When current Eastern Connecticut State University head men's lacrosse coach Justin Axel discovered Norwalk's Salieu Bolivar at a fall tournament at Yale University, he inquired about the future plans of the Brien McMahon High School senior.
The response of McMahon head boys' lacrosse coach Mike Epstein - who happened to be sharing a bleacher with Axel -- was that his star midfielder "wasn't going anywhere."
For those who know the inner-workings of the Gambian-born Bolivar - friends, family members, classmates and teammates - nothing could have been farther from the truth. With that statement, Epstein was actually only referencing the fact that no college recruiters had -- to that point -- taken an active interest in Bolivar.
Their loss was Eastern's gain.
"After I saw Sal run down the field (at Yale), so I assumed he had commited to a Division I school, because his athleticism was through the roof," recalls Axel of his first glimpse of Bolivar. "Mike said that Sal wasn't going anywhere, and I said (laughing) 'what do you mean nowhere?' I said to myself, 'we need that kid up for a visit... I mean... tomorrow.'"
A four-year player and two-year captain at Eastern, Bolivar got a late start in the game of lacrosse. After settling in Bridgeport from the West African country of Gambia at the age of nine, Bolivar had no knowledge of the game of lacrosse until one of his best friends talked him into going out for lacrosse as a way to stay in shape for football. Bolivar, literally, had no idea what he was getting into. Having grown up speaking Wolof, as well as English, Bolivar heard "cross" and was thinking more along the lines of "cross country" than "lacrosse."
And while the 5-foot-11 inch, 195 pound midfielder was exposed to the sport at least ten years later than most other high school and college players, he has been making up for it ever since through work, work, and more work. That work ethic, instilled by his mother, Fatou Jallow, has not been confined to lacrosse or sports in general. It comprises the fabric of Bolivar, whose work ethic on the field, in the classroom and in his everyday life, continues to amaze people.
"When people fail at one thing, they fall at several things, and those who succeed at some things succeed at many things," says Epstein, who has devoted much of his adult life to the young people of Norwalk as an educator and coach at McMahon. "Sal is not going to fail at school, he's not going to fail on the field, he won't fail when he gets to the business world, and he won't fail in his marriage," adds Epstein. "He will work, work and work until he gets it right."
Going the extra mile has been Bolivar's mantra in all of his pursuits throughout his entire life. While he developed an affinity for math and computers at a young age - subjects that were stressed in his homeland -- Bolivar had spent hours developing and improving his writing and reading. In order to make up for lost time in lacrosse, he spent hours, days, weeks and months developing his stick skills. John DiPietro, a current Eastern teammate and former high school teammate, recalls the time when Bolivar, with a broken right hand, spent months banging a lacrosse ball off the wall with his left hand. The commitment paid off handsomely: Axel says that many opponents think that Bolivar is actually a left-handed shot.
In order to be admitted to Eastern, Bolivar went through the University's STEP/CAP program throughout the summer prior to his freshman year. While involved in that program - which involves students for all but a few weeks of the summer - Bolivar spent his free time banging the ball off the racquetball courts in the Sports Center.
"Over the summer, I saw his work ethic ," recalls Axel. "Every day, I'd hear someone banging a ball off the wall. He'd be shooting, he'd be hitting the wall. He'd be (weight) lifting... he'd be doing everything."
By a vote of his peers, Bolivar has been elected as a team captain as both a junior and in this, his senior season. Axel says that Bolivar is a vocal leader, exhorting his and encouraging teammates constantly in practice, training sessions, and games.
Bolivar has progressed through the Eastern program to be one of the top players on the squad the last three years. As a freshman, he saw limited time as a defensive midfielder before his stick-handling improvement and hard shot made him one of the top offensive threats on the team. As a junior in 2011, he was named first team All-Little East Conference with 33 goals and 43 points. After a slow start this year, he scored six goals in the final three regular-season matches and brings 15 goals and 20 points and a season-high 29 ground balls into the semifinal round of the LEC playoffs, scheduled for Thursday.
Bolivar is a gifted athlete who was a hard-hitting linebacker as a four-year football player at McMahon. He captained both his lacrosse and football teams as a senior in high school and was named second-team all-conference in lacrosse and first-team all-conference in football in the competitive Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference (FCIAC) as a senior. Not surprisingly, he also merited the Coaches' Award.
For Bolivar, football came easy. Lacrosse required diligence.
"The footwork and defense were pretty easy, but the stick skills were kind of hard," admits Bolivar, who will turn 22 one week after graduation.. "It took me a lot of hours on the wall and cradling at home. In my junior and senior years (in high school), I was hitting the wall almost every day. During football season, I would get out of practice and then go and hit the wall, and then go home. During winter break, I would hit the wall every day."
Epstein praises Bolivar as "an absolutely self-made kid. He has worked harder than pretty much anyone that we've ever had in our program."
During his senior season in high school, Bolivar anticipated playing football at the Division I level. He says that if Axel hadn't come calling, he likely would have enrolled in community college for a year before enrolling at Central Connecticut State University to play at the Division I-AA level.
"Most of my (high school) teammates actually play (football) for Central or Southern. I was trying to go down that road. But right now, I'm just playing lacrosse... so this was my road."
Academically, Bolivar will graduate in four years this May with a degree in computer science and will pursue a career in programming.
"Sal has been a very strong student here," points out Axel. "And he's going to graduate in four years. In a few months, he's going to have five or six job offers - he'll have no issues finding a job. His mother calls sometimes and says 'thank-you for taking care of my son,', but I say 'no, thank-you', because he's been a pleasure and an honor to work with. He exemplifies everything in our program that we look for. I don't know where we'd be without him."
Bolivar and DiPietro are two in a long line of Norwalk natives to play lacrosse at Eastern, with as many as four McMahon products slated to join the program this coming fall.
Mark Vincent, a senior captain this year at Eastern, and junior Christian Leone, are also McMahon products on this year's roster. Both found a home at Eastern after initially attending college elsewhere right out of high school. The first McMahon graduate to excel at Eastern was defensive midfielder Dwayne Coles, a four-year player and All-New England selection in the early years of the program.
James "Cuta" Shaw, another recent McMahon graduate, was also planning to enroll at Eastern next year after attending community college, but was tragically killed by a motorist this past winter while crossing the highway on foot. In his memory, players on both the McMahon and Eastern teams have had his No. 41 affixed to the back of their helmets. "His death hit home to everyone who knew him," says Axel. "We all wanted to honor him in some way."
Epstein indicated that the McMahon-Eastern relationship began back in the mid-1990s -- when the Warriors were under the direction of Rick McCarthy - and has continued during Axel's tenure. Epstein felt that both Eastern head coaches took a personal interest in the welfare of his former players. "I trust my kids with Justin right now more than almost anyone in the country," says Epstein. "He's just that kind of person - regardless of what kind of lacrosse coach he is, and he's a very good lacrosse coach. He cares about my kids and I want my kids to go and play for someone who is going to care about them. Rick McCarthy did that for my kids, and Justin is doing that for my kids, and it's awesome. "
Axel enjoys the relationship and feels that it thrives because both programs stress the same things.
"The student-athlete who are successful under Coach Epstein who come here are successful for us," points out Axel. "He goes above and beyond with his kids. Mike teaches them to do things the right way. He demands excellence out of them, he demands discipline out of them.
"Mike's been a nice advocate for our program, He knows what we, as a program, are preaching to our kids. He knows that it's not just about lacrosse with our guys, it's making sure that they have the tools to be successful. It's not about just getting by. It's about getting good grades, so that they are going to graduate and be successful. I really like the relationship that we've developed with McMahon."