Relay: A Game’s Return to Warrior Roots

Although lacrosse is much the same basic game as soccer, it is more warlike

    I played lacrosse when sticks were made of wood, gut, and rawhide. During the three years I played for Colgate we scrimmaged with Syracuse University several times during the season. We did well against them, although they were in a more challenging league.

    I remember those scrimmages well, mostly because of the Doctors, three brothers from the Onondaga Indian Reservation who dominated much of the Syracuse attack. My father grew up playing lacrosse with Indians from the Onondaga Reservation. The Valley Academy where he attended high school recruited Indians for the lacrosse team and that was in the 1920s. S.U. offered lacrosse scholarships to Onondagas when my dad played midfield for the team in the early ’30s, and continued to recruit them in the late ’60s when I faced the Doctor brothers on the field of play. I still have the stick that a man from the reservation made for my father.

    Although lacrosse is much the same basic game as soccer, it is more warlike, perhaps because the players are wielding sticks and firing hard rubber balls at high, bruising speeds.

    What I remember most about those scrimmages was the sense that to the Doctors, lacrosse was more than a game. For lack of a better word, they were ferocious, excellent stick handlers, and hard hitters. Sadly, their father, who attended every home game and scrimmage, had to be led from the stands on one occasion due to his alcohol-fueled harangue.

    My mother grew up on an apple farm in Nedrow, N.Y., just outside the Onondaga Reservation. As a boy, I passed through it on many occasions. Like most reservations, it was a poor place with problems. But, central to the reservation community was the box lacrosse stadium comprising wooden bleachers from which fans watched the action in the “box,” a small field surrounded by plywood boards like a hockey rink. Box lacrosse is big among Indian tribes in the northern U.S. and Canada, and it’s where kids on the reservations learn their stick-handling skills.

    A front-page story in The Times on Sunday featured the Thompson brothers, Lyle and Miles, who grew up on the Onondaga Reservation. They are breaking N.C.A.A. scoring records while playing for SUNY Albany, and they have sparked a return to the recruitment of Indian players. Last year, in his sophomore season, Lyle Thompson scored 50 goals and had 63 assists. His older brother, Miles, scored 44 goals.

    Such has been the trajectory of modern lacrosse that a Native American has never won the Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse’s Heisman Trophy. Until recently, college play has been dominated by high school players coming out of relatively well-to-do communities on western Long Island, in Baltimore, and from private schools in the Northeast.

    I remember tying feathers onto the rawhide strings that tightened the pocket of our wooden sticks, and I remember it was not comfortable fighting for a loose ball with one of the Doctors. I’m sure our goalie can still feel the impact of their shots. I will never forget their father’s pride, and his humiliation.

    I’m glad I witnessed the warrior roots of the game, and I’m happy the Thompsons are doing the Onondagas proud.

    Russell Drumm is a senior writer for The Star.