"We're small enough to introduce these seeds at the grassroots, while other sports are so vast that it's tough to make changes sportwide," says US Lacrosse executive director Steve Stenersen. "We have an interesting mix of qualities, and at a very interesting time, when people are more and more fed up with sports in general."
In the 1630s, while watching the Huron Indians play their ball game, a French Canadian missionary decided that the stick they used resembled a bishop's crosier. In his journal he called the game le jeu de la crosse. About 230 years later a Montreal dentist, W. George Beers, wrote up a set of rules that adapted the Native American game to Victorian specifications. As old as lacrosse is, the U.S. game has had a unified national governing body for only seven years. Over that time US Lacrosse--which makes rules and policies for most levels of the game, helps develop the game at its grassroots and sanctions youth tournaments, the high school national championships and the college club championships--has increased what it spends to promote the sport from $1.1 million to $9 million. Still, US Lacrosse's operating revenue of $6.2 million in 2003 was less than a third of USA Hockey's $22.5 million.
Upon his death last year Norm Webb, a former goalie at West Point, left virtually his entire $4.5 million estate to US Lacrosse. The organization will use those additional funds to promote the game's character and culture--"to put that stake in the ground that says, 'This is what we are,'" says Stenersen. Lacrosse people take what they are very seriously. It's a bromide within the sport that no one merely likes the game; rather, people are divided into those who love it and the benighted masses who haven't yet been introduced to it. The love is perhaps most evident in the nearly 300 men's and women's club teams at colleges, where players pay to play, up to $3,000 a year. Many club squads are so-called virtual varsities, with dazzling uniforms and national schedules. For years the main lacrosse fund-raiser at Cal--a laxathon at which players take turns keeping a ball going on the quad for 100 hours--doubles as a pageant of the players' devotion.
"Final Four weekend really is a pilgrimage," says Middlebury (Vt.) College coach Erin Quinn, whose teams have won three Division III men's titles. "The last time we qualified, about half our team had to cancel reservations because they had planned on going anyway."
Laxheads celebrate any sighting of their game in the larger culture--as Oz's sport in American Pie, in the background on Friends and on John Kerry's tie on the cover of Newsweek. Fans kite off to jamborees in Lake Placid, N.Y.; Las Vegas; Oahu; even Amsterdam. ( The Netherlands is one of 30 countries besides the U.S. where lacrosse is played.) Simmons calls the jamborees "parties where a lacrosse game breaks out. You've got your girlfriend and your Lab with a scarf around its neck. You line up and shake hands when it's over and roll out a barrel of beer."
Maybe this dedication follows from lacrosse's many years of confinement to the East Coast. For all that time the sport touched every social stratum, from Baltimore blue blood to public-school Long Islander to Indian on the reservation. Most of the purists share a fraternal bond that evokes a line from an Akwesasne Mohawk history of the game: "When lacrosse was played for the enjoyment of the Great Spirit, everyone was important, no matter how strong or how weak."
The speed and spontaneity of lacrosse may initially draw kids in, but many become more absorbed after they learn of its Native American provenance: that it was considered a gift of the Creator, whom you played to please; that it was used to settle disputes between tribes and to help assure a good harvest; that to give a player the ability to strike suddenly, an elder might scratch him with rattlesnake fangs or smear him with ash from a tree struck by lightning; that even today, when an Iroquois player dies, he is buried with his stick. "That wasn't originally in my consciousness," says Tom Ryan, a former pro who grew up playing on the Akwesasne reservation near his hometown of Canton, N.Y., and runs camps and clinics. "But after college I was looking for something spiritual and found that lacrosse is a way to connect to the Creator."
A young player today may be wearing XXL shorts and eye black instead of a breech cloth and war paint, but people like Ryan, who has dreadlocks down to his coccyx and is known on the camp circuit as the Dude, use the game's roots to connect to young people. "Kids are hungry for story and myth," says John Yeager, who teaches and coaches at the Culver Academies in Indiana. "I had a team where the players wound up calling our fastest kid Deer."
That fuddy-duddy Montreal rules maker may have "divested [lacrosse] of its radical rudeness," as he put it, and a 19th-century account in Harper's may have declared the game to be "too exciting, too nervous" for American spectators of the time. But lacrosse today seems bent on scaring up as much excitement, nervousness and radical rudeness as possible as "the alternative team sport."
A lacrosse player is more likely than other U.S. athletes to rock climb, surf or snowboard. Thus lacrosse is gaining a reputation as a lifestyle sport and attracting young obsessives the way surfing and skateboarding do. The sport's preppy origins only make it more tempting for counterculturalists to coopt, in the way that the just-off-the-yacht Tommy Hilfiger look became hot in the hood. And next to the lacrosse gear turned out by Warrior, a baseball uniform looks like a pair of pajamas.