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Weekend WarriorsThe Men of Professional Lacrosse
By Jack McDermott
New Chapter PressCopyright © 2007 New Chapter Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionMr. Langtry teaches humanities and literature to seventh and eighth graders at the Challenge School in the Cheery Creek School District near Denver, Colo. Mr. Langtry, who has a master's degree in teaching, guides his students through lessons on the Middle East, China, the Russian revolution, and literature; he instructs though literature, bringing into the study of Russian history, such works as Animal Farm.
"I like teaching the Orwell books," Mr. Langtry says. "I encourage the kids to identify from the real people in the history of the Communist revolution, the characters in the book."
But sometimes, Mr. Langtry comes to class with a black eye.
Because when he's not teaching, Mr. Langtry is Brian Langtry, a "Weekend Warrior," a full-season professional lacrosse player who is a forward for both the Colorado Mammoth of the National Lacrosse League (NLL: the indoor, January-to-May game), and the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse (MLL, the May-August outdoor game).
In having two jobs, in being a hero both on and off the field, Brian Langtry is not unique-his sport is. Unlike the four major pro sports-football, baseball, basketball and hockey-lacrosse players cannot support themselves and their families through the earnings of the game alone. Rookie league salaries average $6,000 a year;high-end league salaries are slightly over $20,000. The result? During the week, professional lacrosse players are students, coaches, businessmen, service technicians, computer specialists, construction workers, policemen, financial analysts, insurance executives, firefighters, and, as is Brian Langtry, teachers. In vivid contrast to the glamorous, media- hyped stars of other professional sports, these men are "ordinary" people with "ordinary" jobs who just happen to have extraordinary abilities on the lacrosse field.
The players' salaries, very low relative to those in other professional sports, have had a direct effect on creating a family-friendly athletic event: in most lacrosse arenas-a single adult admission is $10; some offer $5 tickets. While the cheap price of curiosity may draw lacrosse first-timers to a game, the game itself-with the checking, hitting, quick-line changes, and fighting of hockey; the screens, picks man-and zonedefenses of basketball; the stick-handling technical skills of tennis and baseball; and the up-and-down action and passing of soccer-quickly hooks a new spectator. Also, in the twentyone-year-old National Lacrosse League, games average 25 goals a game-a 13-12 final score is typical-which translates into continual excitement and celebration, a big plus with fans. In 2006, NLL games, for the first time, drew over one million spectators, prompting Reebok to invest over $10 million with the league to have the brand's logo grace its helmets, uniforms, and equipment.
The growing interest in lacrosse has not been limited to the professionals: there is staggering growth in the amateur ranks. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that participation in secondary school lacrosse has rocketed 206% in the last ten years. As for the youngest players, the number of both leagues and players under fifteen-years-old tripled between 1999 and 2005; currently over half-a-million players are registered, and the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association has declared lacrosse the fastest growing team sport in North America. In 2005, Sports Illustrated called lacrosse "the fastest growing sport in the United States."
The epicenter of this explosion of interest in the sport is the National Lacrosse League. Founded in 1985 in Kansas City, Mo., the NLL began as the brainchild of a promoter, Chris Fritz, and a former executive with the Kansas City Chiefs, Russ Cline. The two men were eager to find sources of year-round revenues for indoor sports arenas. Fritz and Cline believed that professional indoor lacrosse would be financially feasible as a sport. They decided to put their idea to the test. In 1985, they created a tour of All-Stars, mostly ex-college players from Canada and the United States. The tour traveled around the U.S. and was successful in generating interest in the game: good crowds attended the exhibitions. The pair was encouraged enough to organize the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League. The League consisted of four teams-the Baltimore Thunder, Washington D.C. Wave, Philadelphia Wings, and the New Jersey Saints. The inaugural season of 1987 consisted of six regular games and a series of playoffs. In that first season's championship game, the Thunder defeated the Wave, 11-10.
Fritz and Cline were strategic in their placement of the original four teams, not only by locating the franchises geographically close to save on transportation expenses, but also by placing each team in a region of the country dominated by college lacrosse's historically dominant teams: the University of Virginia, Syracuse and Johns Hopkins. Fritz and Cline's marketing strategy, however, did not focus on fans of the college games, or even those who had played college lacrosse, but instead focused on the "live arena" crowd-a fan base that supported minor league hockey, professional wrestling, monster truck rallies and roller derbies.
