Undaunted by challenges, a lacrosse star brings guts and grit to DU’s championship quest

AJ Mercurio’s journey to becoming a Division I lacrosse player at the University of Denver was far from smooth and simple—in part because of geography and in part because of a health scare when he was a baby.

Growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, lacrosse was everywhere, and it was easy to find friends to practice with or a team to join. That changed when Mercurio was 12 and his family moved to Reno, Nevada.

“It was like a foreign language when we moved out there,” he says of the sport’s exotic status in Reno. Only six of the 16 high schools in the area had a lacrosse team, and the school Mercurio attended was not one of them. Determined to pass, shoot and dodge at all costs, he and his dad did the only thing that made sense: They started a team at his school.

“We would grab anyone who was athletic,” Mercurio says. “The team was a bunch of athletes who knew me on a personal level and knew how much I loved lacrosse. So they gave it an honest effort.”

In the team’s first year, it managed only one victory. But by the time Mercurio was a senior, the team was competing in the playoffs. Even so, playing in a state not known for lacrosse and competing at a school with a fledgling program were not going to get Mercurio noticed by Division I coaches.

“When you think of the sport of lacrosse, that was a significant challenge that he faced,” says Bill Tierney, DU’s men’s lacrosse coach. “Before AJ, there was only one other person who played Division I lacrosse from Reno, so that was a challenge he had to overcome.”

To boost his chances of getting noticed, Mercurio and his dad drove nearly every weekend to San Francisco to play in tournaments against some of the West Coast’s best players. The strategy worked. Tierney saw him in action during a weekend tournament on the East Coast and noticed him again a few weeks later at a California lacrosse camp.

“That was definitely a grind,” Mercurio says of the travel, “but it’s the only reason I am here [at DU].”

That he can play lacrosse at all is something of a medical marvel. 

Mercurio suffered from ear infections as a baby. One day, when he was 16 months old and on the road with his parents, he was sobbing in the backseat. When his parents glanced back, they noticed only one side of his face showed evidence of crying.

Doctors soon attributed the problem to a tumor wrapped around his seventh facial nerve, which controls the left side of the face. He had to undergo several surgeries and cancer treatment. Doctors also diagnosed Mercurio with Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH). This rare disease causes his brain to think his left eye is under attack; in response, the brain tries to shut the eye down. LCH has left Mercurio legally blind in his left eye, though he can see faint outlines from that orb.

Learning to overcome the disability as a kid created a blueprint for how Mercurio handled countless obstacles later in life: No matter the challenge, he would work harder than others.

“Losing over and over again drove my competitiveness and made me not want to lose anymore,” he says. “I would do whatever it took to not lose, to not come in second, and I would work really hard for what I wanted. So whether it was winning a video game or wanting to be a Division I lacrosse player, I would give it 100% to make sure it happened.”

By the time Mercurio got to high school, he was not only playing lacrosse, but also football and basketball. Not until he arrived at DU did he notice the impact of LCH on his play.

“When I got to the college level, I could definitely see that I was almost off a few seconds because the speed of the game increased a lot,” he says. “I had to make adjustments to my stance, and there was a lot of trial and error and doing things a million times to get rid of the kinks.”

Now in his third year with the Pioneers, the communications studies major has emerged as one of the team’s most reliable and versatile players. Last season, Mercurio started all 17 games at either defense or long stick midfielder. His performance earned him Big East Second Team honors. 

Mercurio’s goals for 2022 are what you would expect from someone who has never been deterred by daunting situations: Win the Big East title and play for a national championship.

From cancer and LCH to starting a lacrosse team and driving hundreds of miles every weekend just to get noticed, Mercurio has learned to make light of his challenges. 

“I’m like Shaq from the free-throw line; [my] depth perception is awful,” Mercurio jokes, referencing Shaquille O’Neal, widely regarded as one of the worst free-throw shooters in NBA history. “But somehow when I have a lacrosse stick in my hand, I am able to make up for it.”

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