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For Maryland men’s lacrosse’s Jack Brennan, a triumphant return was more than a year in the making

After being forced to miss last season with a heart condition, Maryland men’s lacrosse star Jack Brennan fought to get back onto the field and play the sport he loves.

Jack Brennan celebrates a goal against Syracuse on February 20, 2022. | Photo courtesy of Rich Barnes.

Like so many others during this pandemic, Jack Brennan tested positive for COVID-19 under the impression that someone like him would be safe and sound. He presumed a healthy, athletic young man like him was generally among the safest from severe instances of the disease.

“I kind of just expected it to be a passing thing. I didn’t really feel too sick while having it,” Brennan said he thought after testing positive for the virus. “And then it turned out that there were some deeper complications.”

Those complications led to a diagnosis of myocarditis, inflammation and subsequent swelling of the heart usually caused by a viral infection like COVID-19. While treatable and usually not permanent, the recommendation from a doctor was to completely abstain from intense physical activity for at least six months. For Brennan, that meant one thing in particular: no lacrosse.

Brennan hails from the region that gave birth to the sport of lacrosse in Rochester, New York, near the United States-Canada border. He attended Irondequoit High School, whose lacrosse program has produced a plethora of elite talent over the years. Maryland fans may be familiar with Irondequoit products Andrew Whipple and Joe Walters, who were three and four-time All-Americans during their times in College Park, respectively.

Even with all the great players that came before, Brennan still put together one of the greatest careers Irondequoit’s lacrosse program ever saw. Using his ability to play both the midfield and attacking positions, Brennan was a four-year letter-winner and scored 188 goals to go with 102 assists. He has the second-most goals in school history and the third-most points.

When making his college decision, Brennan followed in the footsteps of the greats that preceded him, choosing to play for head coach John Tillman and the University of Maryland.

“The biggest thing the program had to offer that I saw compared to others was how much everyone cared,” Brennan said. “The whole culture, I think, is definitely the best in the country.”

But before he had even played a game in Maryland Stadium, Brennan found himself falling back on that team culture for comfort. Just four days before his freshman season was set to begin, Brennan’s uncle Robert Knapp, the person who he credits with introducing him to the sport of lacrosse, passed away.

“Starting in third grade he gave me my first two sticks and from there he was just the biggest supporter I had,” Brennan said in an interview with USA Lacrosse Magazine, who did a piece on how he dealt with his uncle’s passing.

With the team rallying around him, Brennan took the field in a Maryland uniform for the first time on February 1, 2020 in a game against High Point. Before five minutes had elapsed, he had already scored twice. Brennan had formally announced to the world that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Brennan continued his stellar play, scoring two goals in the team’s next game against Richmond and starting all of the team’s six games, registering nine points. That was all the Terps had the opportunity to play until the season came to a screeching halt.

On March 12, the Big Ten Conference as well as the NCAA announced that the lacrosse season was over, effective immediately, because of the outbreak of COVID-19.

“Seeing [the season get canceled] and how [the seniors] took it, it was definitely hard. Seeing them leave, the guys that helped me a lot [my] freshman year, it was definitely hard to see that,” Brennan said.

With the 2020 season in the rearview mirror, Maryland’s men’s lacrosse program looked at the 2021 season as an opportunity to settle the debate of what could have been and finally get the opportunity to play for a championship.

Except, as the team ran out of the tunnel before their 2021 season opener against Michigan, one key player was out of uniform. Brennan’s diagnosis of myocarditis and the required rest period gave him no choice but to sit out and watch from the sidelines.

“It was tough. Not being able to play with everybody was definitely the hardest part,” Brennan said.

Even without Brennan’s production, the Terrapins started the 2021 season on a roll. Only allowed to play opponents in the Big Ten, Maryland began to establish itself as a real championship contender. After starting the season with eight straight wins, they moved to the top spot in the USILA Coaches Poll.

Watching the success of the team, Brennan still held out hope that he was going to be able to make his return at some point that season. “I was hopeful that I would be able to get done with [my recovery] earlier. But that didn’t end up working out.”

“I felt for him because he’s a guy that [came] off his freshman year and [was] really excited about taking that next step and getting back on the field, and he never had that opportunity. I know how hard that is for players, whether it’s an injury or whatever it may be,” Tillman said.

Despite these setbacks, Brennan kept a positive attitude and had no doubt in his mind that he would be back on the field, suiting up in a jersey that reads “Maryland” across the chest.

“No,” Brennan adamantly said when asked if he ever thought that his lacrosse career might be coming to a close. “I knew it was going to be the six month process of not really being able to do anything and then just getting back to it.”

