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’s life 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 makers.
“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.”