also played summer lacrosse. They played in the Denver Shootout, a tournament in Colorado for high school teams. Coaches from some of the best college lacrosse programs in the nation, such as Virginia and Syracuse, would come to scout players, and those that looked the best in the tournament would then participate in an All-Star game.
The kids that were participating in Unified Lacrosse got yet another chance to showcase the skills they had learned in the program, as they got the opportunity to play right before that All-Star game.
“All of the Syracuse coaches, all these crazy Division I coaches were getting ready for the All-Star game and then saw this Unified team come play,” Hallam said. “And so we would get all those coaches to come up and pretend to recruit our special needs kids, and that’s one cool thing that we did.”
While moments like these still resonate with Hallam, he was also able to learn bigger picture life lessons during his time working with Unified Lacrosse.
“I think personally it gives you a larger outlook on life,” Hallam said. “We had one guy that … only had two (to) three years to live and he came and he was always the life of the party. His thing was he couldn’t speak very well, so he’d always give us thumbs up. … Stuff like that just really opens your eyes. And to give them such happiness and joy, it’s just reciprocated.”
Knowing that college was right around the corner, Hallam and his friends made sure that when they graduated, the younger players on the high school team would be able to continue to run Unified Lacrosse. Despite no longer planning events, Hallam said he keeps in touch with active members and is always there to help.
“I still keep in contact with a lot of those guys, like if they ever have questions,” Hallam said. “But I don’t personally organize anything anymore.”
Knowing that he wanted to continue playing lacrosse in college, Hallam was introduced to Marquette through a connection that one of his coaches had.
“My club lacrosse coach was friends with Joe Amplo, who was the former coach at Marquette. He played for coach Amplo as a pro player, and so that’s how that connection was made,” Hallam said. “And then I took a visit my spring semester junior year of high school to Marquette and … I knew right away that this was the place for me.”
The redshirt junior midfielder is now in his fourth year in the program. Defensive coordinator Jacob Richard said Hallam puts his whole heart into everything he does with a high level of engagement, and that those qualities have always been there from the start.
“I think the biggest growth I’ve seen in him over his time at Marquette has been staying consistent emotionally,” Richard said. “When you’re a person that invests so much, it’s really easy to ride the highs and lows and he’s done a great job of more and more staying really steady as his experience increases, he’s seen more things, gone through more challenges and it’s really impressive to see.”
The growth and consistency that Hallam has shown in his time with the Golden Eagles has made him one of the many leaders on this season’s roster. With first-years and transfers making their way to Milwaukee each season, having to learn the ins and outs of the program, Hallam has been a prime representative of Marquette lacrosse and has led by example.
“In so many ways, when Jacob’s playing we can point to him and say ‘that’s what Marquette lacrosse is about,’” Richard said. “You know it’s not about a talent level, or how hard you can shoot or certain skills, it’s about doing everything within your control as an athlete and that is your effort and your energy, and he does those things at the highest level.”
That effort and energy was on full display when the team played Team Scotland in California in 2018. Hallam was running downfield in transition and caught the ball about 20 yards out from net. Despite the shot being about the equivalent to a half-court shot in basketball according to Richard, with no fear, Hallam let it fly.
“Low and behold he snipes a corner and he celebrates and the whole bench is going nuts and he’s just that kind of guy,” Richard said. “When he makes a play it brings life to the team and everyone’s rooting for him and so it was really cool to see. That’s like the story of him as a player. He just makes plays like that all the time.”
Redshirt senior Connor McClelland is in his fifth year in the program and has played alongside Hallam for four years. He said his fellow midfielder lives by the keywords of the Marquette lacrosse culture: love, excellence, accountability and development.
“That’s what we try to instill on every guy coming into the program and Jacob is one of those guys that shows all of those points every single time he’s there,” McClelland said. “Those are things that we really try and focus on when talking to younger guys.”
Although it is nearly impossible to describe Hallam’s aura in one word, if he had to, McClelland knew just the one to use.
“Passionate,” McClelland said. “He’s passionate about everything.”
While his accomplishments and play on the field have already made an impact on the lacrosse team, perhaps the work he did off of it before even stepping foot on campus was what put his passionate mindset on full display. Whether it has to do with sports or not, Hallam encourages anybody who wants to start a non-profit to go ahead and do it.
“It’s very rewarding. All the work that you put in to getting your license to getting those things, it’s a lot of work and you think is it worth it — it’s 1000% percent worth it to do that,” Hallam said. “My advice is that as much as you put in, you’ll get that in return and more from it.”
Because after all, you never know when a conversation between five teenagers and a caring parent can lead to years of making a difference.