Maryland just kept on winning, and its success translated into an undefeated regular season, a Big Ten tournament championship and a run to the national championship game. With a chance to become the sport’s first undefeated champion since 2006, the Terps faced off against a Virginia team that had won the most recent championship game held in 2019. After a thrilling back-and-forth game, Maryland fell just short of its fourth NCAA championship in a 17-16 loss.

Notwithstanding the team success that Maryland had in 2021, the season was a tough and frustrating one for Brennan on a personal level. Looking back, he credits his teammates for getting him through those tough stretches.

“With [the team’s] support the whole way through, I was able to find my way. It wasn’t always easy at times, not being able to really do anything about it. But they definitely helped me throughout the whole process,” he said.

Having these shared experiences helped bring the players together, and Maryland’s team continues to be a closely acquainted bunch.

“I really care about this group. It’s really rare to be a part of [a team] that’s not only a great group of players, but people as well,” senior defenseman Brett Makar said.

“I know he’s a very popular guy on the team, very well liked. Not because he’s the loudest guy in the room. I just think he’s the type of guy that people are drawn to,” Tillman said. “He’s good natured, he’s humble and he’s always willing to look out for his teammates and help them.”

Brennan was still looking forward to making his way back onto the field and contributing to the Maryland program that did so much for him during his most difficult times. And as a junior, the 2022 season provided Brennan with the opportunity to make his return to the world of collegiate lacrosse and once again wear the No. 41 jersey that Terps fans had come to know and love.

He did just that in triumphant fashion.

Brennan saw some time on the field and scooped a ground ball in the team’s first game against High Point, but his breakthrough came in Maryland’s second game against in-state foe Loyola.

Just under three minutes into the second quarter, he found himself 20 yards from goal with the ball in a one-on-one matchup. In a flash, he used the athleticism he had been waiting to put back on display and zoomed past his defender, opening up an opportunity to shoot from his left side. Still on the run, Brennan fired a shot that beat the Loyola goaltender and extended the Terps’ lead.

In celebration, Brennan looked to the sky and fist-pumped before embracing his teammates.

Jack Brennan celebrates a goal against Loyola (MD) on Feb. 12, 2022. | Photo courtesy of Taylor McLaughlin and Maryland Athletics.

“It was a relief… I was glad that I was able to do it at home in front of our home crowd.” Brennan said about finally getting back on the scoresheet. “That was a pretty special goal.”

“I couldn’t be more happy for Jack,” Tillman said after the game. “Hopefully that’s great for his confidence and after not playing for a while, hopefully [he] shook some of that rust off. Big things [are coming] for him for sure.”

Brennan downplayed the difficulty of getting back into the flow of the lacrosse season, however.

“[The transition] was pretty seamless. And I think that was more due to the support of everyone,” he said. “With all the fifth-years that came back this year, there was a lot of trust going in with myself and my teammates. So it wasn’t really too bad. We got [to play together] the whole fall, which was good, and then rolled into the spring.”

He carried that momentum into the team’s first road trip of the season, and as a native of upstate New York, Maryland’s trip to play at Syracuse was a particularly memorable one for Brennan.

“I only live an hour and a half away from Syracuse,” he said. “My whole family and friends were able to come. It was the first game my grandparents and cousins were able to come to in person. So it was definitely really special.”

Wearing a piece of tape on the side of his helmet reading “Uncle Rob” in honor of his late uncle, Brennan made sure to give his larger-than-usual fan section the show that they came to the Carrier Dome to see. Less than nine minutes into the game, teammate Owen Murphy lobbed a skip pass to Brennan that he leaped to gather before ripping a shot into the top corner of the goal.

Jack Brennan cradles the ball in the net of his stick against Syracuse on Feb. 20, 2022. | Photo courtesy of Rich Barnes.

“It was nice. I felt a little pressure going in from some family members and friends’ texts,” Brennan said. “I’m just glad that we were able to pull it together and get a win.”

The 14-10 victory that Maryland ended up getting that day moved it to 3-0 on the year and solidified its spot as the top-ranked team in the country. With years of success and the most recent run to the national championship game under the program’s belt, everybody knows that the sky’s the limit for this year’s squad.

“If I were to say one word [to define] this team, I think it’s driven,” Brennan said. “After last year and how it ended, everyone’s got a little bit of extra motivation to get back to where we were and exceed that level.”

Maryland men’s lacrosse carries itself under the mantra “Be The Best,” first coined by legendary coach Buddy Beardmore in 1975.

“It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing. You just do everything you can to help the team win and be your best. That’s our motto here,” fifth-year midfielder Bubba Fairman said. “We try to uphold that standard every single day and whatever we do.”

The culture that head coach John Tillman has established and players like Jack Brennan perpetuate may be just that: the best.

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