Mike Daum was sitting on the side of a mountain in Northern Afghanistan when he shared a dream that seemed a world and a lifetime away.
“You know what’d be really cool right now? I’m pretty sure it’s Memorial Day Weekend rolling around,” Daum recalls. “How cool would it be to strap it up for a national championship? Those guys are living life.”
Daum is now 25 and a proud veteran of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He’s a husband. He’s seen combat and taken enemy fire and jumped out of airplanes.
He’s also a sophomore for the Hampden-Sydney lacrosse program, a shorstick d-middie and a psychology major.
“What made me want to play again was the guys I served with. They were a lot of former athletes. A lot of them could have played in college or did a little bit. We’d joke about me getting out and how cool it’d be if I can go play,” Daum says. “Me being a competitive guy, I wanted to play again, but those guys I served with are a huge reason for why I play. It’s a game, but doing something that a lot of people don’t get the chance to do, I see it with a different light.”
Daum says he has “the knees of a 90-year-old man.” He jokes he’s two inches shorter —only 5-foot-9 to start — than when he enlisted. Jumping out of airplanes in a combat zone will do that to you.
He’s humble to the point of self-deprecating; he defers praise to the fellow members of the 82nd. He loved his service and the opportunity to see combat, but he doesn’t glorify his role or share the details of hardship and tragedy.
“I don’t want it to sound like we’re a bunch of Vikings over there in the Middle East,” he says. “I know a lot of pretty badass guys. We did some pretty cool stuff that will come out 30 years from now. A lot of it’s still under wraps, but some really cool stuff.”
He enlisted in the Army in 2016, completing Basic Training at Fort Benning in Georgia, then went to Airborne school, joining the 82nd in Fort Bragg, not far from where grew group up near Raleigh, N.C. He was put in a recognizance company and went to Northern Afghanistan in 2017.
“Our role was to facilitate, to keep the peace. We did a lot of security operations, controlling territory, facilitating. We were mainly quick reaction force, or QRF. If anything popped off in our area, we would go handle and diffuse that situation. That was our day-to-day. Being prepared, doing patrols. We ran other security missions, and we transported and protected some high up people in the government and NATO,” he says.
There was combat, and like most who come out, he’s taken a physical toll. He’s got a bad shoulder, his knees are in rough shape. He’s been a part of close calls and come out the other side, but those physical scars still exist.
“We rolled around in the sand a little bit,” Daum says. “We weren’t in a friendly place. I was fortunate to come out of there without too many scratches. Other guys weren’t as fortunate.”
He found organized lacrosse in elementary school, the day after he was kicked out of Little League for running over the catcher at home plate. From there, he had issues of Inside Lacrosse Magazine plastered to his wall while athletics dominated his childhood.
He was a two-time captain at Apex (N.C.), a product of a military family with numerous uncles, cousins and grandparents serving in the Army. So, it was peculiar when he didn’t enlist or go to a school where he could play college sports, instead enrolling at East Carolina University, trying to “kinda be a normal kid.” John Hayden, his coach at Apex and one of the architects of the youth lacrosse scene in the area, knew right away it was a mistake and that his tenure at ECU wouldn’t last long without some sort of higher goal.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be enough for him. He’s wired for a lot more. I knew he was going to miss the team stuff. I was the least surprised person in the world when he told me he was enlisting. He has a lineage of service. He really wanted to aim for something high,” Hayden says.
“I always had some sort of mission, objective, working toward something, whether that was in sports or something else,” Daum says. “When I was in limbo land in [college], I stopped going to class and all that stuff. I felt lost, without a purpose.”
Hayden saw first-hand Daum’s impact on a team, from youth lacrosse to a state championship at Apex. His sophomore year, it was a talented team, but the leadership wasn’t there. Daum came in and shook things up.
“There are certain guys who are just, if you can get a few guys like this, it can set the whole thing up for success. Mikey was always one of the guys. Everybody liked him. But his agenda was not to make friends. … He was just unapologetic. When some guys were trying to coast — it was one of those years — he would just put it out there every day, every minute. He rubbed guys the wrong way, and he just didn’t give a crap,” Hayden says. “Mikey was chest out, look anybody in the eye, ‘I don’t care if you’re a senior or a sophomore.’ He’s just instinctually known what a team needs. The next year, we won a state championship with a talented group, but real good leadership.”
In the summer of 2018, Daum was back at Fort Bragg, having made the decision to transition out of the Army. He joined Hayden in coaching at Apex, and more and more the conversation shifted to “I’d love to play again. I’ve got more in me.”
Hayden’s son, Jack, is two years younger and had just finished his junior year at Hampden-Sydney. He was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer in 2020, behind Jared Medwar. Both are returning for 2021.
At lunch during a camp one day, John Hayden suggested he put in a call to coach Jason Rostan — and soon after, Daum was a Tiger.
The Army gave Daum another chance to earn an education — and to be a part of a team.
