It Takes a Village
Welcome to UNCUT Duke. As one of the club’s founding members and a senior on the Men’s Lacrosse team, I am honored to be the first to use its platform. Founded at our rival UNC, UNCUT allows athletes to be themselves by empowering them to tell and share stories. For so long, we, student-athletes, have had our stories told by others, but it is time to flip the narrative around. Duke is home to some of the most impressive athletes in the world. We are recognized for our athletic excellence, but rarely seen as more. Duke student-athletes are musicians, philanthropists, writers, artists, activists, and the list goes on. You may see us on the court or the field, but we are way more than that. Each of us has a story. I’m honored to be the first to tell mine.
To those who don’t know me, I am defined by my sport. Lacrosse has taken me places that young Nakeie could have never imagined. But that’s not all there is to my name.
I am Nakeie Montgomery, and I got my brains from my dad and my charisma from my mom.
My parents are first-generation college kids. They met at Texas Southern University in Houston, where their freshman year they had my sister, Deanjole Montgomery, and their senior year, they had me.
We moved to Dallas when I was one year old. Shortly after our move to Dallas, my parents split up, leaving my mother, my sister, and me – the newfound man of the house.
It was a tough adjustment, growing up with two women. My sister and I had our fair share of fights and of course, being the lil bro – I lost just about all of them. My sister and I actually have matching tattoos about our childhood fights. We got over hating each other, but still, I was a tough case as a kid. I didn’t have a lot of guidance, really.
"I like to think I get my hustle from my mom – though I know hers is unparalleled."
No one has cared about my well-being more than my mom. She valued education above anything else and she fought for ours with everything. She worked multiple jobs to put us through private school at St. Philip's School and Community Center, a small, majority African American school in South Dallas, from Pre-K through third grade. Though she never wore it around us, I know my mom was tired. She was a grinder. The only way for her was up. She wanted to put her two kids in the best possible position to succeed. If you ask her today what she is most proud of, she will tell you it’s that she purchased our home when she was twenty-three years old. I like to think I get my hustle from my mom – though I know hers is unparalleled.
I am Nakeie Montgomery, and I found two father figures in Cuong and Wendell.
I grew up in the hood. And if you know anything about lacrosse, you know it ain’t really played there. But I loved it.
Ironically enough, I was introduced to the game at St. Philips. There, I got my first feel for the game. I loved the hand-eye coordination involved, the feel of the ball being in my stick, how fast the game was. I loved how loud the crowd got when a goal was scored, and that it was played in the spring when every day was sunny. I loved everything about the game.
"They guided me, pushed me, and began to foster my exposure to the world in the third grade."
Going into fourth grade, I met Cuong Tran and Wendell Lee who asked me to try out for their select team called Team North Texas (TNT) in Plano, a suburb about 45 minutes north of where we lived – and that was without awful Dallas traffic. They guided me, pushed me, and began to foster my exposure to the world in the third grade. But more importantly, they accepted my family as a part of theirs. To this day, we have New Years dinner at the Tran’s house and go on family trips together.
TNT was more than a lacrosse team. We were a family. We always found a way to make it not just about lacrosse. I remember our first time going to Vail, Colorado, we rented three huge houses for the weekend, and all of the families stayed in them. We got closer. We gained genuine life friends, not just teammates. And that's what it's always been about. We were a great team, and we often won, but had we not, we all would’ve still had a blast. My teammates and I would still be lifelong friends, and Cuong and Wendell would still be father figures in my life. This team was my first real glimpse into this game – this game that would take me places, for real.
We traveled at least twice a summer. With that team, from third grade through eighth, we traveled from Las Vegas to Disney World, and everywhere in between. I had been to over half of the states by high school. Getting to travel and meet so many people from so many different states was a learning experience in itself.
It just made me curious. It made me want to know more about everybody. I never wanted to feel like there was something I didn’t know. With Cuong and Wendell, I got my first glimpse of life outside of my bubble.
I am Nakeie Montgomery, and I got expelled from middle school.
By the end of fourth grade, my grandparents moved into our home in Dallas, while my mom, my sister, and I rented a one-bedroom apartment out in Plano so that I could make my lacrosse dreams a reality. I enrolled in a public school while my sister was bouncing back and forth between living with my grandparents down in Dallas and living with us in Plano, attending High School in North Dallas.
I was a straight-A student for all of elementary school and even into middle school. My early education was in large part influenced by growing up in the church. My pawpaw was a pastor, my grandma was in the choir, and my mom and her three siblings were consistent churchgoers. I used to memorize the Books of the Bible and the Easter speeches – I excelled at it. That was my foundation for knowledge. Before I knew it, I was coming in first place in oratorical contests in third grade, winning the school-wide Spelling Bee in fifth, and competing in the Texas State Spelling Bee by sixth. I could spell, I could add, and I could read and write exceptionally. I used to want to be the President. But I didn’t know what respect meant. I hadn’t bought into that trait yet. Not for others, nor for myself.
And that got me expelled from my middle school.
"I was more or less raising myself. I was both the principal and the pupil of my own actions. "
Not for any one heinous action. I was just a troublemaker. I would skip school for no reason, and I was a smart ass to anyone in authority. The straw that broke the camel's back was in 6th grade when I was fighting with a kid, and he pushed me and broke my finger. Of course, I lied and said that I hadn’t done anything to deserve that. But they checked the security footage and saw that I instigated the fight. And because I lied and tried to get the school to cover my medical expenses, they kicked me out. Like I said, I was more or less raising myself. I was both the principal and the pupil of my own actions.
