An Elite College Athlete, DA Rollins Got a Taste of the Law and Never Turned Back

New Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins has
quickly come to be known as an agent of change, a passionate advocate for
equity in the law and a solid leader ready to stand up for a cause – but few
know that before all that she was an elite Division 1 college athlete, and it
was on the playing field where she first gained her love and respect for the law.

Rollins grew up in a large family in
Cambridge, and sports were part of her family from the beginning, long before
she ever thought of the legal system.

Rollins said she was a team captain of every
sport she played going back to youth soccer, and an All-Scholastic in
basketball at Buckingham, Brown & Nichols School (BB&N), but it was on
the lacrosse field where she was the most outstanding. The sport – which was
somewhat newer to New England in the 1980s when she was in high school – was
fast moving and, having been recruited to play after a basketball practice,
Rollins had a great skill set to be a high achiever.

“I was the oldest of five siblings and my
parents worked very hard to make sure we got a great education,” she said. “I
got into BB&N after the third grade, but at one point my parents sat me
down and told me I was a good athlete and a good student and needed to get a
scholarship if I wanted to go to college.”

Her skills led her to a full Division 1
Scholarship to UMass-Amherst for lacrosse, this coming after winning a national
championship on the high school level in 1989. After an outstanding freshman
year, Rollins and her teammates were shocked to learn that their sport was
being eliminated by the university due to budget cuts.

Though she was able to keep her scholarship,
she said she eventually missed the athletic fields, and that’s when she and
some other women athletes turned to the law – which she found to be a powerful
leveler for those without much of a voice.

“At first, I was kind of relieved because I
didn’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. for conditioning anymore, but later I began to
miss sports,” she said. “I’d played sports my entire life and missed the
camaraderie you feel when you have the team behind you and you score a goal.

“We only had three or four scholarship
players and we were good,” she continued. “The men’s football team hadn’t won a
game in years and they had 75 full-time scholarships with everything provided
for them, including food and lodging. I didn’t know a lawyer or a judge, but it
seemed so unfair. Myself ,and a few other athletes from the women’s teams,
asked to meet with the Athletic Director.”

That meeting didn’t go so well, and there
was no change, but DA Rollins said everything changed when they got a lawyer.

“Our lawyer threatened a Title 9 lawsuit,”
she said. “The AD completely changed his tune. We got all or our teams
re-instituted after a while.”

Rollins – who attended Northeastern
University Law School after UMass – said it was her first taste at how the law
can be used to empower and bring about justice.

And it was a powerful experience.

“I saw that lawyers matter and words
matter,” she said. “As a young person, I thought, ‘Oh my God, lawyers are
awesome.’ They make everyone fall into line and things change.”

It was the defining moment she points to
after a long legal career with MassPort, the MBTA, and now as the Suffolk
District Attorney, where the law became her passion.

However, when it came to leadership –
another characteristic she said has been critical as the newly-elected DA in an
office that has had the same leader for almost two decades – it was what
happened after the teams were re-instated that taught her the most.

She said when the team was finally brought
back, she was the only player left with any real experience. Most of the
players and coaches had been plucked from other sports like track and
volleyball. The elite athlete soon found herself the captain of a team that
couldn’t win a game to save themselves.

Yet, she said it was the most important time
of her life, leading a team that likely wasn’t going to win, but could still

accomplish some goals in the meantime.

“It was one of the best learning experiences
I ever had,” she said. “You show up with a smile on your face and give 100
percent even when things aren’t going well. It taught me character…Anyone can
be present when things are going great, but where are you when things get hard?
Do you still show up? I like to say it costs very little to pay someone a
compliment or be respectful. Yet so few do it.”

That kind of optimism for a competitive
person in the midst of a losing season was life changing.

“What’s beautiful is to learn not to be
discouraged and to be optimistic,” she said. “Those are actually the years I
broke records because the numbers of goals I scored. There are still records
out there 26 or 27 years later that I set and I’m proud to say I still hold.”

Certainly, the end of her athletic career
did not mean an end to those valuable lessons. In fact, she said, it has been
sports that taught her about justice and leadership.

“We are breaking down barriers,” she said.
“When you see a woman in leadership roles, it happens quite often that in the
past that woman had some athletic ability or played some sport. It teaches us
about inclusion or teamwork or perseverance. Sports doesn’t care about how much
money you have or where you live, it’s about how well you perform on the field.
It’s a great leveler. It’s been invaluable for me.”

And in the office, she is adjusting to being
that new person who is also the leader of the office. That, she said, takes the
kind of skills she honed on the athletic fields some years ago.

“I’m the new person to the team here in the
DA’s office and I’m also their leader,” she said. “Change is difficult. What I
try to do is show up, know the great work they do and be as encouraging and
purposeful as I can.”

Nowadays, Rollins doesn’t spend much time on
the playing field, but still enjoys watching her daughter run track, where she
has won national championships in the 100m and 200m races. Such things are
encouraging, she said, to see girls and young women have so many opportunities
that were hard-fought by the generation ahead of them – a generation such as
the women athletes like Rollins who used the legal system to challenge decision

“It’s really exciting to see young women are
getting the same opportunities men have had a long time,” she said. “Being
excited for my young girls playing sports doesn’t take away from my excitement
for young men playing sports. We want everyone to have the opportunity for
success, on and off the field.”

Rollins indicates her office will be more present at crime scenes

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael
Rollins said one change she has made immediately to the office is making sure
at major crime scenes, she and members of her office are on scene.

That includes homicides and other such

Whether in Boston, Chelsea, Revere or
Winthrop, she said it is important to be present at the scene, even if it’s the
middle of the night.

She said she has instructed everyone to call
her no matter what time, and not to wait for the morning to brief her on major

“For me, it’s important to kind of be
proximate and present when things happen so people know we not only handle the
case, but also we had boots on the ground from the beginning. A lot of the work
we do is behind the scenes and people don’t see it…So, it’s important they see
us and we experience what they are dealing with because it really makes us have
insight into the work we do every single day.”

She said that,
particularly at homicides, she and her office would make every effort to be on
scene throughout the county.

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An Elite College Athlete, DA Rollins Got a Taste of the Law and Never Turned Back

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