The scene was a far cry from the elite eastern colleges that had traditionally played the sport. Fritz and Cline's extravaganzas were noisy and exciting, with video screens, music, loud announcers and images of gladiators and roaring lions. By all accounts, the first years of indoor lacrosse was more action and fighting than finesse and scoring. Not surprisingly, the reviews were not all positive. Lacrosse Magazine, one of the publications of seminal influence on the sport in America, editorialized that the new lacrosse league "brought out the worst human elements"- which may have referred to the fans, rather than the players. Nevertheless, Fritz and Cline knew what they were: the Eagle League was a financial success and the seeds were sown. In 1988, it was renamed the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (MILL); in 1997, the MILL was folded into its upstart rival, the National Lacrosse League, but Fritz and Cline, both of whom were inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2006, retained ownership of their "baby," the Philadelphia Wings.
Of course, Fritz and Cline's incarnation of lacrosse was by no means the sport's first appearance in North America: its first press was the history written by Spanish missionaries in the 1500s who observed the game as played by Native Americans. Native Americans-Indians-called the game "baggataway." When the French Jesuit missionaries saw the wooden clubs, they declared them to resemble a bishop's staff ("la crosse"). The French word for the game stuck.
The bishop's staff observation, however, came from the Jesuits watching a Huron game in southeast Ontario, Canada; who knows what the game would have been called if they had watched the tribes play in the Southeastern part of what is now the United States, they would have seen the Cherokee playing with two tools, much like giant chop sticks, to pick up, pass, and carry the ball. In the Great Lakes region, tribes played with three-foot-long sticks carved at one end like a wooden spoon. In the New York region, the Iroquois played with sticks that most resembled today's, with a webbing of animal skin forming a pouch at one end.
The balls used by the Indians were most commonly made of deer skin, but whatever natural resources were at hand were used: rocks, carved wood, or hardened clay. Poles, trees, and rocks were all pressed into service as goals.
In those days, no one would have noticed Mr. Langtry's black eye: while modern lacrosse can be a very rough sport, with checks and fights, nothing can compare to those original contests, played, as they often were, to settle disputes over trading rights and hunting rights between rival tribes. (Baggataway was also believed to heal the sick and develop strong, virile men and for that reason was, and still is, called "The Creator's Game," by Native Americans.)
Imagine: often as many as 1,000 players on each side took turns on a field that was a mile to up to 15 miles long. The games resembled warfare: no rules (punching, hitting, tackling were all commonplace), no referees, and no boundaries. The competitions often lasted from sunrise to sunset; some were occasionally played over several days. Frequently, players would suffer severe injuries or even death.
The first non-Native Americans to play baggataway-lacrosse- were the French Canadians from Montreal who began, in the early 1800s, to organize the game into a sport with a few basic rules: the size of the field, boundaries, the length of time of a game, and the number of players on a team. These refinements may have "civilized" the game-that was the French intention-but lacrosse didn't begin to grow in popularity until it was played as a college sport.
The first university in North America to have an official lacrosse team was New York University in 1877. Lacrosse programs at private secondary schools soon followed: Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire; Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. (While history documents the first women's lacrosse game at St. Leonard's School in Scotland in 1890, the first women's college team, at Bryn Mawr School, was not successfully established until 1926. Today, more women's teams play Division I lacrosse than men's teams.)
While the sport of outdoor lacrosse was growing in Canada and the northeast region of the United States, a new idea took root that would lead to the future National Lacrosse League-the development of indoor or "box" lacrosse.
Originally started by Canadians who wanted to work on their hockey skills during exceptionally cold winters, box lacrosse (named as such because it was first played in a square indoor arena) first appeared in 1930.
The sport was not easy on the participants. The original game was played on cement. (It would be another thirty years before the appearance of Astroturf.) Scooping, faking, pivoting and checking on cement often led to injuries. Yet, there was interest and excitement because indoor lacrosse features faster transitions, more scoring, more hitting, and, especially with a shot-clock, more action.
Just as the ABA challenged the NBA, and the AFL challenged the NFL, the Major Indoor Lacrosse League received a challenge in 1997 as a new ownership group created a league to rival the MILL and called it the National Lacrosse League (NLL). Initially it seemed this start-up venture would not work, however when the new owners lured the MILL's biggest stars, Gary and Paul Gait, to jump to this new league, it has to be taken seriously. This move forced the MILL's original ownership group to reconsider its options. In many ways, the MILL had not grown from being an attraction, into a real league. Not only did it have a monopolistic ownership group, the league had odd rules, such as the home field advantage in the play-offs being determined by home attendance.
The NLL challenge forced a transformation which ultimately improved the league. Both management groups realized that creating rival leagues could destroy professional lacrosse; instead, they combined forces, merged, and founded the National Lacrosse League.
