Ahmaad Simmons and Jamar Peete may not have known it at the time, but they had a lot in common.
Both grew up in Baltimore and had dreamed of playing football at the college level. Both were natural athletes who were handed lacrosse sticks early in high school because of their God-given ability.
A few years into their lacrosse careers, both had the idea of popularizing the sport among inner city youth.
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But the cross-town high school rivals, Simmons of Baltimore City College and Peete of Walbrook, never got along. They did whatever they could to shut each other down on the field as two of the top midfielders in the area.
"To be honest, we hated each other," Peete said. "He still holds it over my head to this day that I never beat him in high school."
Simmons and Peete took the field together for the first time during an indoor league season a few years back. While skeptical of playing with a rival , it didn't take long for the two to mesh, Peete said. At this point, it's like they can read each other's minds.
The pair now play on the same midfield line for Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C. Sunday, the one-loss Saints will take on Dowling College in the Division II national championship at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Limestone knocked off the Golden Lions, 15-7, in the Conference Carolinas tournament final on May 6.
Inner city lacrosse programs have made major strides in talent and stability during the last decade, said Peeteand Simmons. Both see themselves as role models for Baltimore youth who don't see lacrosse as an avenue to college.
"[Our success] says the game has come a long way," Simmons said. "Every time I take the field, I think about what it took to get here. It feels good to be able to go out there and represent where I come from."
Limestone head coach J.B. Clarke said in his experience, inner city programs don't produce college level talent all that often. But hopefully, he said, a trend is starting.
"What they've done speaks volumes quite frankly," Clarke said. "Kids are seeing lacrosse on TV and they're having good role models like them. They're starting to see these guys excel and realize that they can do it too."
Both Simmons, a junior, and Peete, a sophomore, pursued lacrosse at the college level because they wanted to do something different. They wanted to start a trend to show that inner city lacrosse programs could produce high-caliber players. They wanted to pave the way for the future and help the sport grow in Baltimore.
"I look at myself as a pioneer," Simmons said. "I feel like a lot of kids in the inner city look up to me when I come back and play with my college uniform. They've got to keep working hard because they can get here even with a late start like me."
Simmons said he owes a lot to his high school coach, Anthony 'Merc' Ryan, and Blax Lax, a lacrosse program for inner city youth that hosts summer leagues, as well as indoor winter leagues and camps.
"I feel like it saved my life, honestly, because I don't know where I'd be without it," Simmons said. "It constantly kept a stick in my hands when there's not a lot of opportunities to play in an inner city. It really helped me and it's helped the inner city come a long way in the sport."
Both players still return to Blax Lax camps to talk to young players and they still maintain a relationship with Ryan — Simmons talks to his former coach often. Peete said he feels he and Simmons are well known in the Baltimore lacrosse community and are seen as role models.
"Our name has been spread to the city," said Peete, who has a goal, five assists and 20 ground balls in 18 games this season. "We're inspiring a lot of children. They post pictures of us on Facebook and they talk about us, too."
Peete became accustomed to the spotlight on the football field when he was growing up.
But just two weeks into his lacrosse career, when this new and seemingly foreign sport wasn't coming as easy as he hoped, Peete thought about quitting and running track or playing baseball in the spring of his freshman year.
But his coach, Ray Harcum, the junior varsity football coach and head lacrosse coach at Walbrook, as well as a great influence in Peete's life, told him to stick with it. So the midfielder taped an X to a concrete wall and just played catch with himself for hours at a time until he felt comfortable throwing and catching.
"I usually catch on to things pretty quick, but lacrosse wasn't really my thing," Peete admitted. "My coach was impressed with my talents so he decided to put a stick in my hand. I'm used to being the center of attention and outdoing everyone else, but that didn't happen right away."
In his first season, Peete finished with just a single goal. Two years later, as a junior, he found the back of the net 63 times, earning a spot on the Baltimore Sun's All-Baltimore City lacrosse team. He was the only black player on the 12-man list.
"He's tough to get by and has gotten better at picking up ground balls," Clarke said. "His stick skills have improved greatly and he's really turning the corner. You can help them learn lacrosse, but you can't learn bigger and faster. He has those."
Simmons played two years of lacrosse at New England College before transferring to Limestone, where he has recorded a goal, an assist and 12 ground balls in 17 games in 2012. Ryan said Simmons received criticism from other players in New England because he 'wasn't really a lacrosse player, he was just a good athlete.'
"If you stick with lacrosse," Ryan told Simmons, "you'll get great with the stick in your hand. I said one thing about those guys who said those things. They're never going to be an athlete like you."
Simmons considered playing football in college, getting looks from North Carolina A&T and Prairie View A&M.
Ryan said Simmons didn't have it easy growing up in Baltimorebut athletics always kept him on the right path.
"That athletic field drives him," Ryan said. "When he gets inside those lines, it's Ahmad's world. He can be so intense at times, so we try to channel that. But he is always going to give 100 percent."