The year I played lacrosse at Manual High School in Denver, the team posed for its yearbook picture holding beakers and wearing safety goggles. I’m not sure whose idea that was, or what connection existed between chemistry and an ancient Native American sport. Recently, when I came across that image in my Thunderbolts yearbook, my reaction was surprise—not that we posed as chemistry geeks snorting helium, but that I was in the picture at all.
It was my friend John who talked me into joining the lacrosse club (it wasn’t yet a varsity sport). John wasn’t one to get hyped up over team sports, so when I saw that gleam in his eyes, I figured lacrosse had to be pretty cool. This was in the 1970s, and only kids in the affluent areas of town, or who attended schools like Graland Country Day, played lacrosse. Those of us in Park Hill grew up playing football on the parkways or skateboarding in parking lots. Lacrosse sounded appealing, but there was a significant obstacle to my joining the team: I’d never picked up a lacrosse stick. John assured me I could master the basics in a day or so; plus we had a whole week before practice began. He also explained that, because lacrosse was a club sport, they took pretty much anyone.
There was another inducement, as I recall, which was that all the cool guys played lacrosse—and the best-looking girls went to see them play. John happened to admire one particular member of the lacrosse team, a remarkably thick-bearded midfielder named Steve Day, whose athletic credentials included being, during the fall semester, a star football player. When John pointed out his idol at school one day, I had to admit the guy cut an impressive figure, moving as he did with an athlete’s easy gait down the hallway. He looked like a man among boys, with his deep tan and muscled-up shoulders. Who wouldn’t want a little of what he had?
The next day, John and I hopped a bus to Gart Brothers Sporting Goods on South Broadway where I bought a handsome new Brine lacrosse stick. Having equipped myself, my main task was to learn the sport. In that, I received help from John and another friend, Charles, who also planned to join the team. We walked over to the athletic field at Smiley Junior High School to begin my training; and though learning basic skills took longer than John had anticipated, the feeling of coolness that went with slinging a lacrosse stick was instantaneous. After a few minutes, Charles paused to ask me, “Are you planning on playing defense, Jim?”
“I think that’s a defense stick,” he replied. Then to prove his point, he took my stick and held it against his own. “You see how much longer yours is?”
My heart sank. I had no idea there were different stick lengths in lacrosse. For that matter, I didn’t know what the positions were. “What’re you going to play?” I asked.
“Attack,” he said with a grin. I assumed that meant offense, though I didn’t ask.
I had spent nearly all my money on the new stick, so I had to make due. But I was disinclined to play defense.
Finding a Place
Over the next few days I learned how to cradle the ball, throw, catch, and shift from right hand to left. I also learned about the various positions and decided that midfielder, Steve Day’s position—known as “middie”—sounded appealing, moving freely as it did from one end of the field to the other. By the time team practice began, I had some basic ball-handling skills and an idea of my desired position. When I found myself among the other 20 or so guys on the team—most of whom grew up playing the sport and had developed ridiculous skills—I realized how little I had accomplished in my one-week crash course. Steve Day hadn’t joined the team that year, it turned out, but the guys who did, all looked the same: blonde, wiry, cocky as hell. One lynx-like kid who played attack could do things I never believed possible with a lacrosse stick. He sent balls whizzing past the frustrated goalie time and again.
Though the coach regarded me with indifference, he let me join the team; and as practices proceeded, I brought my best work ethic every day. When the starting players were announced, my name was predictably absent, being one of those scrubs who would play only if we opened up a massive lead and the starters needed a break. As I recall, John and Charles weren’t starters either, so I had company on the sidelines when the season began. Either way, it felt cool just to be there in my pale-blue jersey, red shorts and Puma cleats. If I didn’t play, I could still look the part.
My moment of unexpected glory occurred late into the season. The blonde attacker with crazy skills scored so many goals that the coach was emboldened to let us third-stringers play. He waved us onto the field, ignoring the pleading look I gave indicating I had no idea what to do out there. Charles, who also went in, helped by shouting advice as I went. My heart racing, I lined up on the far side of the field and hoped for the best. My memory of the moments that followed is a bit vague, but as I recall, we won the face-off. The middie who had the ball started moving down the field, only to be checked hard by a defender. The ball popped out of his pocket and bounced, miraculously, right toward me.
“Get the ball!” Charles screamed, half in encouragement, half in terror I’d screw up.
Through my face mask I saw the ball bouncing along at my feet. I focused hard, then bent and scooped that damn thing up so confidently I startled myself. I had the ball. I was a lacrosse player.
“Go!” Charles shouted.
Cradling the ball, I moved hesitantly toward the goal. The opposing middie closed in on me like a diving falcon, while I, desperate to keep the ball from him, held my stick in front of me with the posture of an altar boy lighting candles. Five yards, ten yards, I made my way down the field, the footsteps of my pursuer thudding behind me. There was a clear path to the goal. As I ran, I speculated which of the hot girls from school might be watching.
The pursuing midfielder never actually touched me. It was a lumbering defenseman who clocked me as I looked toward the goal, sending the ball bouncing in the opposite direction. An opposing player snagged the ball, tossed it to an attacker near the crease, and in the ball went. The other team’s first and only goal.
The coach pursed his lips and looked down.
I stayed in the game for a few more plays. It was only when I was penalized for offsides—who knew there was such a thing?—that the coach pulled me in exasperation. After that, I never played again. When the yearbook came out later that semester, I regarded my presence in the team picture with a mix of pride and regret. I could have done better, I knew, but at least I could graduate having participated in something sexier than the J. R. R. Tolkien Society. That same day, a pustular little friend of mine asked if we could sign each other’s yearbooks. While I was writing in his, he remarked, “Is that you in the lacrosse team picture?”
“I didn’t know you played,” he said.
“Yeah, I was just sorta trying it out,” I mumbled.
“Ah,” he said, satisfied.
Later, I turned to his inscription. “To a great chairman of the Tolkien Society,” it read in earnest cursive, “Namárie!” Then almost as a postscript, he had added, “Good job on the lacrosse team. I wish I’d seen you play.”
No you don’t, I remember thinking.