“One of the beautiful things about the Army is you’ve got the GI Bill. That’s Uncle Sam paying your way. I looked at it as, ‘If I’m going to school, I’m going to go to the best school I can.’ Hampden-Sydney was definitely up there,” Daum says.
Daum was familiar with Hampden-Sydney, having been recruited a little bit out of Apex in his summers with the Tar Heel Lacrosse Club. When he visited the day after Hayden made contact, he decided right then that he was going to attend.
He was impressed by the Wilson Leadership Center and by Rostan. The admissions process moved swiftly despite it being the summer, and soon after Daum and his fiancé, Kimberly, were moving.
“I chose Hampden-Sydney for a lot of reasons — the academics, the really good athletic history, but also I love the culture here. A lot of the schools, people say they produce skillsets. You’re going to learn a skill. You’re going to do great and make a ton of money. At Hampden-Sydney, they develop leaders. I remember them saying that to me on my visit,” he says. “The Wilson Leadership Center here focuses on creating good men and good citizens and preparing people to lead in all aspects of society.”
That fall of 2019, Daum was a 24-year-old freshman with a beat-up body, out of lacrosse shape and playing a sport that has significantly changed since he last played competitively in 2014.
“You don’t have U strings anymore?” he recalls. “I was getting away with murder back in the day with a pinched Proton Power and two U strings.”
The speed was shocking. He could walk 20 miles in Afghanistan carrying heavy baggage, but sprinting back and forth at lacrosse speed was completely different. He was slated to be a shortstick d-middie, a departure from his offensive role in high school.
“I definitely had moments where I thought, ‘I’m a little over my head.’ Playing shortie, I’m the target for everybody. I felt responsible, being in a D role, being the guy who’s going to get dodged at. There’s a lot of pressure and responsibility. I can’t get burned when I step out onto the field, I’ve got to do something about this,” he says.
But he got to work, earning a significant role. He played in six games before the 2020 season was shut down.
“I remember he moved up to Hampden-Sydney a few weeks before school started with his fiancé,” Rostan says of Daum. “He’s got a service dog with him, and I’d look out my window, and there he is with no shirt on sprinting up and down the hill. He was a little raw Day 1, but he worked and worked and worked.”
For Daum, his heart is wherever he can be a part of a team. From 6 years old playing peewee football, it’s where he’s felt most comfortable and had the most success.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the room, I’m not the most athletic, but there’s something about being on a team and working to a collective goal. Whether athletics or in the military. I thrive in those environments,” he says.
He loved the military. He loved his combat service. He loved the grunt work, like being a private and a heavy machine gunner, having to carry all the heavy stuff as the new guy. He rose to a senior team leader in his platoon, in charge of six to eight soldiers within a platoon system.
The patch on the 82nd Airborne uniform says “AA.” That stands for All-American, because when the division was constituted in 1917, it had members from all 48 states. It was a unit filled with all kinds of former athletes, and it was his fellow soldiers who looked up the eligibility rules and got him down the path to playing back home.
“I enjoyed the military, and I did well because I’m a team guy. There are tons of parallels. A lot of the guys I served with in the military played college sports, were All-Americans, were team captains, the military attracts those kinds of individuals,” he says.
“The U.S. military is, in my opinion, the best and highest level of teamwork you can get to. My high school, growing up playing sports, prepared me for the military. But I think the military really prepared me to come back and play again. Which is something I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do. I’m definitely starting from the bottom, being a role player. I’m a shorstick d-middie. I have no glory. I was a hot-shot offensive guy in high school. Now, I’m 40 pounds heavier and seven years older than I was. I’m not the same guy I was. But the military taught me how to get in where I fit in, find what I need to do right now.”
He fills a unique role for Rostan’s team. A veteran newcomer and someone who wants to be one of the guys, but who also has a house, got married in August and has life experience no one else on the team understands.
He makes time to go out with his teammates, to be their friend but also be a mentor and leader. Hayden describes him as both a vocal leader but a servant leader. He sets an example, he takes care of the young guys, and he will do anything to win. Daum says he has plenty of nicknames, from “the old guy,” to “uncle Mike” to “Blue” from Old School.
“He provides a really good balance of, he’s not out all night. We’ve had older guys in the past on the team, and those guy who were in that different phase weren’t participating in that social stuff and maybe a little bit of an outcast. Mike understands the balance,” Rostan says.
“This is their team. Their journey is my journey. Why would a 25-year-old want to be friends with an 18-year-old? When you’re on a team, it’s different. It’s important for the guys to see me as one of them, rather than some old guy they’ve got around,” Daum says.
He aspires to be a head coach at a good program, and his dream is to be on staff of the U.S. National Team. In the meantime, he doesn’t have allusions of being the leading scorer, or the star player whose name is in lights. But he has his role for a team that can compete for an ODAC championship.
He has his team, and when adversity hits, they have him.
“I learned what actual physical hardship is. What being tired is. Having to perform under harsh circumstances. When things get tough, we’re in a close game or working through an injury, it’s a walk in the park compared to northern Afghanistan,” he says. “We’re playing CNU, not the Taliban on Saturday.”