Like Uncle, Like Nephew: How Jim Metzger and Rob Pannell Defined Long Island Lacrosse

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L. to R.: Lax All Star Rob Pannell and his uncle, The Whitmore Agency Chairman and CEO James Metzger. (Photo by Bruce Adler)

The concept of success has found deep meaning for Rob Pannell of Smithtown, one of the best professional lacrosse players to ever grace the game. 

As a standout with Cornell University and later with the New York Lizards, Pannell set records and streaks that not only defined the game of lacrosse at the time but also showed the nation what caliber of talent Long Island had to offer. He has even been described by lacrosse experts as “the Michael Jordan of his game.”

That idea of long-lasting, record-setting, and fulfilling success wasn’t instilled by coach pressure but rather from seeing his uncle, Jim Metzger live a life that many would consider to be outstanding. Metzger’s influence on Pannell early on came through the “fun uncle” approach, according to Pannell, who noted the excitement he would feel when a well-dressed Metzger would pull up with his fancy car in the driveway.

“He loves lacrosse more than I do,” Pannell says of his uncle’s passion for the game, noting that he never realized Metzger’s longtime playing capabilities. “It’s incredible. I’ve learned a lot from him.” 

Now CEO of the Garden City-based Whitmore Agency, a leading insurance group, Metzger’s success is also one cradled in many days on the lacrosse field. Metzger was an All American at Hofstra University, though he cut his career short as a personal decision. Metzger isolated himself from his passion for lacrosse for the longest time after that — roughly 25 years away from the sport he loved so much. 

“I lost that connection until I really began watching my nephew play,” Metzger says.

It was only as his nephew became more and more committed to the sport in high school that Metgzer rekindled his love of the game with the intent of guiding Pannell down a path of success.

“Rob wasn’t recruited much in his early high school days,” Metzger says, noting that Pannell “went from good to great” from his junior to senior year at Smithtown High School, putting up a record 130 points that season in the process. 

But Pannell’s senior year breakout was almost too late for him to be scouted by colleges, according to Metzger. Taking the advice of his uncle, Pannell put in a year at Deerfield Academy, where he again set program highs during his short tenure before finally reaching the Ivy League.

“I felt compelled to become involved because I saw his outstanding ability,” Metzger says. 

That ability shined during Pannell’s first season with the Big Red. Pannell became the Ivy League’s rookie of the year and set Cornell University’s rookie record for points in a season, boasting a team-high 67 points while also being the highest-scoring freshman on the year as a first team All Ivy-Leaguer.

Meanwhile, Metzger was there for it all as he “suffered” through the highly intense excitement that Pannell’s collegiate career brought.

“I would make the trip up to Cornell by myself for his games and I couldn’t be around anyone while I watched,” Metgzer says, noting he would go to empty sections of the stands to watch his nephew’s high-stakes games. “Watching Rob plays brings back all the excitement that I felt when I did.”

Nothing was more wild for Pannell or Metzger that freshman year. That’s when Pannell and his 16 postseason points led Cornell to the 2009 NCAA championship, where the team fell 10-9 against its state rival Syracuse University. Though Pannell or the Big Red didn’t capture a national championship, that year was a telling one for the future his career had in store.

“He has a work ethic that I never had,” Metzger says of his standout nephew.

That work ethic showed on and off the field. Playing in the Ivy League, Pannell learned early on that just being talented on the field wasn’t enough to notch total success for the years to come.

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Rob Pannell playing for the Lizards.

“You’re in there to get an education,” Pannell says, noting the mandatory study hours he had to commit to as a D1 athlete in the Ivy League. 

That overall dedication and commitment to excellence is what pushed Pannell to receive an Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly (ESPY) Award nomination for best male athlete during his junior year in 2011, the only lacrosse player to ever be nominated at the time.

A year later, Pannell was drafted professionally into the New York Lizards, where he would fittingly enough play his home games at Hofstra University, in a stadium which is partly named for Metzger. After all, it was Pannell’s pursuit of the game that inspired Metzger to become heavily re-involved in the Hofstra Pride.

“Playing there, looking up and seeing my uncle’s name is certainly an experience that many don’t get to have and I love it,” Pannell says of his pro days and college tournaments at the Hempstead campus.

While Pannell played beneath James C. Metzger Hall, he certainly made a name for himself on the field with the Lizards. The standout was named rookie of the year while also making an appearance in the Major League Lacrosse All-Star game during the 2013 season, just the start of an explosive professional career. 

Pannell’s third year in the league was a culmination of all the years of his work and his uncle’s proverbial suffering. That’s when he earned a third consecutive All-Star selection, was named MLL All-Pro for the second year, and led the league in scoring with 68 points, 38 goals and 30 assists as one of only pros in history to have at least 30 goals and 30 assists in a season.

That wasn’t even his biggest highlight of the year. Pannell’s offensive capabilities led the Lizards to a championship that season, in a final where he personally put up four goals and an assist against the Rochester Rattlers. He was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame shortly after that.

“I watch in awe,” Metzger says. “That man can do anything he wants.”

Pannell’s career has found another discipline recently, this one with his uncle at The Whitmore Agency.

Pannell chocks up his success both on the field and more recently in business to the relationship that he and his uncle have sustained throughout their somewhat paralleling careers. 

“He’s the definition of a professional and he’s guided me such a long away to what I am,” Pannell says. 

Metzger also said that the future for The Whitmore Agency with the addition of Pannell and other notable major recent acquisitions will be a big one for 2020.

For right now, the uncle and nephew have a holiday tradition of watching basketball on Christmas Day together to look forward to as Pannell transitions from lacrosse to business, where he will be involved with what he calls “the Ivy League lacrosse mafia of Wall Street” under the wing of his uncle and mentor.

“Family means everything in life,” Metzger says.

His nephew echoes the sentiment.

Pannell adds, “Everyone should have an Uncle Jim in their lives.”

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James C. Metzger is as well known for his philanthropy as he is for leading the Whitmore Group.