Oh Captain, My Captain …: Lacrosse star and coach Scott Ratliff has found a way of expression through poetry
By Danny Priest
Have you ever played word association? You say blue, your friend says sky. They say fork, you say knife. Stop what you’re doing and try it with this word: lacrosse.
What comes to mind? Goal, net, stick? Avid fans might say a team, player, or a school name. There are plenty of responses that could come out of a person’s mouth and make sense.
But how about this word: poet. Lacrosse players are a lot of things – athletes, fast, strong, smart, but a poet? That doesn’t seem right.
Scott Ratliff is far from traditional and more than accomplished. He doesn’t fit into the typical stereotypes or molds associated with lacrosse players and he possesses an attitude and outlook on life that many could envy.
Ratliff is a five-time professional all-star, five-time captain, national champion and current long stick midfielder for the Archers of the Premier Lacrosse League. Now, he can add author of a book on poetry to his list of accomplishments.
His passion for poetry might not be expected, but he will be the first to tell you that it’s no accident.
“I really liked rap music when I was growing up, so probably breaking down Lil Wayne in lyrics in 10th grade was the first time I really started writing and reading poetry,” Ratliff said. “My sister has shown me birthday cards I’ve written for her that were poems, so I think it’s always something that’s been inside of me, and I’ve enjoyed doing.”
Ratliff’s first book, “If a Tree Had an Ego,” was published in August. The journey from writing poetry as a hobby to putting out his own work of more than 65 original poems wasn’t cut and dried.
Much like his career, there were a number of twists and turns that brought Ratliff to the point he’s at now, and while he is gearing up for his ninth year in pro lacrosse, he also has aspirations to publish another book in the near future.
The Roots Of Success
Anyone who spends a few minutes with Ratliff will quickly see his humility. Born and raised in Atlanta, lacrosse wasn’t a big part of Ratliff’s life as a child. His father, Randy, was a star at the University of Maryland which naturally drew Scott towards the game.
As much as he loved to play, lacrosse wasn’t popular in Atlanta when Scott was a kid.
“I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and play where he played and do what he did,” Ratliff said. “I played basketball, football, all those different things, but lacrosse was always kind of my number one love and passion.”
Ratliff was skilled thanks in large part to learning from his dad, but his body took some time to develop and there was little visibility for lacrosse recruits in Atlanta. His dream to follow in his father’s footsteps at Maryland was not going to happen.
By spring break of his senior year of high school, Ratliff had settled in on doing a post-grad year at Naval Academy Prep School. In the final moments of the recruiting calendar, Ratliff received the call that would change the course of his life.
His high school coaches had advocated on his behalf and a Maryland school came calling. Not the Terrapins as he’d hoped; instead, it was the Greyhounds of Loyola University.
“I truly hadn’t even heard of the school,” Ratliff said. “In Georgia, it’s SEC and ACC Country, it’s not really the small liberal arts school culture down here, so when I got the offer I kind of thought ‘Ok, I don’t know how good they’re going to be, but it’s a chance to play Division I.’”
Ratliff took a leap of faith, and the rest is history. His journey started with sporadic playing time his freshman year and a triple-overtime loss to Cornell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
By his junior season, he was a captain, All-American, Defensive Player of the Year and national champion. After finishing his senior season in 2013, Ratliff’s stock had risen high enough to the point where the Boston Cannons selected him ninth overall in the MLL Collegiate Entry Draft.
“I had never dreamed of playing pro lacrosse or anything like that and then that junior season happens, and we win a national championship and I’m an All-American and I read an article on Inside Lacrosse that said I would be a first-round draft pick. That was the first time pro lacrosse truly ever crossed my mind,” Ratliff said.
Ratliff would not only be a top-10 pick, he was also the first-ever Georgia native to be drafted to play professional lacrosse. As his playing career took off, his other passions soon followed. Ω
The Writing Process
For anyone who’s ever taken a crack at writing poetry or putting together any piece of personal writing, they understand how difficult it can be.
Ratliff’s poetry journey really began in the fall of 2016. Ratliff took a trip overseas to host a clinic for his non-profit, the Give and Go Foundation. Give and Go provides free lacrosse education and equipment for underserved lacrosse programs across the world.
