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Rob Pannell plays lacrosse with students in Uganda

Above: Rob Pannell '13 plays lacrosse on the field with students at Makerere University in Uganda as part of the Fields of Growth program.

Lacrosse star detours through Uganda

The best collegiate lacrosse player in the nation was not with his team during the fall semester. Instead, he was spreading his love of lacrosse and helping people half a world away.

Rob Pannell on the field for Big Red lacrosse

Rob Pannell '13 on the field for the Big Red. Photo provided by Cornell Athletic Communications. See larger image

It was just another stop along the way in Rob Pannell's lacrosse career. The 2011 USILA national player of the year, Pannell '13 had much humbler athletic beginnings. Lightly recruited out of Smithtown West High School on Long Island, Pannell signed a letter of intent to play lacrosse for Quinnipiac prior to his senior year. During that final high school season, he went on to lead Long Island with 130 points and bigger lacrosse schools began to take notice.

He took a postgraduate year at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, setting the school record for points in a season while earning an award for the outstanding attackman in Division I lacrosse.

He also earned an opportunity to play for Cornell - and he has made the most of it.

In addition to being national player of the year, he is a two-time national attackman of the year and a three-time All-American. He has been the Ivy League Player of the Year twice and was selected the conference Rookie of the Year in 2009. He was even nominated for a 2011 ESPY award as best collegiate male athlete.

One thing remains missing from Pannell's resume: a national championship, on which he set his sights for his senior year in 2012. The campaign got off to a great start, and Pannell racked up 16 points in just two games.

Rob Pannell with students at the Hopeful School

Pannell with some of the children who attend the Hopeful School. See larger image

But in that second game against Army, Pannell suffered a Jones fracture, breaking the fifth metatarsal of his left foot. Two days later he had surgery. Pannell hoped to return before the season ended, but reinjured his foot during rehab.

With his season done, Pannell needed to decide on his next step. He had been the No. 1 draft choice of the Major League Lacrosse's Long Island Lizards, so he could have graduated and continued his playing career as a professional. He could have secured a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA and transferred to another school. The final choice would be to work with Cornell academic advisers to complete his remaining degree requirements (he is an applied economics and management major) during the spring 2013 semester - a course of action that would need approval from the Ivy League.

"There were many other options out there, but Cornell is home to me, and I wanted to finish what I started," says Pannell.

To the delight of Big Red fans, the Ivy League granted Pannell the waiver, but with just one semester of coursework remaining, the two-time team captain had to do the unthinkable and leave his team during the fall.

Rob Pannell with families at the Hopeful School

Pannell visits with families of the Hopeful School as part of his eight-day trip in Uganda. See larger image

His time away from East Hill was spent interning with insurance company Whitmore Group Ltd. He also played lacrosse at tournaments and participated in an inter-squad scrimmage as a member of Team USA.

But the most meaningful part of his time off was eight days he spent in Uganda through the Fields of Growth program. Prior to his trip, Pannell undertook a fundraising campaign and solicited more than $7,000 to help build a classroom at the Hopeful School in the village of Kindu. Once in Uganda, he helped dig the foundation for that classroom, visited families of the school, learned about the history of Uganda and coached for the Uganda Lacrosse Union.

Founded in 2009 by former collegiate lacrosse coach Kevin Dugan, Fields of Growth aims to harness the passion of the lacrosse community into positive social impact through global leadership development, service and growing the game in Uganda and Jamaica.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Pannell. "It was truly humbling. My time there has absolutely given me a new perspective on everything and the way I want to live my life. ... I appreciate things more and try not to take things for granted.

"I have become a more humble person, but also a happier person with a better lifestyle realizing that there is more to life than winning lacrosse games. Don't get me wrong - I still want to win more than anyone, but I want to enjoy the process more."

Rob Pannell and others dig to prepare a second classroom

Pannell and others at the Hopeful School dig to prepare for a second classroom. See larger image

Uganda's lacrosse history is relatively short, but the nation is in the midst of the Dream 2014 Campaign to make history as the first-ever African nation to compete in the Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships.

It's a dream that Pannell thinks could easily become a reality.

After returning from Africa in December, Pannell enjoyed his final few weeks at home before returning to Ithaca in January for the final leg of his Cornell lacrosse journey, where he has embarked on a dream campaign of his own. It began Feb. 1 with the team's first practice, and he hopes that it doesn't end until the national championship game on Memorial Day.

"I feel like I've proven myself as an individual," says Pannell. "I want a national championship, probably more than anybody in the world."

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