It is a savage
whiplash of a game. Teams are trimmed to six players, with sticks and goals
shortened and the passing tightened. Like hockey, it moves with no time-outs
and no out-of-bounds, a demolition derby of nose dives on concrete floors and
suicidal, full-court charges through a gantlet. The flow of blood would have
delighted Attila the Hun.
In Canada a
pyramid of "boxla" leagues, from pee-wee to pros, developed rapidly,
but the hub of American lacrosse was in Maryland, an area generally lacking in
empty hockey rinks. The new game was dismissed as a novelty—the pitch-and-putt
of lacrosse. Only the Iroquois Indians of upstate New York embraced it when it
came south in the early 1920s. They sensed that the spirit and free style of
the box game was closer to the lacrosse of their ancestors, when the goals,
ironically, were sometimes set as much as a mile apart, and hundreds of
warriors scrapped over the roll of hard leather in training for battle.
Occasionally the game served as the battle itself, a lesson in civilization
their white conquerors never learned.
Box lacrosse was
supposed to revolutionize spectator sport in Syracuse when it came off the
reservation in 1933. It was the inspiration of Robert F. Kenefick, fast-talking
promoter and sports editor of the
Syracuse Journal—and it folded in two years.
To round up a team, Kenefick advertised in his newspaper for players, expecting
20 or 30 whites from the local schools and 30 or so Indians at the try-outs.
What he got was 70 Indians, between the ages of eight and 69 and a single white
man. Only half a dozen of the players were promising, so he went recruiting at
the St. Regis reservation near Hogansburg, N.Y.
"I rounded up
five Mohawks and talked them into coming down to Syracuse with me," he
said. "I put 'em up in this hotel downtown and took 'em around the corner
to see these strippers. You understand, these mugs were straight out of the
woods. I had a call later that night from the hotel to get 'em out of there.
They were tearing the place apart."
Onondagas from the Nedrow reservation and the five sobered Mohawks, Kenefick
announced the formation of the Syracuse Red Devils box lacrosse team. He
dressed them in showboat red shorts and jerseys and sewed nickel-head profiles
on the front. And he gave them phony names to make believers out of the
Syracuse public—"Mad Dog" Gibson, "Big Bear" George and a guy
called "Long-Time-No-Sleep," whose name was sufficient evidence of his
ferocity. Oren Lyons was the goalkeeper and Buffalo Pierce the star. Kenefick
never bothered to rename Pierce, who earned his nickname in football as a
running back for the semipro Oakwood Knights. Anyway, Buffalo's mother called
much about the publicity," Buffalo says. "We got 10 bucks a game and I
supported my family with that, plus my football money. In those days you'd do
anything for a buck."
One must suppose
that Syracusans found better ways to spend their bucks than watching a bunch of
Indians beat each other over the head. The Red Devils went the way of the
Charleston, and box lacrosse buried itself once more on the reservation.
It was not until
1969 that the Indians themselves came up with the North American Lacrosse
Association. It now includes the Syracuse Warriors, the Six Nations from
Ontario, Senecas from Newtown, N.Y., Mohawks from St. Regis as well as teams
from Morrisburg, Ontario, Akron, N.Y., Niagara Falls, N.Y. and Caughnawaga near
establish a professional circuit, a standing goal since the demise of the Red
Devils, failed again this spring. Kenefick had a variety of excuses—the white
population could not identify with an all-Indian team; nobody wanted to watch a
game indoors during the summer; nobody really understood the sport. Warrior
Coach Lou Jacques blames it simply on a lack of financial backing. The league
is held together only through the willingness of the players. The season lasts
from May to September, with games twice a week—a lot of time and pain for no
Oliver Hill, a
30-year-old Onondagan and president of the NALA since 1970, used to climb up
and down extra steel columns while at work to keep in shape for lacrosse. There
was never enough time to just plain work out. Construction paid. Lacrosse did