Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Origins of Lacrosse

Last week on the sidelines of my youngest son's lacrosse game, one of the moms commented, "This game is so much fun to watch. I wonder who came up with it." I was thrilled to be able to tell her that it was actually an American sport; that it was North America's very own game, originally played by the Native Americans. She was surprised. "I thought it was probably British, some kind of variation of cricket or polo or something," she said. Nope! This side of the pond gets all the credit on this one!

I'm so proud that lacrosse is all ours, because to me, it is probably the most exciting sport to watch--even more exciting than football. This game, called by some the "fastest game on two feet," requires tremendous athleticism: a combination of speed, quickness, strength, field sense, and stick skills. And I may be a bit crazy, but I even like how incredibly cool the players look in their lax gear. Take a gander at this picture of my son and two of his teammates heading down to the field; they really do call to mind warriors going into battle, carrying their sticks like weapons. (Although I'm not condoning using them as such, and not just because it'll land a player in the penalty box; those metal shafts could be lethal if used incorrectly.) I mean, these modern-day players may not look quite as fearsome as their Native American counterparts, but they definitely have the intimidation factor going on.

The game has sure changed since its early days. When the Native Americans played it, lacrosse involved two villages competing against one another, with 60 or more players jockeying for position on a ten-acre field to get possession of one small wooden ball. Field size could vary, depending on the number of participants, and at times exceeded a mile! That's a lot of running--and a testament to the athleticism of the Native American laxers. And I don't think they rotated their middie lines to give players a rest! One game could last for days, and fights for ball possession could erupt into full-scale wrestling matches (which are definitely not kosher in today's version of the game); and I think I read somewhere that lacrosse was sometimes played with a rock rather than a ball, that it was used as practice to prepare for actual battles, and that it was not unheard of to have game participants die in the heat of the contest.

Though fundamentally similar from one tribe to the next, the game was known by many names that ranged in meaning from "little war" to "hit a ball." It was also known as the "Creator's Game." In the 17th century, a French missionary witnessed Hurons playing the game and he dubbed it "lacrosse"--which was a term generally used by the French for any sport that involved a curved stick, including golf and hockey--for the first time in print. The name stuck.

In the middle of the 19th century, Mohawks played a game of lacrosse against whites in Montrael, in the first-ever game between Native Americans and European settlers. White involvement changed the game over time: strategic passing and catching replaced raw athleticism and indiviual efforts; sticks had tighter pockets for easier, more accurate throwing; shorter fields favored a passing game over the Natives' running ability. The game continued to evolve into the modern version we have today.

"The Native American's 'war paint' has become our eye black. The wooden stick outfitted with eagle quills and white horsehair has become a plastic, titanium, and nylon explosion of engineering."* The field is smaller these days, and there are only 20 players on the field at one time. But lacrosse is still a game for brave warriors, and it's one of the most thrilling and entertaining sports you'll ever watch.

*(This quote and other details courtesy of a book called Lacrosse, North America's Game, presented by Inside Lacrosse)

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