Every week of the fall 2021 semester, men’s lacrosse coach John Danowski gathered his team for book club.
Together, they read John Lewis’ Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America. The eight freshmen were white guys, private school lacrosse kids, and though the late civil rights leader’s book was outside their experience, they dug in with open minds, said then-teammate Nakeie Montgomery '21, M.M.S.'22, who was pleased by their effort.
The exercise in equity had been his idea, after all.
“I challenged Coach Danowski, so he challenged the whole team,” Montgomery says. “We all read this book. We discussed it as brothers, as a family.”
At 23, Montgomery is already an accomplished athlete. He sported No. 15 on both Duke’s lacrosse and football teams, playing five years of lax and one in Wallace Wade. In May, he graduated from The Fuqua School of Business with a master of management studies (MMS), was drafted by the Redwoods Lacrosse Club and went pro in the touring Premier Lacrosse League. Beyond sports, Montgomery’s interests are diverse. He’s a bassist who’s played in bands and busked on the streets of Denver. He’s a Texan, a self-described low-key nerd and the product of mixed private and public education. He’s met President Obama and grown through the support of Pat and Emmitt Smith. Yet Montgomery’s proudest work includes leveraging his Fuqua connections, his visibility as a Duke student-athlete and his own undeniable charisma to raise more than $60,000 for the NAACP, ACLU, Equal Justice Initiative, Bail Project and Center for Policing Equity.
Montgomery is on a mission for positive social change through fundraising, education and dialogue.
“I got my ears peeled. I got my eyes peeled just for equality, for keeping the world a better place,” he said, chuckling at his own idealism. “A fifth-grader says that same sentence, but it’s the truth.”
Danowski knows lacrosse is a predominately white game. He can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be Black in the sport, so he’s direct with Black players from the start: Tell me when you see something, when something isn’t right, and we can stop it before it begins. Danowski is an affable, approachable New Yorker — easygoing and straightforward.
“Nakeie challenged me and said ‘Coach, this is how I feel right now. This is what’s going on in my life,’” Danowski recalled. “And I said, ‘Let’s go!’”
Montgomery, who approved of the full-steam-ahead tack, is fond of being direct.
“Black people are very marginalized,” he said, “I don’t think that’s a secret.”
During the pandemic, the same grimly common news — “Black man shot by police; Black man dead, potential homicide” commanded the attention of a suddenly homebound population, as Montgomery saw it. Some people took action, others lobbied, and many went after each other online.
Initially Montgomery invested his time in fundraising tens of thousands of dollars. But he then shifted to a positive-growth mentality. He approached Danowski with an idea, and the coach selected Across That Bridge. He then split the 56-member squad into smaller groups so that every player would be held accountable for reading, understanding and discussing the book.
Cameron Mulé ’21, who played five years of lacrosse alongside his close friend Montgomery, said he learned details of Black history he’d never known.
“He made me have eye-opening discussions on things in the world,” Mulé continued. “As a teammate, Nakeie is a selfless person. He puts the team above himself every time. When you have someone like that, it’s very easy to follow them.”
Danowski, too, is grateful. Montgomery challenged him to become better educated. He said it made him a better person.
For Montgomery, who’s now moving into professional sports, into the wider world, it’s all part of the mission.
“Now you see me,” he says with an emerging confidence.
“I’m helping grow. I’m helping alleviate the situation.”