My 13 year-old (the Boy) just completed his first season of lacrosse (LAX). Having no previous knowledge of the sport (let alone even witnessing a practice), my first game as a spectator was spent with my hands covering my eyes (with just a teeny space open to make sure the Boy was still upright).
I’ll digress a bit and explain that I’ve been involved with youth football in town for almost 15 years. So when I saw that the equipment involved in LAX was about half of what we dress our football players with, I figured I’d be watching a game of pure finesse.
Well, it began with two kids at midfield. They were hunched over, facing each other and almost on their knees. Then they lunged forward, colliding and using their sticks like shovels to dig a little white ball from a small dirt pit where the referee had left it.
The Boy was far away from this activity and still on his feet. His stick, or pole, or shaft was longer than that of the kids up front. I figured he’d be able to keep his distance from other players and just reach in with the head of his pole to stop them from taking a shot.
Understand that football is a game made up of many very short plays. The players line up, hit the opponent once or twice and then someone gets tackled. Everyone catches their breath and they do it all over again.
LAX is a fast-paced game where the action continues as a whirlwind of sticks, hits (body to body), whacks (stick to body), and that very hard white ball. The only “eye” to the storm is the occasional stoppage of play for one reason or another. The hitting and whacking is as continuous as it is unrelenting.
Imagine kids, with poles, doing everything they'd previously been taught not to do. When someone has the ball and begins to run, a crowd of opposing players chase him down. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! They swing the sticks and either try to extricate the ball from his little net or dislodge the stick from his hands.
If the swinging and flailing sticks don’t get him from behind, there are bigger kids in front of him with the longer poles. And they too try and separate the player from the ball by either whacking, running into, or slamming him until he can no longer keep possession.
I’m not quite sure of all the rules yet, but depending on if the ref is watching or how the maneuver is performed, you can run over the cradler of the ball by launching into his back with your stick in a horizontal position.
The goalies wear no leg protection at all. If it were me out there, I’d be equipped with those wide leg pads that hockey goalies wear. I’d also be sure that not an inch of my body was exposed enough to be dented or bruised by the ball. Can you imagine a baseball catcher not wearing shin guards? To me it’s crazy, but I’m still new to the sport. As long as their heads are fully protected, I’m good.
Our team was made up of mostly first-year players, many of whom had been recruited by their football coach who, coincidently, also coaches LAX. So it took a while for many of them to understand that tackling and blocking were not allowed. It also took some time for the team to gain some of the basic LAX skills such as cradling, passing, catching, and shooting.
I’ll be honest; I didn’t like the sport after watching that first game. It didn’t seem to be very fluid or pretty, and much of it looked out of control with little strategy. The Boy was enjoying himself even though he took his share of whacks and was leveled by a couple of kids that didn’t look like they could possibly take him out. The big adjustment for him was trying to figure out when it was legal to plow another player over and when it would be called as a penalty.
Somewhere during the third game I became completely fascinated by the sport. And by the end of the season I was pacing the sidelines yelling out to the team, “Hit somebody! Don’t let him in untouched! Look out behind you! Pick up the ball!”
Don’t get me wrong, I was still amazed at the force in which players would whack each other with their sticks. I still gasped when they collided and bodies smashed into other bodies. But I also noticed that for such a fast-paced and full-contact sport, the injury rate was very low. In fact, looking back on it, I don’t recall hearing of any broken bones or trips to the ER. I’m not even sure if there were more than four or five injury timeouts during the entire season.
The Boy looked forward to each and every practice and game. My wife and father, who both had very little previous exposure to the sport, also became big fans and my dad even started watching it on TV.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the number of boys and girls playing lacrosse in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut has climbed above 91,000, according to US Lacrosse, the sport's governing body. While more than four times as many kids play Little League baseball and softball, the number of kids playing Little League in these states has dropped 9 percent since 2003. Lacrosse participation over the past five years has soared more than 42 percent.
The beginning of next year’s LAX season will find me watching with both eyes and with a greater knowledge of what to expect. I’m sure the whacks will be harder and the collisions a little more ground-shattering, but at least I’ll be better prepared.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll buy my own pole or stick and practice with the Boy. He might be as big as I am but if he thinks he’s ready to run through me… perhaps I had better get out of his way.