After hosting clinics in Sweden and Switzerland, Ratliff decided to stay overseas and dedicate himself to the writing process in between hosting clinics in various other countries over the span of a few weeks.
“I didn’t plan much outside of those clinics,” Ratliff said. “I bought a train pass and just kind of backpacked and made my way around. I did a lot of walking, drank some beers and wrote some poems. I met a lot of really cool people from doing those clinics and I stayed with them locally and I ended up seeing 11 or 12 different countries on that trip. I had a really good time and made some lifelong friends as well.”
Ratliff’s work wasn’t easy from a technical writing perspective or on a personal level. He does not have a formal education in literature or English and being personally vulnerable on the page was something totally new for him.
“There was a lot of self-doubt around, I like the way this sounds, but is this written in proper format, and will it make sense to other people,” Ratliff said. “That part of it is really hard and intimidating to me.”
He leaned on his fiancé, who studied literature at Columbia, for guidance. Then, as he continued to write, he began to realize that poetry is a form of art and expression. It does not necessarily always adhere to grammar rules.
“Truthfully, poetry is whatever you want it to be, and I think the freedom of that also helped me…the courage it takes to be vulnerable and write about some things that are personal to you in life, those are probably the two hardest things that I had to overcome,” Ratliff said.
Despite some of the doubts and trials he faced, Ratliff never needed to look far for motivation when thinking about the effect his book could have.
“Sharing that part of myself, I just get excited about the idea that maybe this could inspire somebody else to try their art,” he said. “I really believe that everybody’s got some sort of art form in them and for me, poetry is mine, but it’s really healthy for people to explore that side of themselves. If seeing me do it and be vulnerable and write can encourage other athletes or other people or anybody to explore that side of themselves, I think that’s kind of what it’s all about.”
The jock culture that comes with lacrosse is one that Ratliff never subscribed to or believed in. More than anything, he credits that to where he grew up.
“That never landed with me and then if you go into a pro locker room, you’re going to find all sorts of different types of people with different passions and hobbies,” Ratliff said. “Playing pro lacrosse, more than anything else, has increased my creativity and put me around entrepreneurs and other artists in different ways.”
Ratliff is an advocate for people finding their passions and finding the positives in every situation.
“I think lacrosse in itself as a game is creative and people would be surprised that there’s probably more athletes than they realize who do have this artistic side,” he said. “Lacrosse is a free-flowing and creative game, and it takes a lot of courage to pursue a sport to the highest level. You can’t be afraid of failure, and you can’t be afraid to be yourself. A lot of the skills that I’ve learned in sports help me with pursuing art.”
When he’s not playing lacrosse, you’ll find Ratliff coaching youths with the Thunder Lacrosse program in Atlanta, doing work for his non-profits, or helping young kids in leadership and personal development programs.
“When I think about working with kids, not everybody is going to be a pro athlete or go play pro lacrosse, but those skill sets that we can learn from lacrosse and sports in general should be really valuable, no matter what you try to do with your life,” Ratliff said. “I just try to help young athletes recognize that. Your ability to deal with this tough loss or this coach or teammate you don’t get along with and the self-doubt that comes with a bad game or a bad season, that skillset goes way beyond you having success as a player.”
Ratliff has a demeanor worth emulating. A few years ago, his car was stolen from the parking lot at a Thunder practice. When he called his mother, Jill, to get a ride, her response was that the person who took it might have really needed it.
“When you’re playing a professional sport, that’s what people want to pay attention to,” he said.
“They want to hear the story about how you got this good at a sport and what motivates you and how incredibly competitive you are and all those things. That’s all great and I love that side of me as well, but I think there’s probably a lot more athletes and a lot more lacrosse players than just me that do have some other thing they pour into that people just don’t really know about.”
Now, Ratliff has found another way to inspire people, one word at a time.
“More than anything I try to write optimistically, and I try to share poems that are kind of an optimistic view of the world and I try to give some insight into my approach to life,” Ratliff said. “If that can inspire or help somebody else to be vulnerable or take an optimistic look at life then I’ll have done my job I suppose.”
Follow Scott Ratliff on Twitter at @Srat2 and visit his personal website scottrat.com. His book is also available for purchase on Amazon.