I am Nakeie Montgomery, and I was empowered by Pat and Emmitt Smith.
In the seventh grade, I met two of the most influential people in my life, Pat and Emmitt Smith. Yes, I am talking about the Dallas legend: three-time Super Bowl champ, all-time league-leading rusher, MVP, and RB career touchdown record holder. He and his wife, Pat, run a philanthropic organization called “Team22” (he wore 22 for the Cowboys). Every year, they select a class of seventh-grade students who are people of color who they believe in but don’t come from the best socioeconomic backgrounds. He and his wife identified kids all over the Dallas area, went into their schools, and interviewed each of us.
Pat Smith interviewed me, and she said that I was a little Emmitt. She still calls me that to this day.
In my class, they selected just ten of us, all of whom still keep in touch – we're lifelong friends. Through Team22, they found out our interests and gave us mentors who were professionals in the fields we wanted to go into, we volunteered with many organizations, held philanthropic events, and got to see things that, without the organization, we would have never seen. As a rising freshman, they took us all to New York City for a week where we got to experience one of the most iconic American cities. We went to the legendary Apollo Theater, the top of the Empire State Building, the new Freedom Tower, and the Statue of Liberty.
But the summer after that, Pat and Emmitt did the unimaginable. They took us to the White House!!!
"I saw myself in the first black President of the United States."
I met the President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama. I shook their hands. The experience of going to the White House and not only meeting but actually talking to President Obama was surreal. That day, as I shook his hand, I saw myself in the first black President of the United States, and I’ll never forget how empowered I felt. I was reminded again and again that Emmitt saw himself in us. He and Pat saw our potential and took it upon themselves to help foster our growth and development. And because of that, they have helped make me who I am today. I am a believer, I am a striver, and I don’t limit myself.
I am Nakeie Montgomery, and I’ve got two families.
I would be remiss if I left my best friend, brother, and his entire family out of “my” story. I met Rives when I was in sixth grade through lacrosse, but we went from friends to siblings when I was a sophomore in high school. My mom moved to Austin and then to Iowa for work training which took up a healthy part of the second semester. So I moved to Wentwood Dr. with his family, the Castlemans.
To be honest, I never left. We never left each other’s side. Rives and I got grounded together, we scored goals together, we learned how to drive together – the whole nine yards. I played football throughout my four years of high school and got Rives to come out and play for our senior year. I threw ONE pass my entire football career… I’m gonna let you guess who was there to catch it for 32 yards. Wherever you saw one of us, you saw the other.
Rives and I helped each other overcome similar challenges. We’d drop everything to be a friend to each other. Living with the Castlemans made me more well-rounded. I went from living in a single mother home with my sister – being the “man of the house” – to now living in a two-parent household, with three new brothers.
"Too often, people get so comfortable with what they know that they neglect that anything else exists."
In the same way that the Castlemans helped me grow my perspective, I was helping to expand theirs. Exposure is the most powerful tool in the world. Just as Cuong and Wendell, and Pat and Emmitt had exposed me to new ways of the world, the Castlemans and I did the same for each other. Too often, people get so comfortable with what they know that they neglect that anything else exists. I told them stories that they couldn’t relate to, but they were curious about my life, and why I thought the way I did. And I was curious about the same for them. I helped show them more of the world than just what they knew.
Rives is my guy forever. We talk the same, we LITERALLY have the same thoughts, same movie tastes, same mannerisms. It was no surprise we were awarded “Best Friends” in our high school yearbook.
I have two houses, two moms, two dads, and four siblings. Some days, I sit back and marvel at our relationship and I thank God every time I think about him – that I’m lucky enough to call him my brother, and his family, my family, and the same vice versa.
I am Nakeie Montgomery, and I carry a piece of everyone who helped raise me.
Sometimes, I joke about the multiple lives I lead. From growing up in Sunny South Dallas, being expelled, and playing lacrosse to living with another family and meeting the First Black President, I feel so blessed to have seen the whole gamut. My favorite thing about the village it took to raise me is that everyone in my life simply did the right thing. Now that I am at Duke and still looking forward to seeing the man I will become, I am grateful to be able to reflect and to see what sacrifices my village has made for me, and more importantly what the culmination of my life events means to me.
"Because if not for all the people in my life who strove to do the same, I wouldn’t be here writing 'my' story. "
While reflecting on my life, the one thing I want to do is to be able to change the lives of others around me. Because if not for all the people in my life who strove to do the same, I wouldn’t be here writing “my” story. In the wake of all of the social injustice going on today, it has been easy for me to be outspoken and to do my best to educate others, have conversations, and tell people how I feel. That is a testament to the exposure of the world that my village gave me, and my village for always going above and beyond to do the right thing.
Now it is my turn. I am taking what my village has taught me and paying it forward.
My first step in my quest to change the lives of others was over the summer when I fundraised more than $60,000 for five different BLM organizations: the ACLU, the Bail Project, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Center for Policing Equity, and the Equal Justice Initiative. Easily, this is my proudest accomplishment to date.
In the same way I would never get an opportunity to score on the lacrosse field without my teammates, I wouldn’t be standing here today, telling my story, without the village that helped raise me.
In my mom, I had someone who always knew what was right for me and fought for me. In Cuong and Wendell, I had two men in my life to look up to and emulate. In Pat and Emmitt, I had people who fostered my potential. And in Rives, I had someone by my side.
Through my village, I found a family.
Through my village, I found light.
Through my village, I found excellence in all spaces, beyond just athletics.
- Nakeie Montgomery
(Photo Credits: Reagan Lunn)