Meanwhile the influence that the Gait brothers had on the sport of lacrosse during this time was staggering. At a time when pro lacrosse was struggling to maintain its existence, with players being paid $100 per game, and the league being described by some lacrosse fans as being full of "thugs" who liked to fight more than to score goals-the two Canadian brothers from Ontario, both All-Americans from Syracuse University-changed the game, and changed the fan base.
In 1991, their first year as professionals, the Gaits brought the Detroit Turbos, a first-year franchise, the NLL title. Fans saw the Gait's incredible scoring abilities and staggering accomplishments never seen before (or since) on the lacrosse pitch. (The Gaits jointly hold the record of scoring 10 goals in a single game-in a sport that sometimes does not see 10 goals scored by an entire team.)
Fans responded. As a story in the Toronto Globe tells it, in 1987, the only cable broadcasts for indoor lacrosse were six tape-delayed broadcasts in the Philadelphia/Baltimore. By 1992, the year after the Gait brothers arrived, 50 North American media markets were televising games, many of which were live, to over 26 million viewers. Gary retired in April 2005 and at the opening game of the 2006 NLL season in December 2005, the Colorado Mammoth, the team he now coaches, raised Gary's jersey, No. 22, to the rafters of the Pepsi Center in Denver. It is the first retired jersey in NLL history.
After the founding of the modern NLL, the league headquarters were moved from Kansas City, Mo., to New York City, and added to the mix was a league commissioner, team management groups, and playoffs that more closely resembled the successful models of professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
One of the best consequences of the formation of the NLL was the expansion of the league into Canada in 1998 with the establishment of the Hamilton Raiders franchise. The Raiders soon became the Toronto Rock-and after the Rock won back-to-back national championships, Canadians embraced professional lacrosse with fervor.
Not surprisingly, the first athlete mentioned as "the greatest ever" in the history of lacrosse was a Native American, Jim Thorpe.
Thorpe was a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, a controversial institution where 12,000 Native American children from more than 140 tribes were uprooted from their families and shipped to the school to be "assimilated" into a European-American culture in a practice that lasted nearly forty years-from 1879 to 1918. Jim-Jacobus Franciscus was his baptismal name and Wa-Tho-Huk, "Bright Path" was his native name-had a twin brother, Charlie, who died when the boys were eight. Angry and depressed, Jim ran away from more than one school; finally, in 1904, when he was 17, he entered the Carlisle School. He dropped out again, returned when he was 20, and began an astonishing athletic career under the tutelage of the school's coach, Glenn Scobey-"Pop"-Warner.
Warner, one of the founders of modern football, decided in 1910 to drop the baseball program at the Carlisle School in favor of lacrosse. For one reason, lacrosse, a more athletic endeavor, would give Warner the chance scout players for speed, skill, endurance, and stamina that would make great football players. For another reason, baseball was, at the time, disreputable. From a January, 1910 issue of The Arrow, the newspaper of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School:
This school will not be represented by a base ball [sic] team the coming season. In place of base ball, lacrosse will be taken up as a school sport. This change has been considered for several years, and has been decided upon only after most thoughtful consideration. It is thought that, because of the evils of summer or-professional - base ball and the fact that many students have been lured away from school and into temptations and bad company by professional offers before they had finished school, it would be best not to develop, by encouraging base ball, an ambition in the students to become professional players ...
Thorpe joined lacrosse the team; in 1912, he led Carlisle to an upset victory of then (and now) powerhouse Johns Hopkins University. That same year, Thorpe participated in the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. There, he won-easily-both the Pentathlon and the Decathlon, after which King Gustav V pronounced him "The Greatest Athlete in the World." (He later played both professional football and professional baseball.) Coincidentally, there was an Olympic lacrosse competition at the 1912 Olympic Games: lacrosse had been on the roster since 1904, when the U.S. began its participation in the world event. At that time, lacrosse was foreign outside North America, and only three teams competed: one from the U.S., and two from Canada, one of which was solely composed of Mohawk Indians (the gold medal was won by the other Canadian team, the Shamrock). An English lacrosse team was fielded for the 1908 Olympics, but Canada again won the gold medal, and that was that. Lacrosse was played as an exhibition sport in three other Olympics (1928, 1932, and 1948); it has not appeared on the agenda since. Football was also the sport of fame for the second player considered the "greatest lacrosse player ever"-Jim Brown.
Excerpted from Weekend Warriors by Jack McDermott Copyright © 2007 by New Chapter Press . Excerpted by permission.
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